“I could live with you in another world
…Not this one”
–Richard Hell & The Voidoids, “Another World”
Underneath the 1980s nostalgia of Netflix’s drama Stranger Things, the sleepy Midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana becomes a porous portal into an alternate dimension that the kids on the show call “The Upside Down.” The Upside Down looks deceivingly like our world only devoid of color and people, and, oh yeah, there’s also a monster. With long sinewy strands hanging all over the uncannily familiar locales, the Upside Down exists in parallel to the “real” world while acting as a dystopian reflection of it. Dustin, one of the young boys on the show, compares it to the Vale of Shadows in Dungeons and Dragons, which is described as “a dimension that is a dark reflection, or echo, of our world. It is a place of decay and death, a plane out of phase, a place of monsters. It is right next to you and you do not even see it.”
From the Upside Down to DC Comics’s Bizarro World to, of course, Twin Peaks’s Black Lodge, fictionalized alternate dimensions, at once, present a nightmarish vision and showcase the fragile construction of our own, shaking the foundations of our perceived and conceived reality. Of course, these alternate dimensions are not all horror-ridden dystopias; there can also be utopias. For every Black Lodge, there is a White Lodge, you know.
I couldn’t help but think of these upside-down zones when walking through PPOW Gallery’s current exhibition Visual Notes For An Upside-Down World. Curated by Jack McGrath, the show takes inspiration from inversions of all sorts: “contraposition, rotation or radical reversal…vertiginous dislocation, perverse twist or dizzying shift,” as the press release states.
Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of most exhibitions lately, McGrath connects the notion of the world turned upside-down to our own circus-like political state, beginning his catalogue essay with an invocation of the symbolic distress of an upside-down flag. “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood,” writes Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, quoted by McGrath in the catalogue. The quote undoubtedly rings true in our era of fake news. However, with this reference, McGrath seems to, in part, align the political resonance of the work in the show with Debord and the Situationist International. But, it’s no longer 1968 and I don’t think aesthetic revolutions work (Do you?).
Which is why the most captivating inclusions in the exhibition seemed to, like the pop cultural alternate dimensions mentioned above, cast away the normative workings of our world. No less political, though certainly, perhaps, less practical, art can make visual other possibilities of bodies, places and existences.
Visual Notes For An Upside-Down World is admittedly chock-full of work. This overhanging might normally be a problem, but it did offer viewers numerous points of entry. McGrath provides viewers copious opportunities to run with the upside-down theme from inversions of the typical world order to quite literally “inverts” as seen in Alice Austen’s photographs, including a downright fun photograph from 1891 of women in drag.
With gasps, moans and loud breaths echoing from a back room, the dominant piece in the exhibition is Carlos Motta’s video Inverted World. The video begins with shots of the artist’s hands and legs being tied up by bondage artists Stefano LaForgia and Andrea Ropes, who sport leather-bound harnesses. Finally hoisting him up in the air by the ropes, Motta hangs upside-down, as if crucified, in the chapel at Tenuta Dello Scompiglio in Lucca, Italy.
Juxtaposing his body with the chubby angels all over the chapel’s fresco, Motta showcases the homoeroticism that is already latent in biblical, and particularly Catholic, imagery. I mean, there’s a reason William S. Burroughs referred to Jimmy DeSana’s Submission series as “Catholic.” Recalling the suffering body of classical painting, as well as the pleasures found in BDSM clubs like The Mineshaft or The Anvil, Motta’s video lays out a surreal image of inversion–an inversion of his body, the divisions between pleasure and pain, and the boundaries of the sacred and profane.
“Is it a dream or a nightmare?” writes Jack McGrath in his catalogue essay “Curatorial Notes For An Upside-Down World.” And as Motta’s work reveals, the upside-down world can provide both. By upending the normal course of binaries, sanctioned pleasures and logical forces, some of the works in the show create a fantastical otherworld where laws of nature, bodies and pleasures collide.
In Stranger Things, the kids’ teacher Mr. Clarke, when explaining alternate universes, refers to Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation, which theorizes that “parallel universes” exist that are “just like our world, but infinite variations of it.” Many of the works in Visual Notes For An Upside-Down World offer a glimpse at these variations, in particular the infinite possibilities of bodies.
Works like Pierre Molinier’s photograph Ossipago se cache (“Ossipago Lies”), depicting a multiple-limbed mannequin-like form, and Hans Bellmer’s perpetually creepy La Poupée (Le Torse) [“The Doll” (“The Torso”)] create a humanoid form that is, at once, hypersexualized and monstrous. They both are a tribute to the body as inherently malleable, mutable and always already morphing.
Like Bellmer and Molinier’s photographs, the body, in the exhibition, is often in a state of flux–flipping, twisting and reversing. Hung in a corner, Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture Femme levitates in midair, unrestricted by the force of gravity, while Paul Mpagi Sepuya fractures bodies into disparate limbs, flesh and mirrors.
Beyond just the loosening of the boundaries of bodies, other inclusions trouble the distinction between the inside and the outside, as well as nature. Like the terrifying hellscape of the Upside Down, Martha Rosler’s Patio View gives viewers a front row seat to the end of times as an idyllic American front porch with two chairs looks out onto a war-torn zone, crawling with tanks and destruction. By forcing viewers to confront what our military industrial system can provoke overseas as we’re drinking sweet tea on the front porch, Rosler shows that these parallel dimensions don’t have to be sci-fi fictions–they can just take place away from our insular American perspective.
Hugh Hayden’s Mortgage similarly confronts the home-dependent American dream. Looking like something straight out of Twin Peaks, Mortgage resembles a suburban track home if nature took its revenge. Tree branches jut out from the wall-mounted siding, while a mirror, jarringly, takes the place of a window. Made out of Christmas trees, Hayden’s piece turns middle American seasonal bliss on its head, making it a nightmarish return to nature–the revolt of the trees in the face of consumption.
It also looks like a portal opening up to another world. The puncturing of the trees is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s notion of punctum. In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes, “…this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument…punctum.”
“For punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole–and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me),” reflects Barthes. Like Barthes explanation of punctum, two selections from David Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series (for Marion Scemama), which hang next to Hayden’s Mortgage, depict the punctum, both literally as a “little hole” and figuratively as a piercing. Both works feature circular images of sex puncturing both natural and man-made environments. With inverted black-and-white coloring, one of the works features a forest with a circular depiction of a nude man tossing another’s salad. By placing the socially determined “unnatural” within these settings, Wojnarowicz refuses the hidden, secret or closeted, preferring to spread same-sex desire throughout these environments.
In these two works, the punctum–or prick *wink wink nudge nudge*–denotes the possibility of a transformative yet momentary act, a short-lived experience of an alternate world or queer utopia found within the skin of another. This transcendent nature of sexuality is certainly nothing new to Wojnarowicz, who famously wrote, “When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending… If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”
The Sex Series (for Marion Scemama) is a radical reclamation of space, as well as a utopian vision. In “Curatorial Notes For An Upside-Down Exhibition,” McGrath divulges that the trope of the upside-down world “is closely associated with the Rabelasian fairgrounds of medieval Europe, in whose hierarchical reversals Mikhail Bakhtin caught a glimpse of utopia.”
Utopia can perhaps be seen most clearly in Jacolby Satterwhite’s video Reifying Desire 3: The Immaculate Conception of Doubting Thomas. The video presents a romp through an alternate Afro-futurist animated dimension. The video begins with a group of figures poking and prodding a glowing part of a body. Satterwhite then takes viewers into the body, through a surreal world of club music, voguing, and renderings of objects drawn by the artist’s mother. With cosmic penises and multiple Satterwhites dancing throughout the film, it’s an on-point depiction of José Esteban Muñoz’s understanding of queer utopia if I’ve ever seen one.
In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz observes, “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” In Satterwhite’s video, as in many of the works in the exhibition, this then and there is visible. As Muñoz continues,“Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world and ultimately new worlds” (1).