At the Russian Federation Pavilion in Venice, the American writer and artist Alice Bucknell’s film Swamp City imagines the Florida Everglades as a luxury nature resort for high-tech eco-tourism in a near future reality of severe climate disruption.
Technologies of the Self, Los Angeles
curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan
Words by Drew Zeiba
In 1966, following a visit to the skull-stacked catacombs of Sicily, the artist Paul Thek told an interviewer that, “It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers.”
At Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles, such flowers sprout: as rocks like mushroom caps in Thek’s 1969 Fish Tank, as candy-coloured wax blossoms shooting away from Tetsumi Kudo’s 1978 Mediation Between Memory and Future, as gaping, screaming mouth in a Lucas Samaras photo-transformation, as mossen greenery kept in a cage in Max Hooper Schneider’s Crisis Hotline, made last year. Curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan, the four-person show ‘Technologies of the Self’ is a catacomb of sorts, a room ‘decorated’ with coffins or chrysalises, depending on one’s perspective.
Nayssan cites Michel Foucault’s definition of the exhibition’s titular phrase which described technologies of the self as methods or devices “which permit individuals to effect by their own means a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls so as to transform themselves.” This exhibition asks how art might be one such technology, and how the frames we function in — images, galleries, bodies, belief systems — bear on the limits and potentials of such alterations.
Beginning in the 1960s, Thek created ‘Technological Reliquaries’, containers—generally terrarium-like, but occasionally semi-transparent pyramids or even a Brillo box — with latex body parts and other meaty things. Imagine Larry Bell meets David Croenberg. Nayssan’s included Untitled #73 from the series, a wall-mounted glass-and-metal box with a slab of beeswax flesh and a painted 73 atop, looking like the numbers on a sports jersey. Numbers are also seen on a 1982 work where red-painted newsprint is scrawled with ‘1 to 1’ in blue bubble script. It’s a suitable mathematics for the exhibition: what one-to-one relationship is here? Of the news to reality, of image to object, of us to another, of Thek’s image to himself?
The split oneness is a principal problem of representation. In trying to generate a presence of a thing or being in the world, the representation tends to only make present the gap between itself and the “original,” casting the notion of an original in doubt. A self-portrait then might be the ultimate technology of the self, a transformation that reproduces transformation’s limits. In Portrait of the Artist, Buddha in Paris (Médiation entre futur programme et mémoire enregistrée) (1976), Kudo fills a green birdcage with a third-eyed head sprouting four balls of yarn like thought bubbles. Two hands frame the head, as if intensifying it’s focus. An artificial bird rests on a hanging perch above, its egg below the face’s chin. This head, though seemingly liberating itself from the material realm through transcendent thought, is kept, its thoughts bundled up, stuck. Textiles explode in other yarn sculptures by Kudo. In To Kill is to Let Live, whirls of yarn drip and crawl out of a wall-mounted frame, descending onto the gallery floor. These explosions of colour and material share eerie resonance with the Fossil in Hiroshima series—imprints of leaves and other geologic and biological matter pressed to paper and day-glo spray-painted.
During our own moment of crisis, the conflation of nature and culture, and the obliteration of both, remains timely. So much so in fact that in New York this summer, Hauser and Wirth will be giving a large retrospective to Kudo, entitled ‘Metamorphosis’. The exhibition showcases his preoccupation with the interweaving of ecologies, humans, and technology, as well as the fraught tension between the individual and collective, and between Western individualism and the alienation and violence he saw such “humanist” ideologies breed. Many of the works will be rather literal containers. Bonjour et Bonne Nuit (1963) is a light cabinet is stacked atop a dark one, both open. In the lower box, colander-like metal balls dangle—some open like reliquaries revealing innards of wool and crucifixes and plasticky matter, masses between stone and flesh. Above it, a two-foot-tall blob that looks not unlike a baby’s scalp. Within a blue box, Your Portrait – F (also ‘63), textile cocoons obscure and reveal, some tightly wound and others broken free of. A butterfly flies away on the door. Along with the cocoons is an alarm clock, its consistency an almost oxymoronic reminder of the inevitability of change, that containers—be they belief systems, ecologies, sculptures, bodies, identities, nations, or, especially, time—can only hold so much.
While Samaras’s boxes—full of disparate objects like apples and eyeglasses and quartz and mirrors and pocket watches and polka dot utensils—are the obvious ‘containers’, a more uncanny vessel is that enduringly contemporary one, the photograph. In his manipulated Polaroids from the 1970s, hands hold a red face in a marbled field of ghostly grays and blues. A slender figure vibrates, not quite human, not quite monster, in a Kusama-like kitchen. Discolored faces scream, as if painted by Francis Bacon. By manipulating the physical media of the photograph, Samaras disrupted the instantaneous media’s claim on portraiture’s truth, revealing the fragility and falsehood of all frames of the self. Or perhaps there’s something more hopeful in claiming one’s power over an image: as Nayssan writes, “What also becomes evident throughout the practices of these four artists is that the container inevitably becomes a vessel for, if not a representation of, transformation.” So go all pictures.
The show’s youngest artist is Los Angeles–based Max Hooper Schneider. His containers range from the more literal—the above-mentioned Crisis Hotline, a neon-lit environment in a metal cage, or Shell, a burned dollhouse—the more abstract, such as a 2021 work on paper that looks something like a glitched, neon M.C. Escher, Library of Sickness. For Battle Vest, a glazed ceramic vest, populated with biker-style patches in relief, is suspended in a lightbox. This would-be functional object, a literal container for the body, is personalized, but then obscured: a gradient of purple-blue washes over the whole garment like stains and grime collected on an alien planet. The vest is pinned like a butterfly, as if emerged from one of Kudo’s cocoons. If this is self-transformation, one that has given this garment a sense of permanence in stoneware, where has the body that once contained that self gone? It’s fitting that Schneider has an obsession for exo-skeleton wearing critters, beings that are always abandoning their former shells once they’ve grown themselves a new body.
Another type of container: the book. For the exhibition, Jay Ezra created a double-vision catalogue, which unfolds into two halves which open again, allowing associations of images, texts, and quotations to be physically remixed. Function, and it’s not-quite-opposite. Lifeness and deathness. Representation and the real. Concept and material. The individual and the collective. The artists in this exhibition work between binaries, indicating them to point out how they are always already unsteady. Similarly, this book, designed by Benjamin Schwartz, in its doubling dissolves the normative function of reading or seeing by allowing multiple arrangements rather than single spreads or orderly progression. Quotes from the four artists appear throughout without citations directly on the page, punctuated by work images with labels similarly displaced. Reading takes work, joyful confusion. (For those who want more literal takes, Johannes Hoerning, researcher for the Marcel Duchamp Collection and Archive of Hong Kong’s M+ Museum contributed four essays. Sources and titles for all quotes and images can be found at the end, though Nayssan asks that readers try to make their way through a few times without them.)
The body, the screen, the gallery itself — we come to be and become through mediating containers. These artists in their objects and representations at once indicate our proximity and distance to their selves and our own. As Thek continued in the interview, “We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.” Whether as joy, promise, threat, or just inevitability, in re-mattering the self as things, these artists depict not permanence or endurance, but the inherent mutability of the self and its abstractions. In ‘Technologies of the Self’, we are invited to interrogate our boundaries and enact transformations, and to discover new, less limited beings.
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