Retrospective Bodies

Retrospective Bodies

Gooey impermanence and gay sex in the basement

“Into Me/Out of Me” does what so few large exhibitions do. Presenting more than 130 artists and spanning 40 years, curator Klaus Biesenbach clarifies and sums up decades of contemporary practice neatly and intelligently. Conceptually, the exhibition investigates the way in which the human body as a transparent or impermanent object in contemporary art has been used as a conduit through which not only base matter flows, transmutes and integrates—they appear as ejaculate, vomit, and less identifiable excretions; it also visually excites by a choice of work that ignores the deadening banality of the healthy body, and honestly shows the body in less idealistic and self serving circumstances such as death, birth, war, conflict, and brutality.

In the 1970s it was a goal of early conceptual artists such as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, and Ulay and Vito Acconci to test the body’s endurance and explore its physical properties. In “Freeing the Voice” Abramovic puts her uvula to the test as she moans as loudly and as grossly animalistically as possible. Burden in a photograph from his performance “Trans-fixed” is shown famously crucified to the hood of a Volkswagen.

More contemporary examples are less physical and more erotic. In the 1990s Matthew Barney took up the idea of endurance in his video work “Field Dressing” in which he suspends himself from cables while oiling his orifices with Vaseline. And in an ultimate act of self-involved anal gazing, Pipilotti Rist in “Mutaflor” shows what it might be like to be swallowed whole through the artist’s mouth and ejected out her asshole. It’s not as an unsavory experience as one might expect, as her orifices are so unnaturally clean. It does, however, provoke the not too savory sense of being torn inside out.

The majority of the exhibition is divided neatly into thematic sections that treat the body as a symbol of metaphysics, sexuality, reproduction, and metabolism. Robert Gober’s beeswax sculpture is a torso whose gender contours are blended and whose integrity is bisected by a hairy distended leg. In Gober’s work and also that of Cindy Sherman, the body is a plaything and is often disemboweled and invaded. Sherman’s “Untitled #315” is grotesque sexuality at its most visceral. Sherman in clownish makeup and prosthetics is seen as a abhorred torture victim who wails in anticipated agony while hovering above her is a dewy drop of silky pre-cum from a flaccid penis that not only threatens to anoint her forehead but to penetrate an immobile waiting spread vagina. If a castration fantasy is the ultimate male horror, baptism by cum seems to be the female equivalent.

Why is the more homoerotic and sexually explicit work in the basement, and difficult to find? An obvious reason is that images of fornication, ejaculation, sadomasochism, necrophilia, and nymphomania are just too overtly sexual and should be harder to access; still it rankles me that museums have to display disclaimers of possibly offensive material.

Another reason is that the work of Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Bodawee, Jeff Burton, Larry Clark, and Peter Hujar is less conceptual, less known, and therefore more peripheral to the exhibition’s main objective to clarify the use of the body in art. I think that the placement says less about curatorial choice and more about subtle difference between the way in which certain gay and straight artists approach his or her own treatment of the human body. While alluded to here and there in this exhibition, the theme probably deserves an exhibition all its own.