Meat Market

John Haber
in New York City

NB: my ostentatious appetite—real need—to eat exotic
and "disgusting" foods = a need to state my denial of squeamishness. A counter-statement.

      — Susan Sontag

Into Me / Out of Me and Defamation of Character

Silicone Valley and Vic Muniz

Has art lost the power to shock? With "Into Me / Out of Me" at P.S. 1, the numbing of sensation itself comes as a shock.

Perhaps, like me on some bad days, you consider yourself old-fashioned when it comes to what belongs in a museum. Perhaps, like me on some bad days, you think that you have seen it all. It hardly matters. Either way, one cannot exit this oddly bloated exhibition without, at least once, having first turned away. Marina Abramovic and Ulay's Rest Energy (P.S. 1, 1980)

More than one hundred thirty artists take as their raw material the human body—often their own. They look up close at naked flesh and at what it consumes or expels. They look inside, through any orifice or wound I can name. That meat market offers plenty of opportunities for shock, shame, and disgust. Who am I to say which will push your own panic button? Maybe dozens, or maybe none at all.

For me, the real shock came not from any one image or performance. Rather, the show's unsettling message lies in the accumulated encounters. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but apparently art has endless ways of penetrating a human being.

Does sheer repetition—in art or, for that matter, in the news—numb one's responses or drive the point home? The show allows for both, and that, too, turns out to raise questions. Here shock, too, registers as a kind of numbness. Oddly enough, P.S. 1 supplies its own postscripts, going over much the same ground only weeks later, with "Defamation of Character," and again the very next spring with "Silicone Valley" and Vic Muniz.

More than anyone can stand

My very first question looks ever so much easier, so I had better start there. Why, of course art has the power to shock. It shocked politicians enough for them to denounce arts funding and to call "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum to account. It shocked The Daily News enough to derail a cultural center at Ground Zero. If I had any doubts left, signs off every hallway and stairwell of P.S. 1 would dispel them. The museum warns all those entering to abandon hope, perhaps lest Rudy Giuliani return to Queens in search of his "base."

On the other hand, surely by now art has inured anyone to shock. As art comes closer to mass entertainment, it inherits big effects and fewer surprises. No one screamed last year, when Charles Ray's nude kiddies greeted visitors to "Take Two" at the Museum of Modern Art, and people have largely forgotten Jimmie Durham and his body parts entirely. No one minded a long rundown of the culture wars at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, with some of the same artists as at Long Island City now. No one has protested this show, and I bet no one will. One could question the sincerity of those politicians for their highly selective outrage.

Generally speaking, art makes people angry when it speaks to divided audiences, with conflicting expectations. Right now, art has its largest public since at least the French Salon, and America has starker political divisions than ever. That means more conflicts, but mostly when art and its public have something to say. Not surprisingly then, art now makes people angriest when politics enters the picture. Someone ruined a sculpture related to the Iraq war this same summer, but at P.S. 1 even the rooms dedicated to violence seem remote from current events. Jake and Dino Chapman have their garish reflection on the horrors of war, but pretty much any war.

Yet somehow "Into Me / Out of Me" reclaims the body as contested ground, and give the museum part of the credit. Now, artists have made me queasy before. Did you have trouble facing Cindy Sherman in her slimier settings of ten years ago, Marina Abramovic with Ulay's arrow pointed at her chest, Nan Goldin after her sister's suicide, Peter Hujar's night life, or Chris Burden and his feats of endurance? Were you the least bit annoyed at Vito Acconci for his self-degradation, Bas Jan Ader's forced sobbing, Matthew Barney's ego trip, or Paul McCarthy's Punch and Judy show? Others will have their own list. All these artists appear here—and dozens more. And precisely that makes things interesting.

Every so often, an inclusion caught me by surprise. I had not thought of a compact kitchen and toilet by Andrea Zittel in these terms, rather than as another of her tributes to cool efficiency. Every so often, too, the choices reach back to older influences, such as Jean Genet and bad girls like Louise Bourgeois. Andy Warhol gets to take a piss on abstract painting. However, these surprises do not come often. Do not expect Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, say, for their razor blade slicing an eye on film.

Rather, the real shock lies in the obviousness of it all. I kept thinking that I knew all this before, and I kept wondering how I did not anticipate this artist or that work. The show gets one asking whether all of contemporary art deals in the messy side of reality, in sheer flesh and blood. Eventually anyone, however jaded, will wish it would end, and at that point art and the body have regained a more brutal impulse. It gives new meaning to the phrase "more than anyone can stand."

Art reports; you decide

Any show with shocking subject matter but the complacent air of a blockbuster is in a bit of a muddle. And any show this inclusive is asking for a serious objection: it brings every artist down to the same level. "Into me, out of me" comes awfully close to "garbage in, garbage out."

These artists may serve raw meat, but they did not expect to the share the same menu. Maybe some sought shock, some awe. Maybe some felt a direct channel to desire or suffering, and maybe they demanded that a viewer experience these, too. Maybe others felt haunted by their absence. Maybe some stood at a blissfully ironic distance, to comment on experience and to question who shapes it. Maybe some asked how images in turn come to represent experience—and nothing here will let you know.

I feel fairly sure that Damien Hirst, Andres Serrano, and Kiki Smith all care about the fragility of art and life, although in very different ways. When I first saw Nathalie Djurberg's S&M puppet theater, Nayland Blake's darkly conceived bunnies, a werewolf from David Altmejd, or Jeff Koons and his notes on camp, I may have laughed or sneered. When Abramovic swapped places with a hooker for the course of an opening, I felt the sexual attraction, only partly tempered by shame. Not here, for here they all parade by on equal terms.

What of such artists as Bruce Nauman or Jenny Holzer, for whom irony and brute force, art and text, get along just fine? In performance, Carolee Schneemann once pulled a feminist tract out of her naked vagina during menstruation, and then she read it aloud. Just as notoriously, Lynda Benglis flaunted a dildo for Artforum. In this mixed company, each is left communicating the sanctity of private parts rather than a woman's self-assertion, much less a sense of humor. My, I found myself thinking, how nice and thin Schneemann looked back then.

Now comes a second surprise, along with quantity: all this has a point. Naturally any group show thrusts dissimilar artists together, and one has to ask why. Yes, Klaus Biesenbach, P.S. 1's director and chief curator, muddles work evocative of visceral experience with work that questions it. He does so, I think, in order to ask whether art can recover the difference.

He may seem insensitive to the art, almost compulsively so. Perhaps he is. He has thrown irony and sincerity together so that each viewer must sort them out. Art reports, he seems to say. You decide.

A healthy self-abuse

The size of the show alone equates the body with gut feelings. With "Greater New York," its surveys of emerging artists, P.S. 1 gave over an entire museum. Otherwise, I cannot recall an exhibition that spans the main floor and basement. Charmingly, the cafeteria displays images of eating. Either you will skip lunch entirely or call for dessert.

So does the arrangement. It could have laid out the work chronologically or as a matter of artistic approaches. It could have left focus rooms on individual artists. Either would have suggested a point of origin internal to art rather than experience. Instead, it amounts to a litany of bodily functions—sex and violence, eating and drinking, vomiting and urinating, alcohol and drugs. Abramovic belongs in one room for target practice, another on the whorehouse balcony.

This arrangement also treats all such functions as transgressions, as a disturbance of the everyday, and as a physical revelation of the human animal. It does not try to separate human needs or healthy desires from self-abuse. Again, the show has erased distinctions, daring you to draw them for yourself. Many of the artists, such as Goldin, have offered much the same dare. Others have not. Ironically, the religious right would find the work appalling, but it might have something of its terror at the pleasures of this world.

"Into Me / Out of Me" presents a paradox, then, of trust in breaking the boundaries and a touch of puritanism. Perhaps the human instinct behind shock does, too. Biesenbach, founding director of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, has a typical German earnestness when it comes to irony. However, he started with Susan Sontag and her reflections on representation and experience. From her own epic "Notes on Camp" to her love of contemporary European fiction, Sontag had an equal appreciation of culture's cheap tricks and an existentialist's human condition. In her writing on photography, she tried at least twice to sort out the two.

In On Photography, she expressed skepticism that the proliferation of media images can lead to insight and empathy. At some point, people just tune things out. Before her death, she took care to emphasize that the world has not thereby vanished into a simulacrum of itself. In "Regarding the Pain of Others," she insists on the primacy of pain and the individuals, the others, who feel it—much as in her dedication of Against Interpretation to Paul Thek. One can see each side of the story today, as television shifts public attention quickly and casually from Iraq to Lebanon. The images of explosions and debris grow numbing, but they also largely leave out the hundreds of civilian deaths a week, which might still have the power to provoke thought and feeling.

Sontag told a nuanced tale, with room in it for her to criticize herself. However, at each point, she longs for an emotional bedrock, in the reality of the individual. So does this show. I cannot swear that all the artists would agree. They might each give different weight to thought and feeling. They might treasure the image over the object or vice versa, whereas the exhibition leaves it to you to discern which is which—once, that is, you get over the shock.

A postscript: neo-neo-neo-neo

Even today, art has the power to stun in every sense—to surprise, to confront, to overwhelm, or to shock. But can a show about confrontational art still pack any punches? Not one more time, unless P.S. 1 has made me unduly confrontational.

Just months before and in the very same space, "Into Me / Out of Me" traded discrimination for quantity, and a future show is even called "Organizing Chaos." It brought home an interesting thesis: pretty much all art, even after Modernism, still traffics in transgression. That includes physical invasion of the viewer's personal space, as at once one's own and the artist's body. One could almost call "Defamation of Character" the in- and outtakes.

McCarthy drools and Warhol pisses. Nauman picks a fight, Barney tries on Vaseline for size, and Burden once again endures almost any abuse. Sean Landers jerks off, and Ryan McGinley exposes his young friends—not that they needed prodding. No wonder Sarah Lucas considers suicide, at least in the realm of art.

Then again, the same artists, along with Jack Goldstein and John Waters, could have stumbled in from yet another show not long before, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. It, too, might be called "remembrance of culture wars past," and the artists at P.S. 1 cannot seem to forget. JP Munro puts the ugliness back into painting Goebbels. Dawn Mellor remembers the Supremes before Dreamgirls figuratively defaced them. And all this comes well after "Sensation" flaunted a deliberate retread of shock art. It already appropriated decades, from Brillo boxes to the present.

As a retro image of confrontation implies, the show has a fondness for Brits. Richard Hamilton returns with his earnest approach to Pop Art. Gilbert & George serve up their own image yet again, stenciled with "blood" and "shit." Has confrontation evolved from Manet's or Picasso's whores, through formal revolution and endless self-quotation, to finally a curator's own problem with self-assertion? As a work on display from the Chapman brothers prompts, "Insult Is the Voice of Oedipal Promise."

"Into Me / Out of Me" made discomfort almost too obvious and ubiquitous to accept. Here it becomes nostalgic to the point of obscurity. When Glenn Ligon paints the neon letters "America" black, he has a political and conceptual point. Yet I feel sorry for the guard who kept fielding the question of when it lights up. I needed the help of another reviewer to associate the wiggly Cioran Handrail by Urs Fischer with a turd. I just puzzled over who should sue for defamation for character.

What a waste

P.S. 1 turns twenty-one in 2007, but the great alternative space is still young at heart. In fact, it is behaving like a child who will not stop playing with his food. Of course, it is not alone, not when a midtown hotel has just withdrawn plans to display a chocolate Jesus. And here I thought, so long after Piss Christ, that shock art and artists struggling with their Catholic upbringing had gone stale.

In 2004 P.S. 1 served up Dieter Roth, whose first name does not preclude masses of slowly decaying chocolate. Soon "Into Me / Out of Me" made the body a site for little more than eating, defecation, and self-abuse. Right away came still more shock art, in "Defamation of Character." Now come "Silicone Valley" and Vic Muniz, the photographic master of Hershey's syrup, marmalade, and human refuse. Upstairs, McKendree Key uses twine as "material waste," to oblige one to crawl through two rooms and back. Is a Farrelly brothers film festival in the works, and is there something about Long Island City?

The obvious pun in "Silicone Valley" points to a new world and an old one. Silicon manages to stand for both the disembodied reality of bits, bytes, and images and the bodily reality of cosmetic surgery. One can see them as two sides of the postmodern "society of the spectacle," by no means easy to reconcile or to tell apart. That could make a provocative exhibition, but this one cannot get past the body. Twelve artists smear it, bag it, and puff up its wrinkled features. They also apply much the same less than appetizing substances to canvas or other substrates, then photograph the results.

On the one hand, the selection reduces a slippery theme to bodily fluids. On the other hand, it has trouble reconciling two very disparate approaches. Some works obsess with what the curators call "false realities," often approaching abstraction. Others seem earnest to the point of literal minded. On the side of illusion, Eileen Quinlan creates geometric patterns in photographs of Smoke and Mirrors, and Joe Bradley bases his Minimalism on Home Depot. Rodney McMillian makes monochrome abstraction from a badly abused rug, while Corey D'Augustine prefers silicone and antifreeze.

On the alarmingly literal side, Meredith Allen photographs Beanie Babies through suffocating clear plastic, Peter Caine dubs his rather wittier work a portrait of God, although he swears that does not apply specifically to his wiggly kinetic totem poles, and Christy Singleton enacts her own plastic surgery in cheesy female busts. Julian LaVerdiere's use of Nerf to fashion his eagle heads does not make them any less literal either. William Pope.L throws on some more peanut butter and mayonnaise for good measure, and Dan McCarthy might as well have painted his portraits in LSD, but by then one gets the point. When Catherine Ross edits gestures from Three's Company so that they appear to be playing invisible instruments in synch with the soundtrack, she could almost challenge the divide between media-created images and pure yuck. Marlene McCarty could do the same in pen and ink, with large mass-media images of abused youth. Unfortunately, their saccharine sources make them the most reductive of all.

Catching Vic Muniz among fall 2006 openings, I could see his junk increasingly piled upon junk. Not only had he moved from photographing his sketches in dessert toppings to arrangements on the scale of a small dump site. He was also shaping solid matter, ad nauseam, into the kitchiest of Old Masters. A one-room retrospective redefines the photographer's career as an evolution from turning stomachs to trompe l'oeil, as if insecure in his own rebellion. It ends with two elaborate versions of Claude Monet cathedrals, a tribute to very idea of a reconstruction of vision from raw, meaningless patches. If "Silicone Valley" has a better show dying to appear, Muniz comes closer to it—or maybe he just marks the limits of playing false surfaces against toxic ones.

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"Into Me / Out of Me" ran through September 25, 2006, "Defamation of Character" through January 15, 2007, "Silicone Valley" through April 30, and Vic Muniz through May 7, all at P.S. 1.


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