Cornell’s student-curated exhibit captivates our cluttered minds
By Elliott Feedore
We are all programmed to be philistines. I mean this descriptively, not (necessarily) critically. It’s no coincidence that the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder is a recent “innovation”; culture has become increasingly caffeinated, and that is that. The concept of “taking in” a painting at a museum seems as antiquated as a corded telephone, and I can’t in good conscience rescue myself from that sizable glob of people who sometimes find themselves laboring over an exalted Renoir for 30 seconds–awaiting an instant epiphany, but only arriving at, “I wonder if I have any missed calls.” Even a landscape from the Hudson River School can be made to seem recondite if one’s mind’s eye is a flooded inbox.
I’m not saying that art–or my head–are empty. Aestheticism isn’t dead; it’s just buried from time to time. And, from time to time–for better or worse–art has to smack you right in your “Ooh! I want to touch!” reflex in order to emerge from under the mass-culture muck.
The student-curated multimedia exhibit Exquisite Corpus, which is running at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University until June 15, seems designed to satisfy our collective A.D.D. The name, the promotional material and much of the artwork suggest dismemberment, disembodiment and the like. According to the pamphlet, the visitor is to be reminded that “he or she has never been able to perceive his or her body in the way that it exists in the real world.” Ouch. The exhibit works not only on the (sometimes pitiably) “deep” level of its conceptual framework–which allows for a great diversity of pieces—but also on the down-and-dirty level of “Let me play!”
Art is interactive; the components that make that notion the most obvious are “Snap” and “Vote” (both by the Blue Couch Collaborative). The former provides a Polaroid camera and invites you to take a snapshot of a body part and then drop it into a box; the curators then pilfer from the box every few days and arrange the photos along the wall. Your body part, in essence, becomes part of a whole, but that whole is a Frankenstein patchwork of various individuals. “Vote” asks whether you are a.) a construction of molecules, or b.) a heart and soul in a bag of skin; you drop off your ballot in a transparent case.
Of course, there will always be respondents with desultory answers such as, “I am heart, soul, lollipops, sprinkles & rainbows.” (I can assure you that mine was lewder.) Such shenanigans only prove my theory that our attention spans have devolved to the level where all we can appreciate is fey snarkiness. But perhaps that’s the piece’s aim; the revelation is Cartesian in that it shows how detached the mind is from the body that stands before the artwork.
But this cynicism doesn’t do justice to the intellectual appeal that some of the pieces afford their viewers. One stark photograph of a woman rub-a-dub-dub masturbating in a tub (“Joey in My Bathtub,” Nan Goldin) strikes you, not merely because a supple-breasted woman is whacking off, but because the actual act is obscured by cloudy bathwater. Other pieces invoke the same spiritualistic message: there’s something beyond physical experience in our sensations. There’s another image of a woman pleasuring herself (“Sleeper 06,” Chloe Piene), but the subject matter is not so readily apparent: at first glance, the charcoal marks look like the spikes of a seismograph; it’s electrically erotic. On the other hand, two minimalist paintings by Frank Stella—a pentagon and a square situated at the bottom left-hand corner of their respective canvases–are the opposite of erotic. In fact, they’re entirely bland–until one notices that the compositions bear the names of people (Charlotte Tokayer and Hollis Frampton). They are far more revealing portraits than John Coplans’ fragmented photograph of himself (“Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 3, Two Panels)”)–and that’s not just because nobody should be treated to the image of a rotund 74-year-old’s privates, even if that is central to the idea.
There are film pieces, too. Vito Acconci’s “Conversions” features the artist tucking in his vitals in high-key black-and-white. It’s arty anti-porn on the theme of gender inversion, confusion and, ultimately,
unification. (It’s also not particularly original.) Of greater interest is Douglas Gordon’s “Over My Shoulder,” a video which features a fist punching the camera lens; in the final product, it seems as though the isolated appendage is trying to smash through the screen and out of its “fictional” confines–like the brain trying to escape the vat.
Of course Exquisite Corpus also includes such enervating standbys as Sherrie Levine’s “Black Mirror: 1.” Need I explain? This is how the pamphlet does: “As the spectator looks at the mirror he or she becomes a part of the work of art. The reflection, however, is not true. It is only a partial image of the body, reversed and distorted in color; while the viewer is a part of the piece, only a warped fraction of the viewer can be seen.” Ugh.
On the whole, however, Exquisite Corpus is capable of grabbing your attention (even if its span is as limited as mine) and literally pulling you into the art. Its appeal may be primitive–like a whack from Gordon’s knuckles–but the “cheap” lure is a justifiable reminder of how soothing a good art exhibit can be in a world that whirs by like a perpetual coke rush.
Elliott Feedore is a junior cinema and photography major. E-mail him at [email protected].