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"Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture"
2004-04-20 until 2004-09-07
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Buffalo, NY, USA

Dada radicalized the notion of sculpture. Conceptualism nudged it further. Performance artists began to refer to their creations as sculptures. Chris Burden claimed that shooting himself was sculpture. Robert Smithson declared derelict factories and suburbs to be sculptures. Today, Dan Flavin and James Turell are molding light into sculpture. “Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture” at the Albright Knox Gallery is wrestling with a subject even more intangible than light: influence. Though the link to Rodin strikes me as tenuous at best, this show does for contemporary sculpture what Rodin’s did for his day: it shatters the mould. This is sculpture as stunner, as tranquilizer, as pathway within.

Kudos to Holly E. Hughes for curating a show so startling, so slyly subversive, it worms its way into your skin before you even realize it. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. Here is body as locus of the commercial and the contemplative; as subject for art or object of derision, as pure function, as inspiration.

We are “greeted” by Ron Muecks “Big Man”, a hairless ogre of a “thinker” hunched morosely, misanthropically in the corner of the first gallery. He stops us cold. He must weigh four hundred pounds and he’s naked! He’s a man. He’s a baby. He’s a monster. The closer we get, the more baleful his gaze. Do we cringe or chuckle? Do we really want any part of what he’s thinking?

If Rodin did indeed model his original “Thinker” on Dante, could this be Dante’s Id (the irrational, the bottomless infantile I want). Or is it simply Mueck raging at the restrictive? It’s fitting he’s first, because for all its modernist élan, “Bodily Space” embraces a deeply romantic ethos: stun the intellect senseless to free the unconscious.

Come to think of it, isn’t that the nature of obsession?

In a nearby window, some 15 feet above the gallery floor, perches a twelve-inch munchkin: Maurizio Cattlan’s “Mini-Me”. There’s an air of mischief about him, laced with malaise. Is he studying us or the show, hanging out or hanging over us like an unsolved problem?

Clearly, he’s Cattelan himself, an outrageous self-promoter who once stole a work of art and set it up in another gallery as his own, “looking down” on other artists. He’s also winking at the whole notion of display: us looking at art and each other; the art looking back. “Above it all”, he deconstructs the process of museum-going, yet remains puckishly derisive of intellectual pretension.

Suddenly we realize Cattelan isn’t the only trickster at work, Ms. Hughes’ obsession has become ours. The body (of the show) like all worthwhile obsessions has co-opted the mind. We struggle for stillness amidst a barrage of sweet, conflicting truths. Each solution seeds a question. The mind sprints from idea to idea. Below the Cattlan, Charles Ray’s “Fall ‘91”, a twelve-foot tall Amazon of a mannequin, dominates the room, so perfectly attired, so overwhelming that whatever you’ve thought/felt about women or models or fashion or commerce surges. And right behind the rush, cool as a breeze on a sweltering subway platform, in slips its polar opposite, intimacy. You can get close to a mannequin, to art, in a way you never could to a super-model. You can touch a mannequin. You can stare at it. You’re supposed to, aren’t you? This is the perfect meeting of desire and desire. Or is it?

Isn’t this really a large hatpin in the eye of scopophilia (the male gaze that objectifies women? Aren’t we so glutted with fashion and marketing and surface, we’ve lost sight of the true feminine? Isn’t this the goddess crassed by commerce; the poetic price-tagged?

Still in much the same way Expressionist fascination with the primitive had the effect of weakening their critique of the contemporary; the out-of-body experience Ray seems to be striving for has the paradoxical effect of rendering the body all the more mournfully present. Perhaps that’s another of his points: we’re trapped in a bone prison.

If Ray is about being trapped physically, Tony Oursler’s “Don’t Look At Me” is about being traumatized intellectually. A doll-bodied egghead lies semi-crushed under an overturned chair. The video-projected face is disturbingly real; the hostility palpable. It rolls his eyes and shouts at us: “get out of here”, “what are you looking at”.

Again the body is deconstructed -- it’s nearly all head. A rag doll body trails snaky, fabric legs across the museum floor. It’s a cartoon character almost fleshed. You’d like to laugh it off. You do. Then you can’t anymore.

Is this the arrogant, often indecipherable art world taunting us to figure it out? It puts us down. It out-smarts us. It squeezes our intellectual “living” space ( this is, after all, a living room chair). It’s also the artistic psyche, crushed by the demands of making a living in a topsy-turvy “living room” of commercial art.

I’d seen this work in a Los Angeles MOCA show years ago devoted to his work, but it had a greater impact in this installation following the Ray and across from Katharina Fritsch’s “Docktor”, a starchy, white-uniformed doctor-skeleton.

If Oursler’s work is about a mistrust of art, Fritsch’s is about the mistrust of an apathetic, chemically-dependent “healing” profession. The skeleton stares stonily at the “injured” head. No help here. Suddenly there’s a dialogue about death: of art, of healing, of art’s capacity to heal.

In the next room, appropriately subjected to Ourslers assualtive sound track, Bruce Nauman’s circle of suspended heads hang spookily. Twelve of them (apostles?) waver like two-headed, Siamese bats. Again the body is missing. Or has it mutated into another head in this patriarchal, left-brain world. An ominous imbalance broods: the disassociation of flesh and feeling, thought and matter, the raging contradictions at the core of humanity. It’s then you begin to realize how far we gone beyond Frank Stella’s famous, What you see is what you see, the unofficial slogan of the Minimalist movement.

Peter Sarkisian’s “Dusted”, a five-sided video-cube concerns itself with opposing forces as well. Two bodies swirl around inside. Is this a prison or a womb? Is this about the bone prison again or the claustrophobia of being confined/defined by museum standards. Or is it a call for art to be reborn. The haunting recorded chant could be a memorial or a meditation; a spell to strengthen the trap or a prayer to snap the spell of the material world and free them. It brings to mind I.B. Singer’s wonderful aphorism: of course I believe in free will, what choice do I have? Robert Gober’s “Leg” is a lifelike below-the-knee portion of a leg extending horizontally from the base the wall, calling to mind how sculpture is entombed in a museum as soon as it is displayed. Or how the artist, is “cut-off at the knee” the moment he succumbs to museum standards. Perhaps, it’s also meditating on how the purity of our experience is tripped up as soon as we enter the museum. Apparently his mother was a nurse and was given an amputated leg as a souvenir after her first operation!?

There are three photographs by Spencer Tunick, nude bodies crouched under a bridge in Pennsylvania, snaking through the desert in Nevada, jamming a roadway, just in time for his August Buffalo shoot. Bodies as sculpture, as event. Sculpture as photography

Across the way, Kiki Smith’s bronze woman is on her knees stretching her arms out imploring, submitting, praying. Nude herself, she might be reaching for Tunick’s photographs, celebrating them, yearning to participate.

While I found the connection to Rodin to be no more convincing than to say any envelope-pusher in the past (Arp, say, or Moore or Michangelo for that matter), the show serves as a soaring glimpse at the rarified ether of contemporary sculpture. I wish I had space for the six other artists. Each of them enriches the conversation, sweetens the obsession. We could try and crawl out “cold-turkey”, but what’s the point, obsessions follow you home. For all its bodily anomalies, the show has brought us full circle. It’s eerily, ravishingly lifelike!

- Duane Tucker, Hamilton, ON

Bodily Space can be viewed on line at: http://www.albrightknox.org/bodily/bio_index.html but I urge you to go for the rarified air, the triple espresso jolt: the videos alone are worth the price of admission.

IMAGE:
Ron Mueck
Untitled (Big Man), 2000


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