Category Archives: Art Criticism

Food and oil painting reproductions

Food and oil painting reproductions: these human drives come together in this gluttonous collection of painting reproductions. Food’s vital importance for sustenance and pleasure makes it a potent signifier for other concerns: social and power relations, religious ideologies, national identity, and personal expressions of attachment, oil painting, and loss. These are among the intimate relations between food and art explored in the painting reproductions installed in the exhibition space of Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona. As an appetizer, a sampling of early still life paintings was served and dessert was the work of artist/chef, Ferran Adria, with rich and varied courses offered in between.

The first section, “Evolution of the Still Life Genre,” began with famous still life paintings, when the genre became coded and established. Embedded in realistic displays of flowers, fruits, insects, and blemishes are familiar tropes: the abundance of earthly life troubled by the inevitable presence of death, all wrapped in the Christian imperative to negotiate a balance between bodily pleasures and the promise of the afterlife. After falling out of favour in the early 19th century, food returned as a popular subject in 20th-century avant-garde art, and especially in the 1960s and 70s, when artists sought to incorporate everyday materials and forms in their work.

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Immediately following the historical still lifes, and stunningly collapsing the distance between, were the paired reproductions remakes of Sam Taylor-Wood and Ori Gersht, whose work exploded the earlier static realism and suggestion of decaying time. Initially, these reproductionss appear to be still photographs, which surprised the viewer when they come to moving-life, and then death. Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) tracks with exhilarating slowness the collapse of a large plate of perfect red and yellow fruits into a wedding cake of rot and floating sprays of mould dust. This accelerated view of decaying fruit shows us the process of ruin, only statically symbolized in earlier versions.

Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate (zoo6) recreates Juan Sanchez Cotan’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602): gourds rest on the lower frame, a cab bage and quince hang from strings, all cut by hard Spanish sunlight. Gersht replaces a pomegranate for the quince and choreographs a dance of death: a bullet punctures the fertile fruit, violently dispersing its bloodred seeds in slow-motion wonder. Also quoted here is the MIT inventor of stroboscopic photo graphy, Harold Edgerton, who famously sent bullets speeding through apples. In his art, Secret Knowledge (2003), David Hockney theorized Renaissance artists’ use of photographic optics. He recreated the same Cotan painting, projected it though a camera obscura, and when the cabbage was accidently set spinning, he thrillingly observed an early “movie?’ Gersht collapses these polemic techno-times (painting, photography, art), modifying the themes of life and death. The pomegranate symbolizes fertility, but for Gersht, it also carries homonymic sympathies with the de structure explosives of his Israeli childhood.

The still life’s dialectic of abundance and negation is echoed and expanded by these contemporary artists. Modern technologies, for killing and visual capture blast apart that delicate premodern balance with splendid destruction, allowing to surface what Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious.” Death is bigger, more insistent in our age.

Tacita Dean’s art Prisoner Pair (2008) continues the nature morte theme. “Poire prisonniere” is a specialty of the region of Alsace: a still-growing pear bud is enclosed in a bottle, which is filled with eau de vie once the fruit matures A succession of intimate views of two such imprisoned pears is captured by Dean’s camera. The pear bodies, mottled surfaces of pale golden greens, float within the patinated glass prisons. Dean buried the bottles to add physical and metaphorical texture, resurrecting them from their graves, still born, before painting.

Unlike the dramatic transformations achieved through advanced reproductions technology in the two previous works, Dean uses 16 mm art. We are back to real time, if only a little closer to static still life. Subtle shifts as the fermenting pears merge with their fluid wombs, the camera’s varied vantage, and falling sunlight behind create, according to Dean, Friedrichian landscapes. The clunky and indelicate projector casts microcosmic worlds of life and death onto a small suspended screen, adding to the sense of nostalgia for a precious past.

The second section, “Eating Art,” departs from the poetic tracings of momenta mori and explores the political, conceptual, and playful. Included are such seminal pieces as Piero Manzoni’s Merde dartista, n. 68(1961) and Salvador Dali’s paintings. Alongside them, Martha Rosler’s representation of everyday culture considers the semiotics of power in class and race relations in her dining room painting. A Gourmet Experience (1974), shows the discrepancies between bourgeois haute cuisine and its fetishization of ethnic foods and the lives of those whose culture has been appropriated. Pages from 1950s food magazines are montaged with quotations from imperialist food writers and scenes of the colonized regions from where the exotic food motifs derive, cleverly highlighting the exploitation of other cultures for elite consumption.

Rosler’s work is paired nicely with Chantal Akermans experimental fiction him Jeanne Dielman, 23 zuai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In it, Jeanne’s inability to accept her repressive, routinized domestic and sexual role leads to a radical, and deadly conclusion. The thematic pairing of violence and domesticity continues with Mona Hatoum’s Grater Divide (2002). Her oversized three-sided grater, expanded as room divider, signifies both the separation of women’s work, spaces and status, and the violence of that divisive exclusion.

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A more self-sacrificial violence is seen in Marina Abramovic’s dvdloop, The Onion (1996), which considers food as pain. A closeup frames Abramovic’s lip-sticked and lovely face chomping down on a large onion, her own weary voiceover lament beneath: “I’m tired of waiting for planes. So tired of museum and gallery exhibitions, standing around with a plain glass of water. Of more and more career decisions. Lonely hotel rooms, dirty sheets, long-distance phone calls. Of being ashamed of my nose being too big, of my ass being too large. I’m ashamed of the war in Yugoslavia …” The repetitions litany accentuates the dull pain of modern ennui, as she takes bigger and more desperate bites of the onion that is causing toxic tears to stream down her face.

Artists7Kitchens closed the exhibition, with a focus on food itself as art and performance, presented through paintings of documentary artifacts from artists’ restaurants. Daniel Spoerri’s “trap oil painting reproductions” are the fixed remains of clients’ meals from his Dusseldorf restaurant (1967). Suitably, final attention was given to food artist Ferran Adria, whose radically creative approach to food at his Catalan restaurant elBulli prompted his being invited to participate in Document an and his being accorded official art status.

That the works discussed herein include only a small sample from what is a large collection of art reproductions is testament to the curatorial integrity brought to bear in this exhibition, and food’s diverse relations with psyche, soma, and society.

Jill Glossing is a Toronto-based writer, artist and instructor of Art and Cultural History at Ryerson University and York University.

To be seen and not just heard about

Twenty-five years later, many of the artists featured in the inaugural issue of C Magazine have proven they have staying power. This group includes Rae Johnson, whose role as a founder of the ChromaZone collective and exhibitions at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery had established her place in Toronto’s art mythology by 1983. She was, and endures as, it less conspicuously, a revered queen bee of a Toronto scene that was abuzz during the flamboyant, heated-up 80s.

Rae Johnson’s pedigree notwithstanding, there are long gaps between exhibitions–and bodies of work we have not seen. In spite of obstacles, she continued to make work to meet challenges she posed for herself and for her audience, arriving at a virtuosity that could only be attained through millions of brush strokes and trial and error. Her new work highlights aspirations that took time to fulfill.

One consistency amongst Johnson’s works is a negotiation with Modernism. Adherence to the strictures of a reductive and essentialist canon offered insufficient reason to hold in check what the artist calls “the need to make images about life around me as I saw it.” A second, related consistency is an interest in the power of images to convey archetypes; while a third is a wish to make paintings that honour her suspicions about our existence. In her close study of the visual world, Johnson noted the dissonance between how things appear–as solid, inherently existent objects apart from other objects in space–and how things might be. “Reading about the theory of relativity and particle physics made me think about the immateriality of our experience.” This concern drove work that resists the objectification of the body and of other phenomena.

The inadequacy of tracking an artist’s work through reproductions was apparent to me when I came across a 2007 Rae Johnson painting tucked into a nook at Patti Petro’s summer show. To guide the eye, effect immersion and provoke emotion, Johnson’s painting employed particular scale and surface qualities that JPEGs fail to convey.

The arresting, mesmerizing and haunting painting was touched off by a late afternoon sky over Selkirk, Manitoba. Along a sloping horizon, reddish streaks divide a narrow wedge of green from sky blues, across which pushy brush strokes herd pale clusters flecked with glints of salmon pink. Snarled skeins on the left unravel into a spill of springy curls uncoiling upwards. In the lower right, dashes and smudges tweak a sense of reflections in standing water, a patch of visual density that braces up the horizon’s lopsided tilt.

A vertical spectrum of blue shades stepping from aqua through warmer shades blends at the zenith and looms over the band of grassy hues to stir a reflexive recognition of ‘landscape.’ However, loose brush play works against the paint tendrils, giving way to illusions of objects in space and resisting a David Milne-ish command over surface tension. The dialectic between surface and space is as moot as the picture’s reference to a site. Formal and representational attributes are given respectful but cursory attention, serving instead to impart a sense of how it feels to witness the scene firsthand. As Johnson puts it, “I don’t like the term landscape, because it suggests I am painting objects, when I am trying to convey the experience of our spiritual connection to our world through nature…. I am not interested in depicting the world as we see it, but as how we internalize and experience it.”

This nature study serves the same objective as Johnson’s renderings of archetypes, interiors, figures and media re-imaginations: to foster experience of “emotional content … like listening to music.” She admits that her work has not always been easy. In the early 80s, Johnson’s painting was, for me, hair-raising; in her words, it was striking “fear and loathing in our civilized composure. Painting as threat.”

A closer look at the Selkirk painting is still hair-raising, but less confrontational. Nevertheless, a Rae Johnson painting with manners is not Pollyanna-ish. Congested brush strokes in rough verticals and zigzags smear and gnaw into airy, calligraphic curves, a ghost hand groping for its way and bringing to mind Artur Schnabel’s phrase “from inwardness to lucidity.”

Johnson describes her process as one of ranging around the countryside until seized up by a moment of wonder, a “whoosh” Later, a digital-camera “thumbnail” serves as a mnemonic aid to initiate a painting in which she recovers the experience in order to foster it in others. The boundary between artist and viewer dissolves as world views conflate onto the fused horizon of the painting’s visual field. In the past, Johnson employed figurative distortions to indicate an elastic space-time; now she uses empathy to suggest a “seamless oneness” that pixels cannot record. She uses terms like “vibration” and “energy,” then gives up: “It’s impossible to put into words” So she paints, joining a lineage of artists whose work may be associated with aesthetic schools, but whose preoccupations are unapologetically transcendental.

The initial association stirred by the Selkirk painting was of adapting to glare, squinting and blinking at the sight of a homecoming sky overloaded with emotion and seen through the eyes of a mythic Persephone newly released from Hades. For me, the painting roused memories of driving west, making that sudden exit from inhospitable blackfly-infested forest, into a vast, open, windswept clearing. Although rooted in nature study, the painting generates overtones of relief and renewal.

I wonder if this painting signals that Johnson is emerging from immersion in the dark side, a preoccupation explicit in past work. She has described her paintings in terms of a duality of the seen and unseen, “the monde concrete we bump into and the unknowable dimensions of thought,” and as “uneasy fragments existing between objective experience and subjective perception … between conventional representation and the boundaries of the invisible” I wondered if her close “observations of the cycles of light and darkness” had effected a reconciliation of opposites. The artist’s response:

“It was a conscious decision. I decided that I only wanted to make things that people could look at that were–this is going to sound stupid, but–beautiful. And I don’t mean superficially pretty beautiful. I wanted to bring the sublime into people’s experience. I did my 9/11 airplanes and I just didn’t want to go to dark. I realized that my painting is another manifestation of putting energy out into the world. In trying to be responsible about the energy that I am putting out, I’m not going to put out more brutality.”

Rae Johnson utilizes pictorial conventions to infuse the merged horizons of painter and art lover with just enough of a consensus to strike up a relationship. The emotions aroused by the fierce resistances she presented in past works sometimes were uncomfortable; she now marshalls positive affect to serve her objectives.

As Flint Schier puts it in his comments on Wollheim, the kind of concern that Johnson has for her viewer–painting for the eyes of others and assuming ever more responsibility for the experience that she offers–“distinguishes mature art, or art per se, from the dream-work of children, fantasists, and dabblers who work simply to please themselves without imagining how their work would look from the perspective of a suitably disinterested, informed, sophisticated and imaginative spectator … a grasp of the full reality of other perspectives on one’s own work.”

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Cow and Violin: Superimposed Opposites

The absurd combination of a cow and a violin portrayed in a realistic manner is characteristic of structural displacements, while the differing scales of the objects portrayed ate inherent in formal displacements. The back of this picture bears an inscription added by Malevich that reads” “the illogical comparison between two forms–‘violin and cow’–as a moment of the struggle against logic, natural order, philistine meaning, and prejudice.”  Malevich’s objects are treated as mere forms devoid of any emotive content to denote that they ate meant to be viewed as concepts instead of being taken at face value.

In Kruchenykh’s opinion, the word korova (cow) is the best rhyme for the word teatr (theatre), their “a” and “o” sounds expressing the beauty of poetry and their threatening consonant “r” closely connecting them and causing them to rhyme. Kruchenykh broke up the utilitarian meanings of these words and found links between their verbal form and sound. His rhyme attacked the Russian theatre, “the bastion of artistic weakness,” in opposition to which, in 1913, the Futurists staged the tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, by Mayakovsky himself, together with the Victory over the Sun. In the tragedy, Mayakovsky declared, “I will reveal to you/by words/that are simple, like moo/our new souls, /which hoot, like the arcs of the street lamps.” Kruchenykh compared the Futurist primitive trans-rational “moo-language” to the cultural language of theatre and literature, of, at the social level, peasant values to noble culture, in order to undermine the conventional hierarchy of the concepts of “low” and “high.” Malevich’s picture expresses the same ideas by visually comparing a cow to a violin.

Malevich’s 1907-1908 Symbolist drawing Song for Blue Clouds, which represents a young nude woman playing a violin in a delicate landscape composed of rhythmic lines, displays an affinity between the shape of the nude and that of the violin. This affinity is a traditional artistic motif that has existed since antiquity. Pablo Picasso reinterpreted it in his Cubist paintings, for instance, the 1910 Girl with a Mandolin (New York, Museum of Modern Art). In the Cow and Violin, the nude is substituted by a cow to form a sarcastic analogy between animal and musical instrument. In the previously discussed Perfected Portrait, Malevich manifested, in Kruchenykh’s terms, “today’s virile soul.” In the Cow and Violin, the artist ridiculed the traditional notions of beauty, inspiration, imagination, spirituality, mysticism, and eroticism embodied in female imagery. The Cow and Violin’s anti-feminist connotation probably stemmed from Kruchenykh’s Victory over the Sun. In the opera, the Futurist heroes sing an anti-feminist tune, “We have locked up/The fat beauties in a house” and promise to defeat the sun associated by them with the fatal feminine powers that “give birth to passion.” After the heroes kill the sun, they sing, “We are warmed by the croaked udder of/The red dawn,” meaning that the “croaked udder” has displaced the feminine sun. Kruchenykh recollected that the opera did not use female characters in order “to prepare a masculine epoch that would replace the age of woman-like Apollos.” Kruchenykh’s gibe at the femininity of rationality and the sun god relates to his statement that traditional clear and logical language applies to womanhood. In Malevich’s painting, the feminine violin may hint at Apollo whose ancient Greek kithara was replaced with a violin in Western art tradition, and he is being confronted by the cow, an anti-feminist symbol of transrationalism. Burliuk and Kamensky also utilized the emblematic image of a cow. In 1914, Burliuk painted the animal on his forehead, sporting it during a public speech he made. In the 1914 poem Tango with Cows, Kamensky claimed, “I want to dance, one to one, /Tango with cows, /And to build the bridges/From the bull’s jealousy/To the girl’s tears.”

The fact that a small cow covers a larger violin is also popular in paintings sale, it suggests that the new values of trans-rationalism and primitivism eclipse the old values of rationalism and noble art or academism, as the Cubo-Futurists called previous styles. The new, however, does not defeat the old, and both images continue their contradictory coexistence, similar to the state between darkness and light in The Sketch for the Backdrop of the Second Act of the Opera “Victory over the Sun.” The Cow and Violin’s illogical juxtaposition of objects, one of which partially conceals the other, is also the compositional principle of the 1914 Englishman in Moscow that develops further the Perfected Portrait’s theme of a new hero, and formulates the concept of “partial eclipse.”

Englishman in Moscow and the Concept of “Partial Eclipse.” The key to the puzzle presented by Malevich in the Englishman in Moscow is the dominant words zatmenie (“eclipse”) on the upper right and chastichnoe (“partial”) in the lower portion of the painting. Malevich replaced the standard order of the words “partial eclipse” by the less useful “eclipse partial” to stress the word “eclipse,” which he divided into two parts as za-tmenie, depicting the dark za above the brighter tmenie. The prefix za now functions as a preposition that possesses several meanings, specifically “beyond,” “after,” “behind,” “the other side,” and “through”, while tmenie becomes a grammatically incorrect verbal form connected to the word t’ma or temnota (darkness) by the root tm (t’m, tem). Malevich’s morphological displacements produce new meanings, so that za tmenie now signifies “beyond darkness” or “after darkness,” suggesting the unknown that comes after the period of darkness. Though the word tmenie is associated with the dark, it is nevertheless rendered brightly, which produces a paradox of opposites–“light darkness.”

The expression zatemnit’ smysl signifies “to darken meaning,” of to make a concept unclear, incomprehensible, or mysterious. From this standpoint, za tmenie would denote “beyond the incomprehensible,” indicating that the work presents a trans-rational meaning that is unintelligible to the viewer who attempts to decipher it through common sense. The expressions zatmenie uma (“eclipse of the mind” or “madness”), temnyi um (“dark mind” or “unclear thinking”), and temnyi chelovek (“dark man,” “unlearned man,” of “mentally challenged man”) contrast with svetlyi um (“light” or “clear mind”), svet razuma (“light of reason”), and svet znania (“light of knowledge”). Malevich’s “beyond darkness,” therefore, implies a new light of trans-rational reason and knowledge.

The concept of “beyond darkness” corresponds to Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” or zaum’, a grammatically incorrect noun composed of the prefix za (“beyond”) and the root um (“mind”) that form the standard verbs zaumit’sia (“to become reckless”), zaumnichat’ (“to surpass the limits of reasonable norms”), zaumstvovat’ (“to become entangled with unclear concepts”), as well as zaumnet’ (“to become more clever”). In Russian folklore, the fool always turns out to be the clever man who achieves his goal, and there is a Russian proverb that “for the fool, the law is not written.” Kruchenykh’s concept “beyond mind” is meant to signify the overstepping of intellectual norms, thusly pointing to a trans-rational way of thinking. Both Malevich’s “beyond darkness” and Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” transform the rational into the trans-rational by the inversion of the signifying components of the binary structures of light and dark and reason and madness.

In the Englishman, Malevich divided the adjective chastichnoe (“partial”) into the syllables chas-tich-noe. This division is a morphological displacement that breaks the root chast to highlight the standard noun chas (“hour”), composing a syntactically incorrect combination with the upper word zatmenie (“eclipse”), i.e. zatmenie chas, the correct form being chas zatmeniia (“the hour of eclipse”). The term “partial eclipse” denotes the world’s state between darkness and light, a further elaboration on the square composed of the black and white triangles in the backdrop sketch for the opera Victory over the Sun. The concepts “beyond darkness,” “after darkness,” and “the hour of eclipse” allude to impending change in the world’s present state.

In the upper right of the Englishman, the yellow electric light coexists with the daylight denoted by the white clouds. The dominant yellow ray on the upper left is the single source of light illuminating the dark sky. The ray that emita from the Englishman’s black top hat characterizes him as a Futurist hero, recalling both the Italian Futurists’ admiration for electric light and Mayakovsky’s assertion in Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Me is the king of the lamps!”

As a result of the structural displacements present in the Englishman, the objects depicted lose their standard meaning, but find new ones. The spoon on the hero’s top hat refers to a particular event in Malevich’s life. On 8 February 1914, he and his friend, the artist Aleksei Morgunov, pinned red wooden peasant spoons to their lapels and crossed the Kuznetski Bridge in Moscow. The indignant public called them jesters and good candidates for admittance in a mental asylum. They were not the first to don scandalous Futurist fashions as these were initiated by Larionov and Goncharova who in September 1913 walked with painted faces in the streets of Moscow. Mayakovsky, Kamensky, and Burliuk adorned their costumes with a bunch of radishes. As Kliunkov explained, they parodied the so-called aesthetic artists and poets who wore chrysanthemums on the lapels of their coats in imitation of Oscar Wilde and English dandies. The Futurists consciously played the roles of jesters, fools, and madmen to declare their independence from conventional social and aesthetic norms. In 1914, Kruchenykh wrote, “[Mayakovsky] plays a fool, he scares the public when he represents madness; and in this, there is our (I am speaking about the Futurists, the so-called ‘Cubo-Futurists’) salvation! Madness will not touch us, although, as the imitators of madness, we will outshine both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche!”

Auto Emotion

Auto Emotion: Autobiography, Emotion and Self-Fashioning is the most ambitious and compelling group show seen at the Power Plant in recent memory, a belated showcase of what director Gregory Burke and curator Helena Reckitt–hired in 2005 and 2006, respectively–are capable of doing. The works on display all strike a delicate balance between conceptual rigour and messy affects, impulses and desires. They dramatize the mechanisms by which emotion, rather than simply occurring spontaneously or naturally, is produced, packaged and performed. The show revitalizes autobiographical performance-based practice by thinking through the seemingly transparent, raw and “real” emotional immediacy of much work in this field. With video in generally being the presentation medium of choice for the vast majority of the 14 participating artists, it is also gratifying to see old-fashioned single-channel video given such a place of prominence.

However, with this many artists, it is inevitable that some will not quite fit in. There is something too clean and detached about Rodney Graham and Rafael Lozano-Hammer’s practices to fit in with the hysterics and deconstructions thereof on display here, while Johannes Wohnseifer’s enigmatic, mechanical painting and video seem even more out of place. There are many strong individual pieces, such as the sprawling excerpts from Sophie Calle’s marvellous Exqubsite Pain (2000)–the centrepiece of the show, but discussed far too often elsewhere to comment on here–and Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s Lyric (2004), an exhaustive, sung catalogue emphasizing the numbing repetitiveness and redundancy of popular song lyrics. Nikki S. Lee’s photographic series, Parts (2003), meanwhile, succinctly and sweetly downs romantic love’s sentimentality in one fell swoop.

The most forceful work in the exhibition is Christian Jankowski’s Angels of Revenge (2006). Attending a horror convention’s costume competition in Chicago, Jankowski asked people how they were most wronged in life and how they would wish to avenge themselves against the person responsible. Jankowski shows that the desire for unvarnished (and uncensored) emotional truth and authenticity is still alive and well, especially because describing one’s brutal, homicidal desires continues to be considered in bad taste and taboo. I first viewed this work exactly one month after the Virginia Tech massacre, and Seung-hui Cho’s ridiculous Web-posted rantings and ravings were an inescapable touchstone for my experience of Jankowski’s work. (It is tempting to suggest that YouTube and its ilk are responsible for the resurgence in art of technically rudimentary, confessional and straight-to-camera videos that are–usually unintentionally-reminiscent of 70s video art.) Cho incoherently expressed an extreme mutation of the class envy that the American dream depends upon, while Jankowski parades the perversely capitalist eye-for-an-eye credo of an American culture trapped in a vortex of violence. In Jankowski’s video, empathy for his wronged subjects is all but eviscerated thanks to their excessive, identity-obscuring outfits; also, their descriptions of the offences against them tend to pale in comparison to their much more visceral and titillating (if inarticulate) revenge fantasies. Detached, we feel only the unease of watching someone sincerely describe their feelings without irony or self-consciousness. Men and women of various ages march out of the darkness and towards the camera as they narrate what happened to them and what they will do to “you.” The “you” is very important here, because we behind the camera are the perpetrators; the angels approach us, and at the moment when they reach the camera, a flash and a slashing sound inform us that “we” have been annihilated. Mixing insult and injury to chilling effect, whether detailing belt-sander castrations or obscene torture-rape, the confessions are giddily sadistic. Jankowski’s socially collaborative nihilism crystallizes one of the show’s strongest themes: the persistent complexities of performing social deviance.
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In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s The Present (2001), a series of short public-service announcements urge viewers to “give yourself a present–forgive yourself.” Each is an impeccably shot and structured confession of sorts, wherein a woman performs a deviant compulsion while simultaneously analyzing her actions–“this is what I do”–and herself. For example, in The Bridge, a phobic woman must cross a bridge on hands and knees; she expounds on her good genes and testifies, “I can’t look in the mirror because who would I see? I realized that I looked mad. That that’s where the madness is” Swinging Curtains features a hospitalized woman confusing her caregivers for bloodthirsty intruders as she explains her elaborately designed emergency system for hiding under the bed when they come to murder her. Ahtila’s films essentially blow up women’s psychoses to epic proportions, forging a highly “professional” 35mm cinematic take on neuroses that are usually swept under the rug, making female deviance spectacular and formidable.

A couple of the more comic pieces in the show have the bare-bones single-channel video form most common for performance documentation; both are, interestingly enough, about the art world. Marina Abramovic ironizes the tropes of the endurance body art that she herself pioneered with The Onion (1996), wherein she voraciously devours an entire softball-sized bulb–skin and all–gazing heavenwards and glowing with an artificial light befitting a Fassbinder heroine. As she excretes more and more tears, moaning in agony with her chin covered in drool and chunks, a looping soundtrack of her voice drones on and on about her romantic and self-image woes, and her rough life as an icon. “I’m tired of being ashamed of my nose being too big, my ass being too large … I’m tired of changing planes so often.” Her instinctual onion-tears mock the pretense of self-pitying emotional tears.

While Ahtila and Abramovic both perform deviance, Andrea Fraser cuttingly critiques how such deviance is bought and sold in the art market in Official Welcome (2001). As Fraser gradually strips off her clothes while addressing an audience from her podium, her identity constantly shifts–in voice, in gesture, in rhetoric–between different (unnamed) art-world figures whom she quotes verbatim, alternating between toadying professionals (the introducers) and the artists eager to be “so right, so now” (the speakers). She presents an art market where grotesque and difficult have become marketing buzzwords, where “sex and excrement” are shorthand for honesty, and boundary-challenging experiences are bought and sold. She ruthlessly debunks how artists are positioned as “better than us,” ubermenschen permitted to “live our fantasies” on our behalf, whether of the victimized, abject woman or the foul-mouthed male genius who can’t suppress a disdainful laugh when he declares, “I used to think I could change the world” Fraser’s project embodies Auto Emotion’s renewal of the genre precisely by putting these affective aesthetic strategies under the gaze of a piercing intellect.