Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Inverse: a convergence of hubris & bad theory in contemporary art

laura lima's the inverse (photo: fredrik nilsen studio)

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This interesting article, written by Monica Uszerowicz for Hyperallergic got my attention. It reviews Brazilian artist Laura Lima's recent show @ ICA, entitled The Inverse. 

here's Uszerowicz's description:
... a massive swath of rope, deep blue and thickly knotted, traverses the entirety of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Miami’s Atrium Gallery, looping itself over beams and columns and scraping the floor. The varying thickness and gradient of color throughout renders the rope an overwhelming morass of textures, and at any level of the space from which it is viewed it’s difficult to determine if it’s one rope or many.
it continues:
... the rope, gradually dwindling in size, ends in a makeshift room where, as outlined by the artist’s intent, it “merges with a female body.” To be clear, the rope ends in the woman’s vagina, sheathed, as it were, by a finger cot — a detail not explicitly shared with museumgoers.
you get the picture by looking at the photo above. Lima's installation looks imposing, except that one has to look carefully (behind one of the four central columns towards the back) at the protruding, tiny human lower extremities.

This is what happens next:
A few of the performers, unsurprisingly, felt uncomfortable with the rope’s placement; one in particular, who thought insertion was optional, felt coerced. Though it’s described in more detail here, there seems to have been some miscommunication: the ICA’s staff didn’t want their performers forced into anything that made them uncomfortable; meanwhile, Lima insisted on the insertion of the rope as essential to the piece — to her understanding, it was empowering.
How is that "empowering?  Here's Lima's justification:
I set the piece up so that you have to move yourself to discover its details. There are many things that arrive at the perception of the viewer — some are more important than the others — and I like that some of it gets lost. It’s not going to be obvious. You don’t know what’s going on behind the wall — but she is there. She knows a lot about the piece, and she is committed to engaging with the idea. In some ways, this is a universal subject, for centuries or millenniums, this subject of women. It is a more empowering thing. They are going to do it by themselves and they are, in a certain way, the ones who will take care of the piece.
I call this bad theory: The performer is, "there," ... "knows a lot about the piece," presumably because, (ahem) she inserts the rope inside her vagina? And she is "going to do it" and is, "in a certain way, the one who takes care of the piece."

Behind Lima's galimatias of empty constatations one can detect reified theory threads to buttress a system geared to legitimize contemporary art's presentations. I call this hubristic process arthoodication.* 

Meanwhile, Uszerowicz acknowledges that "a few of the performers, unsurprisingly, felt uncomfortable with the rope's placement." She tries hard to negotiate a mid point between her journalistic voice (in green below) and Lima's own (in red):
... by hiding this hugely important component of the show, Lima hopes that it will affect the viewer’s understanding of the work in some subconscious way. And maybe silently holding the literal end of the rope inside one’s own body could feel somehow special, even if it is a secret and especially if Lima had previously discussed it with the performer at length.
This is how Uszerowicz presents the disconnect between Lima's demands and the performers' reports:
Taken from the perspective of the artist-as-designer but not participant, these ideas seem reasonable.
"Reasonable?" Methinks too charitable.

How is the insertion of the rope inside a performer's vagina subconsciously relevant, whatever that means from a psychological standpoint (I'm just trying to fathom a science that could articulate Lima's declarations) if the performer only shows —as Uszerowicz explains,
... her feet... poking through a mouse-sized hole in the room’s wall?
and how could anyone in the audience address a performer's mental states by just looking at her legs!

Consciousness is exclusively a first-person report. The only way to address "conscious" or "subconscious" behavior is to obtain a performer's report, which is what Uszerowicz does in her piece.** In fact, her unease with The Inverse transpires in the piece's title: "When a Body is Reduced to Materiality for an Artwork."

Yet, as much as Uszerowicz digs into it, she cannot bring herself to shake her dithering between justifying Lima's demands, on aesthetic grounds, and her misgivings that these demands cause the performers emotional distress.

My position is that Lima's insertion demands make no sense within the aesthetic scope of The Inverse. Why? Because the performer's behavioral interaction with the public is minimal, a mere lie-there on the floor for three hours, inside a wall, showing one's legs through a hole. Furthermore, if inserting a rope inside the performer's vagina makes no difference to the piece, then the undue emotional stress caused to the performers is wrong. 

There is more: In a second article, Claire Voom confirms the performers' reports:
When Lima entered, she asked if Performer A was wearing underwear and replied, “Perfect” when she said she was not. Lima made her change into a beige dress to match her skin tone, complete with a sewn-on flap meant to cover her genitals as she lay down. Lima also placed a finger cot on the rope and handed her lubricant, telling her the penetration wouldn’t hurt.
This is what matters: the performer's first-person report:
I felt so lost and alone ... I was hoping for someone to enter the room and speak to Laura. … Laura handed me the lube and said, ‘OK, now put it inside of you. I will be waiting for you on the other end of the wall. … Don’t worry, you are safe. I’m watching you, and no one can see.’
performer A adds,
But I wasn’t safe ... I felt like I had no choice, and I also felt completely responsible for it because I didn’t say no. I inserted the rope. I laid down, and she adjusted my legs and opened them. She whispered through the hole, ‘Good, now everyone can see you.’ I started to cry. Something changed; I wasn’t the same. I was waiting for her to leave so I could remove the rope because there was so much discomfort. I peered through the opening, and once she left, I pulled it out and hid it by the side of my leg. 
This is a new detail: Even if the performer silently cried inside her hole, the audience would not have noticed. Behavior is by definition response to external stimuli. Only in this case, the performer's response doesn't matter. What if Lima showed the performer's face? I'm speculating, but at least the performer would've had the proper outlet to negotiate her emotional distress with the audience (as Levinas suggests, the face is a powerful medium for emotional redemption).

Visualize a troop of Lacanian feminists, taking issue with Lima's The Inverse. They take the structuralist approach (i.e., the artist's intentions are secondary to the work's reception) and decide to charge Lima with outdated patriarchal forms of female fetishization to please Eurocentric aesthetic modes of reception (evidently, a charge as hubristic as Lima's demands).

One last point: there is no question that these events are now part of The Inverse and Lima's resume. Perhaps after this reality check, she will modify her future performative demands. But then again, given the media attention received in Miami, perhaps not.

___________________
* What I mean by this is not a judgment against theory, nor contemporary art, but the hubristic confluence of both. ** A propos of bad theory, William James makes this point about first-person report: "human experience prevents the imposition of conceptual fixities."

16 comments:

olisan said...

This knotty tale of gnarly dilution and self aggrandizement goes right to the top. The artist's privilege may be to stand as a lightning rod for critical review but is it not the deciders who should absorb the voltage and blow back? Dear Ms. Uszerowicz whiled around not taking a stance but understandably this is her time advance along some logical scribal path. To be irreverent and brash, crushing and real is the purview of young and old alone. Those in middle years are all tied up in knots that bind.

Anonymous said...

Good post Mr. Triff! The art world is going crazy.

Ayleen B.

Monica said...

I wrote the article you've picked apart, and while I appreciate this post, I must say that I did refer to the piece as violent and troublesome. It's important to give a voice to all parties involved--to all the moving parts of a piece--in order to best exemplify how I came to this conclusion. I would argue that's not "dithering" but rather raising questions, questions I felt were quite vital and fair, precisely because the work alludes to slavery and violence (again, a stance I took rather vehemently). Openness in tone doesn't negate choosing a side, nor does it have anything to do with being in my "middle years."

Dissey said...

I cannot understand how Lima did not meet any resistance from the museum team or the curator and I don't know if you care to address that point. I think she will use your article and any attention she has received to have the piece exhibited again with the same demands. My ten cents.

Monica said...

I unfortunately can't address that point because I don't know how the museum team nor the curator handled this, other than what I was privy to as an observer. Beyond my statement that the show is an example of violence and restraint, with allusions to institutionalized sexism, she's received other negative attention. This would include quotes from the performers themselves, describing their discomfort, shock, and genuine fear. With respect to your ideas, I don't see how my article, nor any others, particularly those that address the performers, could be used by the artist in this manner. Removing my article from this conversation entirely, utilizing any attention she's received from the show seems like it'd be patently troublesome.

Alfredo Triff said...

This knotty tale of gnarly dilution and self aggrandizement goes right to the top.

Nicely put. Thanks, Olisan for your sort of poetic comment.

Alfredo Triff said...

I did refer to the piece as violent and troublesome. It's important to give a voice to all parties involved--to all the moving parts of a piece--in order to best exemplify how I came to this conclusion.

Monica, thanks for your article and your comment. See that I acknowledge your struggle with the issues presented and appreciate it. I see how you raised questions. It boils down to a difference in style. I would not eschew the problematizing but would say it as clearly as possible (even at the risk of erring).

In parenthesis, I think your second response is directed to Dissey.

Alfredo Triff said...

Tx Aileen. Keep reading.

You're right Dissey. I'm not getting in the institutional side of this. I preferred to tackle the hubris of aesthetics & bad theory.

Dissey said...

No problem man. I appreciate the effort we need more writing like this in Miami.

Tyler Emerson-Dorsch said...

Mr. Triff, I take issue with the tone of your dissection of Uszerowicz's review. You come across as condescending, especially in the practice of creating a word of your own "arthoodication" when you could have just as easily used the phrase with which you defined the word in the footnotes. The form of a review in artforum or any short form review demands very few if any paragraphs and few if any quotes. One does not have the luxury of pull quotes, footnotes, or highlighting. Your professorial indignation is a shame, because it takes some of the heat off of Lima's installation and the issue of the artist's treatment of the performer and whether the institution knew about it. The issues are so rife around The Inverse that we would be well served by in-depth and professional consideration of the piece and its handling - and you have the experience to do it. Instead, here you spend more time critiquing Ms. Uszerowicz's critique. Please, do not get distracted. If Ms. Uszerowicz's review left you wanting more, dig into The Inverse at ICA yourself and give it no quarter.

Alfredo Triff said...

You come across as condescending, especially in the practice of creating a word of your own "arthoodication" when you could have just as easily used the phrase with which you defined the word in the footnotes.

Tyler: Thanks for visiting. "Arthoodication" does not consist necessarily of an agent doing this or that --so that absolves Monica. Rather, arthoodication, as I define it, is a process of the system operating upon individuals. In this sense Monica and you and I are equally at risk. The more reasons to be vigilant.

"condescending?"

Unless discussing a point amounts to condescending. I don't see how I'm guilty of that.

Your professorial indignation is a shame, because it takes some of the heat off of Lima's installation and the issue of the artist's treatment of the performer and whether the institution knew about it.

Let's leave "professorial" and "shame" behind. I clearly address my position regarding Lima's requirements:

My position is that Lima's insertion demands on her performers make no sense within the aesthetic scope of the piece. Why? Because the performer's behavioral interaction with the public in The Inverse is minimal, a mere lie-there on the floor for three hours inside a wall showing one's legs through a hole. Furthermore, if inserting a rope inside the performer's vagina makes no difference to the piece, then the undue emotional stress caused to the performers is wrong.

Thanks for your comment, Tyler. I appreciate it

MC said...

Right on the money Triff! Being a woman I feel validated.
By the way the list of comments is a proof that we need these discussions. As much as I disagree with what you call Lima's demands I can assure you that the piece will be exhibited again and she will not change it. As they say even bad publicity is good publicity.
Take care,

Monica said...

Thanks for reading my comment, Mr. Triff. I think it'd be helpful to recognize I had the same problems you had with the work, and perhaps took it more personally both as a woman and as someone who knows some of the performers in my personal life.

Tyler Emerson-Dorsch said...

Mr. Triff, thanks for your quick response. Sometimes the tone that is read is different than the one that is intended, and indeed, it is hard to stake a position without seeming unbending to somebody! Nevertheless, my response was in part to the wider breadth of your form as opposed to Monica's - you had a bit more room to make your point. I think that your point about Lima is good and deserves the breathing room to resonate.

Jordan Mass said...

Simple. Another artist provoking controversial debate.

Alfredo Triff said...

True, but, controversy has always been an art staple.