Container and Contained

Künstlerhaus Stuttgart

Brice Dellsperger, Body Double 23, 2010, Videostill

Brice Dellsperger, Body Double 23, 2010, Video still

‘This is a container,’ says artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz, gesturing to his surroundings within a circular curtained space at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. A video of this reading, INPUT OUTPUT (2015), which was delivered during the opening, was displayed in the same space serving as a straightforward placeholder (the curtained installation, but not the video, will remain installed for the next year as a performance space). In this context, it recalled an interview Bordowitz gave – included in a 2012 documentary on ACT UP – in which he spoke of another form of containment: during the first years of the AIDS crisis in the US, the quarantining of victims was proposed: the forced confinement of specific bodies marked by disease and queerness. This group show Container and Contained references the very physicality of this proposal, with many of the works conjuring violence and corporality directly. Further, through the notion of containment, the show sought the intersections of materiality (broadly conceived as body, medium and display) with signs and systems of subjectivity.

The urgent voice of Julia Heyward called out from behind a curtain. This video of Shake Daddy Shake, a performance at Judson Memorial Church in 1976, shows her in a one-shouldered jumpsuit, rotating on a Soul Train-esque circular platform as she recites a spoken word piece where looping repetitions build density of meaning. Her hand shakes incessantly, referencing her father’s worsening Parkinson’s disease, yet the ‘shake’ appears multiply, as handshake (‘he shook hands for a living’) and as popular music (‘shakes all night’). The work’s critique lies in parlour craft: she throws her voice like a doll-less ventriloquist, the words reverberating around her as her face remains still. In this separation of voice and body, Heyward becomes the image of every woman codified in patriarchy, and the voice transmitted through her speaks back: ‘love is an object. And I’m going to distribute it differently than daddy.’ The postwar rallying against women’s confinement within the nuclear family (controlled by daddies and husbands) is taken on by Heyward’s body as vessel (foreshadowing the vacuum that public feminism would become today) while also pointing to the materials – corporeal and archival – of first generation performance art.

Tony Conrad’s Untitled 1-3 (2014), installed in the centre of the first floor space, moves from Heyward’s reverb into reflection: the viewer’s image appears in three suspended panes of glass encased in a steel framework. A small hole appears in the top-middle of each pane, suggesting internment: a peep­-hole (for looking out or in) or an air hole. Made for WiP, Conrad’s exhibition last year at Greene Naftali, New York, which showed a film of the same name from 1982–83, the work is presented without direct reference to its origins. Its re-presentation however heightens the allusion to bodily conse­quence. It could also be read as a critique of Minimalism. While taking up some of its formal vocabulary – steel, glass and attention to surface – Untitled cites the well-theorized impact of Minimalist art on bodies in the exhibition space, albeit by extending it, conjuring specifically impacted persons (in prisons, detention centers or asylums). More pointedly, if Minimalism addresses, like the state, an undifferentiated subject, Untitled brings the bodies confined by that state into the exhibition space via negation.

Antonio Mak’s small bronzes Horse Lover II (1991) and Identity and Difference (1975) bring abject eroticism into conversation with figurative sculpture. Housed in clear perspex cubes with metal pins exposed, their display is in skeletal correspondence with Conrad’s Untitled. Mak uses bronze to posit the male physical ideal in relation to the instability of subjectivity. For example, Identity and Difference depicts a figure split at the torso, a floating upper body grasping detached hips. As in Heyward’s work, there is a separation of body (as form) from subject (as archetype), a separation that points towards the questioning of ‘man’ as a historical (physical and rational) category. Horse Lover II shows a figure clinging to the underside of a horse, in an undoing of the normally heroic equestrian statue.

Bordowitz might refer to this as the creation of a ‘mood’, which he describes in his reading as an ephemeral component necessary for successful organizing and direct action. Elements of sound, speed and colour further buttress this sensibility in the show: Josephine Pryde’s saturated image composites of implanted fetuses in darkened (MRI imaged) wombs, or Stephen Sutcliffe’s quick-footed film, A Policeman is Walking (2009), in which the patterns of an early screensaver seemingly gesticulate to audio of a spoken poem, its sound competing with Heyward’s ongoing holler. If there are processes, forms and aesthetics of confinement, as this exhi­bition has so well displayed, cultural practices (artistic, critical, curatorial) are paramount to their dissolution.

Issue 20

First published in Issue 20

Jun - Aug 2015

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