Ten years ago, I saw am exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts by Hannah Wilke. Entitled “INTRA-VENUS,” the exhibition of photographs, drawings and objects documented Wilke’s chemotherapy treatments for Lymphoma. It was her final exhibition. I vividly remember the sensation of being simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by these images of Wilke’s hair loss, weight gain and body distortion. I was equally seduced by the subtext of the psychological and physical humiliation that accompanies illness and treatment. These images spoke to a shared mortality and were alive with the smells and sounds and heaviness of terminal illness and the final stages of life. Wilke transformed me from viewer to witness, and I was profoundly affected by the experience.
Witness: Theories of Seduction examines this experience of witnessing, specifically the way in which artists manipulate viewers toward an acute self-consciousness. The artists in this exhibition mine the rich intersection of voyeurism and transgression while exploring the inherent complicity between the two. The exhibition, in turn, considers the strategies and contexts used by the artists to “get” to the viewer.
Throughout her career, Wilke was criticized for her narcissism, primarily because most of her work derived from nude photographs of her beautiful body. In the end Wilke did not shy away from using her body as the source and inspiration for her art even as the cancer and chemotherapy destroyed its beauty. Perhaps the allegations of narcissism were correct; not simply as a result of Wilke’s exploitation of her beauty but through a willingness to explore the distortion of self as a means to a conceptual end. The power of the work comes from its voyeuristic nature of opening private experiences to public view and thus creating self-consciousness in the viewer.
Certainly voyeurism in art is not new. Some historic, narrative paintings, both genre and portraiture, are inherently voyeuristic. Think of David’s a Marat, Van Gogh’s self-portraits after the mutilation of his ear and Balthus’ Girl with Violin. What takes these works beyond documentation is a fascination with the spectacle of sex, violence, and death. Each provides private access to witness an event one cannot normally access. Duchamp’s final work Etant Donnes, in which the viewer looks through a “peep hole” to see a woman with splayed legs holding up a lamp, is one example. The viewer is voyeur and complicit in the violation of the woman. The act remains secretive because the peephole allows only one viewer at a time.
Jenny Saville extends Wilke’s ideas both of performance and voyeurism in a series entitled Closed Contact, 2000. These large-scale photographs document the artist in distorted, sometimes painful, positions achieved by pressing her body against glass which are then photographed from below. Like Wilke, she sees the works as performance and collaboration—for this series she worked with fashion photographer Glen Luchford. Subtler is Saville’s riff on Duchamp’s Large Glass, in this case not the bachelors waiting for the bride, but the bride distorted. The resulting image is both intriguing and repellant through transformation.
As Saville notes: “I’ve become quite interested in the notion of monsters, and how if you take something out of symmetry you’ve made a body behave in a way you don’t expect. How far do you have to go with a body that’s supposed to be normal in order for it to become monstrous? You don’t have to do very much. Slightly moving something or changing the scale or changing the crop…you don’t have to go very far to change somebody’s perception.” (1)
David Levinthal challenges perception through his use of surrogates. Levinthal has been using dolls since the seventies to explore the line between “documentary and fabricated reality.” (2) His early photographs of toy soldiers and cowboys may be more connected to childhood memories than any sort of conscious search for an avatar. For the series desire, from the early nineties, however, he used Japanese sex dolls portraying Caucasian women in bondage. What in intrigued the artist was the challenge of having inanimate objects (traditionally for child’s play but now subverted to adult purposes) evoke real human emotion by making unreal out of the real. For the viewer, the reading of the work is layered: because these dolls mimic the artificiality of pornography, the viewer in initially seduced by the faux reality. After grasping the unreality, the viewer then begins to wonder about the origin/function of dolls/models and how and why they are being used and manipulated by the artist.
“One of the things that prompted me to work on the desire series,” Levinthal wrote, “was a sinking feeling of how sexuality is presented in contemporary society. We’re bombarded with it to such an extent that we find ourselves overwhelmed by presentations of the body and of sexuality. The availability, the accessibility of pornography is kind of frightening. In our mass popular culture we’re bringing sexuality, popular culture and pornography almost to a point of intersection.” (3)
So what differentiates photographs of dolls (women) in bondage from their original of dolls that portray women in bondage? Levinthal admits the boundary between pornography and art is blurred, but it is this space that allows the questions to rise. “One of the reasons I used a small d rather thank a large D in the desire catalogue,” he said, “was to imply a question. If this is what desire is about, what does it say about society? I see my art as a form of observation and commentary, which is one of the ways that differentiates it from pornography.” (4)
Vanessa Beecroft raises questions of the “male gaze” in her meticulously crafted performances in which lithe, naked models with coifed pubis and high fashion boots or shoes, stand for hours on end without moving and without engaging the audience through eye contact or movement. This lack of engagement or connection, in a sense, turns the table on the viewer making them acutely aware that through their gazing, they are the transgressor, usually it is the viewer, not the model, who turns away.
Beecroft has been criticized for fusing fashion and sexuality in a way that can be read as misogynist. Maneuvering between presenting women as objects and making a commentary on the objectification of women is tricky. If the female is presented in the nude, is it serving male fantasy? It is telling that similar allegations were leveled at Wilke. Writing in 1989 in the Village Voice, Elizabeth Hess observed, "In objectifying herself as she does, in assuming the conventions of a stripper...Wilke...does not make her own position clear....It seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert..." (5) Wilke, in turn, acknowledged the ambiguity of her methodology, and it could be speaking for Beecroft: "If I scarred myself and ripped my face up, or put lice on me, then it would be clear. That's too easy." (6)
A pioneer in making art dealing with sexuality, Carolee Schneemann often places herself in (perceived) transgressive roles, using performance and photography to question society's views on sex, nudity, and taboo. In Saw Over Want, 1980-82, Schneermann juxtaposes detailed images of ordinary objects --close-up interiors of shells, brushes and sink plugs--with a grid of body parts engaged in erotic acts. The play between the everyday and erotic is disorienting. "The taboos advocated by the erotic images seep into the ordinary object," explains Schneemann, "with as a sort of contamination or as a heightened tactile pleasure. Conversely, the ordinary objects become oddly eroticized." (7)
Because Schneemann both participated in the sexual encounters and documented the event (it is her invisible hand holding the camera) she is both performer and observer. Interestingly, Schneemann rejects the notion of voyeurism: "My images of intimacy are based on a premise of 'permission' to see. The bedroom door is open. If my lived experience admits unconstrained eroticism, then there is no voyeur. My concept of an explicit erotics proposes an equity between body and viewer."
In Interior Scroll--The Cave, 1995, Schneemann again explores ritual, myth, taboo and feminine power. The physical setting is a vast underground cave, where Schneemann and seven nude women perform the ritualized actions of Interior Scroll. The women slowly cover their bodies with paint. A text is read as each woman slowly extracts a scroll from her vagina, which at times is presented in extreme close-up.
"I didn't want to extract a folded scroll from my vagina," says Schneemann, "and read it in public. This image occurred to me because the abstraction of eroticism was pressuring me and I had to demonstrate action."
In the 21st century's global, 24 hour access to various forms of media--television, surveillance, the internet--voyuerism is no longer an inherently transgressive or solitary act; it is an option for many and no longer defined as a wholly private experience. Reality-based television shows and popular, daytime confessional talk shows prove a shared fascination with the notion of public witnessing.
Julia Scher's video Discipline Master, 1988, is an eleven-hour confessional by the artist in which she attempts "to preserve her understanding of her life history." (9) Scher recounts her childhood memories, repeating the stories, often with details changed or omitted. As Carol Irving notes in Julia Scher's Collectors Under Surveillance: "To the viewer, the discrepancies between the versions become increasingly evident. With each added narrative twist, Scher demands more of the audience's attention and challenges their memory. As the stories repeat, the viewer recognizes, and becomes complicit in, Scher's manipulative sensibility. Finding out what actually happened seems imperative, yet ultimately impossible....The video is an ongoing battle with privacy, forcing its viewer to consider the meaning of, and intentions behind, such endless exposure." (10) Scher seduces the viewer into participation through this repetition and change; we must bear witness to her memories, even as they change and evolve.
For close to eight years, Carol Irving has been investigating "Truth" through performance, video, photography and music using the polygraph machine. The questions presented during Irving's polygraph performance result in physiological reactions to emotion, memory and experience that in turn reveal a map or portrait of an individual.
"I have used the polygraph's technology as a launching place or logic system to a number of conceptual ends," Irving notes, "to examine the underlying assumptions that are made about "truth"and its questionable relation to physiology, to probe the invasive techniques of modern criminology and to expose our perverse desires to lie and confess." (11) In TRUTH, 2003, Irving continues these investigations by submitting herself to the polygraph procedure.
In her essay "Where the Stress Falls: The Novel as Self-Portrait," Susan Sontag writes "The narrator as spectator is, necessarily something of a voyeur. Gazing can become snooping, or at least seeing more than one is supposed to see. " (12) This notion of narrator as voyeur (and by default the viewer?) is the conceit behind the series of photographs by Bettina Rheims entitled Chambre Close. The photographs accompany a manuscript by Monsieur X. In the manuscript, Monsieur X. documents his growing obsession and desire for women that is eventually sated by his photography. Monsieur X. knows no bounds, and finds himself approaching women on the street with his offer to photograph them nude, or t least dishabille. The narrator admits his offers are rebuffed more than accepted; nevertheless, for those who accept, it is an opportunity to play out fantasies. We, the viewers, stand behind the voyeur who experiences his obsession through the eye of the camera.
The bookend to my experience of Wilke's INTRA-VENUS exhibition came ten years later through a performance by Marina Abramovic titled The House with the Garden View at Sean Kelly Gallery. (November 15 - November 26, 2002). As a performer, Abramovic depends on public participation, not only as observers, but sometimes to actively intercede on her behalf -- in Rythmn 5, 1975, for example, she passed out and could have been burned had the audience not carried her away from the flames.
The House with the Garden View, was a twelve-day incarceration and fast. She established the rules: no eating, no talking and no reading; she could drink mineral water and sing; she could take three showers but sleep only seven hours in each 24 hour period. In another gallery was an oblong box where volunteers were recruited to lie in for one hour throughout the twelve days.
As I visited the gallery several times during the performance, I was struck by the engagement of the audience, the hushed tones and the spiritual ambience of the room, even when the artist engaged in the mundane activities of using the toilet or showering. Abramovic's performance transformed the gallery from a place of business to a sacred locale.
On the eighth day of Abramovic's fast, I participated in the performance by donning a purple magnetized suit and wearing earphones and eye shields to block noise and sight. I lay in the box, thinking mostly about the person in the next room who was deprived of any and all of the activities that make up a normal day: no eating, social interaction, reading, traveling, walking, television. For her, time stretched on with the viewers/voyeurs her only diversion. I was struck by her elasticity of time. I seemed to hover outside my body. I've thought a lot about it since. I was part of her performance. She had called upon me to be a witness.
This changing of perception by manipulation of the viewers' experience is at the theoretical heart of this exhibition. Consider Nicholas Bourriaud's theory of relational aesthetics and his ideas on the "criterion of coexistence" in which he suggests that artists must leave space for the viewer to complete the experience. Yet, these artists do more than simply create a physical space for their viewer. The work elicits a visceral response that both challenges conceptual art's historical analysis and eschews marketplace. Through performance, confrontation, self-exposure and revelation these artists draw us in, provoking an unexpected identification.
1. Katerine Dunn, Closed Contact, Jenny Saville, Glen Luchford, (Los Angeles: Gagosian Gallery, 2002) n.p.
2. Cecilia Andersson, David Leventhal XXXseries (Paris: Galerie Xippas, 2000) n.p.
3. Ibid, P.11
4. A conversation between the author and Davd Levinthal, December 17, 2002.
5. Amelia Jones, "INTRA-VENUS" and Hannah Wilke's Feminist Narcissism," from INTRA-VENUS (New York: Ronald Feldman Fine Art, 1995), p.4.
6. Sandra Goldman, "Gesture and 'The Regeneration of the Universe,' from Hannah Wilke, A Retrospective (Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center) p. 26.
7. All quotes by Carolee Scheemann came from a conversation between the author and the artist, December 19, 2002.
8.Carol Irving, "Sim-training for Sim Collectors: A Collector's ISP (Intensive Supervision Program) (Hamburg: Aussendienst, 2002) p. 300.
10. Carol Irving, Artist Statement -- The Truth Series, 2002.
11. Susan Sontag, "Where the Stress Falls: The Novel as Self-Portrait," (The New Yorker, June 18th & 25th, 2001), p. 152.