Saturday, April 18, 2015


Ana Mendieta, Rock Heart with Blood, still from Super 8, color, silent film, 1975

Like a person in an ancient pose, I lean in an L-shaped posture over the counter: flat back, rump displayed to any passer-by, blood dripping down the back of my thighs. They don’t see me. I clean the street until all that’s left is a ring of oily foam, the formal barrier of a bad snow. Are you sick and tired of running away?
Then lie down. 
         -Banhu Kapil, Ban en Banlieue

Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue is a meditation on what has perished, flesh discarded and pressing heavy onto the ground, meat received by the earth that produces a mark, a stain. There is a separation, a loss, something which was born dead. A still-birth. Ban.

Ban is like Macabéa in Lispector’s Hour of the Star, a tragic woman whose narrative is infected by the throbbing of an exposed nerve, a girl who dances alone to the radio, who swallows paper to satiate her hunger for red beef. What is that paper? A book? Bibliophagy? (Bibliophagy: a disorder where a person compulsively eats books, compulsive eating of books, feelings of relief upon eating books, reduced anxiety brought on by eating books.)

For Kapil it is bibliomancy. Putting her finger down into Dictee. Finding Cha and Ban and Ana. The image of the drowned woman floats between the pages, down onto the street, onto the butcher block. The body of the girl, violated and left for dead in a New Delhi street “She lay on the ground for 40 minutes—twitching—making low sounds—then none at all—diminishing—before anyone called the police.”

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), April 1973

From the court proceedings of the Theresa Cha rape and murder trial:
November 5th, 1982 At 7:15 p.m., Police Officer Brennan responded to a call for an investigation of a parking lot on Elizabeth Street, which is located about 10 or 15 minutes by car from the office building in which defendant worked. At the parking lot, the officer found the body of Mrs. Cha. Her pants and underwear were down around her knees, she had only one boot on and there was blood on the back of her head. Her wedding ring was missing as well as her purse and wallet, but her Timex wristwatch was still in place.

A shaft of her black hair, a dead piece more dead as it is carried away on the sole of a shoe. She is dismembered in the slowest possible way. Bit by bit. You can’t even notice it.

Bhanu Kapil, Performance for Ban at Pratt Institute, New York, April, 2013

To dream that one’s hair is falling out.
To dream that all one’s teeth are falling out.
To dream that one is being saved.
To dream that one is being nursed.
To dream that one is very dirty.
To dream that one is dissolving.
To dream that one is in mourning, as shown by the hair.
To dream that one is being beaten, beaten on the neck, up to the ears and around the face…

-From A List of Bad Dreams Chanted as a Cause & Cure for Missing Souls (Bidayuh, Sarawak) Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What you Need to Know

Barbara T. Smith made her 1973 performance Feed Me in response to her experiences of being continually harassed by men in her public and personal life. During the performance, Smith sat nude inside a ladies’ room and accepted one person at a time into the private space. Smith wanted to claim control of her body and establish an exchange where the viewers (both men and women) had to ask permission for her attention. While Smith was seemingly vulnerable, she held the power to control the shape of the interactions with participants.

                                         Feed MeBarbara T. Smith, 1973

Smith’s intentions for Feed Me were turned upside down when rumors spread that she was having sex with every visitor who entered the ladies’ room. Her power was stolen as Smith was transformed from artist to prostitute. Smith was criticized by many of her fellow feminists for her supposedly obscene actions. The rumors around the performance took hold and were perpetuated in countless texts about the work. The inaccuracies around the performance resurfaced  recently when Feed Me was included in the Pacific Standard Time exhibit State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970.

On Friday May 9th, Smith presented What you Need to Know a performance and installation created in collaboration with Corazon del Sol, Kate Johnson, and Kate Crash as part of Highways 25th Silver Jubilee.

What I learned from Smith about her work Feed Me:

The work was Smith’s attempt to “put her body where the problem was” and reclaim power over her body and sexuality. She wanted to teach men how to have intimate consensual relationships with women.

Smith performed Feed Me at the age of 42. By this time, she had given birth to children, experienced divorce, and engaged in deep self-searching through therapy.

Feed Me was presented in the ladies’ room of a warehouse in San Francisco during a performance event organized by Tom Marioni. The event ran from sunset to sunrise.

The space contained an oriental rug-covered mattress, incense, body oils, wine, cheese, fruit, bread, coffee, tea, marijuana, and books. A tape played a continuous loop of Smith saying “Feed me."

Eighteen people participated in the work, three women and fifteen men including performance artist Paul Cotton.

Smith did make love with at least two of the participants. This was her personal choice after establishing a connection with the men through conversation and non-sexual intimate exchanges.

Smith was given a massage by one of the participants and she cites this as the most memorable experiences of the performance.

At some point Smith had contact with some of the people who participated in Feed Me. She has letters that recount their experience of interacting with her in the performance.

Smith was and is deeply invested in the power of intimacy and the spiritual resonance of private human contact.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Live by Your Work

A display of Carl Jung’s opus, The Red Book marks the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale’s The Encyclopedic Palace. The tome reflects Jung’s sixteen-year journey into the depths of his unconscious in an attempt to reconnect with a primitive collective energy (the soul) that had been suppressed by the limitations of modern rational thinking. The Red Book serves as an apt signpost for an exhibition focused on the spiritual and communicative powers of art and the utopian impulse as expressed through visionary and obsessive manifestations of the creative act.

Carl Jung's Red Book, 1914-1930

While The Encyclopedic Palace has been criticized for being apolitical and out of step with contemporary art trends, I found the tone and nature of the show to be refreshing in world populated by art-about-art and work made through superficial gesturing, what Mira Schor has referred to as “recipe art,” work made in an “endless loop of appropriation” and “meant to be incorporated into the market and the discursive stream of the academy.”

Maria Lassnig, You or Me, 2005, oil on canvas

In many instances, The Encyclopedic Palace avoids the art market loop and favors works generated through authentic expression untainted by the tropes of the art world. Models influenced by relational aesthetics flood the contemporary art scene, but often fail at their promise of democracy. Many works in this vein are opaque and inaccessible except to a select group of the already initiated. The Encyclopedic Palace poses an alternative (albeit an old-fashioned) model for an exchange between the artist and viewer based on an intimate one-on-one communication, not unlike the experience of reading. The exhibit proposes that art can be a universal language accessible to anyone and that formal training is not required to make or interpret art.

 Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from the series, Knowledge of the World 1982-1996

There are books throughout The Encyclopedic Palace, some remain whole and bulging with the energy of the artist as collector, while others have been gently pulled apart and laid out as mystical taxonomies. Books offer a quite beckoning, a haptic intimacy that is often blotted out in the big, shiny, and new of contemporary art. Books hold and may be held and speak to the transmission of knowledge.

José Antonio Suárez Londoño, Franz Kafka, Diarios II,  2000, mixed media, 13 x 20cm, each page

Art has become intensely professionalized and distanced from both spiritual and utilitarian functions. It may be unpopular to embrace the utopian vision that art can serve as a powerful means for both communication and healing, though, in a time when many systems are failing, perhaps we should move away from the frenzy of the current art market to a model that recognizes the value of authenticity and singular expression. “Live by your work” one of the phrases inscribed on the walls of Marino Auriti’s visionary museum model (and namesake of the exhibit) The Encyclopedic Palace, could serve as a creed for my hopes for the future of art.

Marino Auriti, The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c.1950s, installation view, Arsenale.
 Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

My recent participation in Micol Hebron’s collaborative project Gallery Tally: a call for gender equity peaked my interest in the gender break down for the Biennale. While a May Art in America article announced “Women Dominate the Biennale’s 2013 International Jury” the odds for female artists showing in the Biennale were not so glowing. Of the 159 artists listed on the official site, 120 were male with only 39 female that puts the odds at 75% male vs. 25% female. While 25% is a vast improvement over the 9% of women included in the 1995 iteration of the show, the number has actually dropped from the high-water mark of 40% in 2011. While women are not equally represented in the show, works by women were some of the most memorable pieces in the show. 

Dorothea Tanning, Self Portrait, 1944, Oil on canvas, 24" × 30" 

Dorothea Tanning’s Self Portrait from 1944, reflects a solitary, humble figure looking outward to the vastness of nature. While the woman is tiny, she possesses a strong presence as she stands on the precipice of her future. Tanning speaks of the work that was made in the studio not in the alfresco style often associated with the landscape painting “…in the studio alone with my dream I would record it like a diary entry, just like that.”

Emma Kunz, Drawing No. 086, n.d. © Anton C. Meier, Emma Kunz Foundation, CH-5436 Würenlos, Switzerland

While in her late teens, Emma Kunz discovered her gift for telepathy and premonition and began using a pendulum as part of a healing practice exercised on behalf of herself and her patients. Kunz’s large-scale renderings were produced in a single-session and were divined through her sensitivity to shifting energy fields and the paths produced by the motion of the pendulum. Kunz didn’t view her work as art, but as a manifestation of her activity as a healer and researcher in the field of alternative and natural medicine.

Linda Fregni Nagler, The Hidden Mother, 2006–13. 997 daguerreotype, album, photo and ferrotypes.
Photo: Francesco Galli.Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Linda Fregni Nagler’s Hidden Mother series features nearly a thousand daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, ferrotypes, albumen prints, and polaroids produced between the 1840s and the1920s. The images depict infants and young children floating against veiled mounds or a top hovering curtains that conceal the comforting presence of their mothers. The decidedly haunting images came out of the necessity to keep children in place through the long exposure time of early photography. The collection’s repetition of the concealed maternal form speaks to the suppressed agency of women at the turn of the century and evokes the weight that hangs heavy over all mothers to protect their offspring from danger and it’s most extreme variation, death.

Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010, Courtesy Motive Gallery Amsterdam and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg 

Viviane Sassen’s modestly scaled photographs exist at the intersection between performance and ethnographic documentation. Trained as a fashion photographer, Sassen’s images teeter between the real and the theatrical. Her images, often shot in remote parts of Africa possess a quite magic and intimate stillness.

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, installation, 2013

Cathy Wilkes' untitled sculptural installation included haunting figures, fabric, and fragments of debris. Through her arrangement of bodies and modest objects, the artist developed a community complete with interrelationships, power dynamics and methods of exchange. Pieces of junk are laid out with precision and indicate an investigation into the often-arbitrary system of valuation.

Andra Ursuta, T, Vladimirescu Nr. 5 , Sleeping room, 2013, wood, metal, glass, fabric, paint 18” x 13” x 20”

Andra Ursuta’s dollhouse-sized replicas of rooms from the home where she grew up in Romania memorialize a private experience of a place that was demolished and now remains only in the artist’s memory. The abandoned rooms are solemn places of loss and decay as the remnants of the former inhabitants rust upon dusty tables and shelves. The works speak of Ursuta’s private nostalgia and reference Romania’s Post-Cold War struggles to modernize.

Eva Kotatkova, Asylum, 2013, la biennale di venezia© blarco + hunt kastner 

Eva Kotatkova’s Asylum, incorporates a display of hanging objects, metal sculptures, and paper fragments arranged upon a large table. The images and objects reference the absent bodies of asylum patients and display symbols of loneliness and confinement. Fragile pages, seemingly drafted by patients list “all my fears” or “all the contents in the room.” The chilling handwritten scraps speak through a voice that is personal and disembodied. Through her careful archive, Kotatkova renders the chaos of madness into a visual narrative on the universal human longing for connection.

Sharon Hayes, Ricerche: three, 2013, Single channel HD video 38 minutes

Sharon Hayes’ video Ricerchethree addresses the complexities of female experience through a discussion with a group of students on the campus of a New England women’s college. Hayes asks direct questions about sex and identity and allows the conversation to develop organically as the young women react and respond to one-another. There is a clear tension and intensity as the women struggle to articulate their views on issues with both personal and global resonance.