Back To Nature: In Praise Of Ambiguity In “no body to talk to”

Installation view of Narcissister’s Joshua Tree series (Lady with stone teeth) in “no body to talk to” (courtesy the artists and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

Nobody expects to be confronted by a cat’s butthole on the wall of a flower shop. But, that’s exactly the startling sight in a photograph by Res hung prominently in the hallway connecting the two sections of the lush greenery-filled flower shop at 89 Eldridge Street. The photograph Reaching (Butthole) features a cat’s ass on a rumpled bed, positioned directly to the camera, as a disembodied arm, stretching from beyond the frame, reaches out to pet the kitty’s fuzzy behind. It’s a scene that is, at once, familiar and strangely sweet (who hasn’t had a cat be too eager to turn their ass to your face), while also being unexpectedly uncomfortable, an anus proudly presented. Talk about a punctum. Eat your heart out, Roland Barthes!

Res, Reaching (Butthole), 2015, Archival pigment print (Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

However, the shock at finding this intimate picture inside a commercial establishment is not only relegated to Reaching (Butthole) alone. Res’s photograph is just one piece in a current pop-up exhibition entitled no body to talk to, which closes today, hosted by the space’s former tenant INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, who now exist as roving “vagabonds,” as their site states. Curated by Kaitlyn Mar, who previously worked at the gallery when it was located at 89 Eldridge, no body to talk to squirrels away works by seven artists between the flowers, behind plants, beside ceramic tchotchkes, and on shelves, bursting with Buddhas, vases and the ever-adorable maneki-nekos.

In so doing, the exhibition confuses the boundaries between artwork and the everyday contents of the flower shop. Who is to say that the intricate ceramic boat on display isn’t also fine art? Or the On Curating magazine someone plopped at the base of a lemon tree during the opening? These both look as readily, if not more identifiably, like art pieces in comparison to Sydney Shen’s Bone Apple Tea welcome mat, until you realize that chosen phrase comes from a viral meme’s garbled bastardization of bon appétit. Even the divisions between shop goer and viewer become confused–who is here to see art and who is here to pick up an orchid?

Installation view of Sydney Shen, Bone Apple Tea, 2016, Custom Welcome Mat (Courtesy of the artist and Kaitlyn Mar)

Somewhat unfortunately, it’s impossible to view no body to talk to, an exhibition that engages with a Chinatown shop, without thinking of the dumpster fire trainwreck that occurred across the street in 2017. Of course, I’m speaking of Omer Fast’s August, which is still one of the most mind-blowingly offensive displays I’ve ever experienced in art (and I’ve witnessed a lot). In August, Fast created a faux Chinatown storefront with every xenophobic stereotype of a lower income ethnic neighborhood that you can imagine: raggedy signs, dirty scattered boxes, plastic bags tied around door handles, and any number of detritus strewn across the sidewalk. Never mind the fact that no adjacent store looks like that mess. It was breathtaking in its unwillingness to even consider the response of the neighborhood (unsurprisingly it drew protests), while supposedly aiming to direct attention to gentrification and displacement.

In stark contrast, no body to talk to does what Fast didn’t, which is respectfully integrate art into the existing commercial environment. And in this, the exhibition is not so much an art show that has been air-dropped into a shop, but a collaboration with the space itself. The art and the locale seem to inform each other in equal parts, as the show works with the shop’s more bizarre quirks.

Vaginal Davis, Die Zauberflöte: Andreas Gursky, 2015, Ink, marker on receipt (Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

Take, for example, Vaginal Davis’s hilarious series of receipts, hidden among a salon-style hung wall of the store’s wonderfully and endearingly kitsch prints of Victorian women and French cafes. Here, Mar places Davis’s receipts, which the performer, artist and drag terrorist made in conjunction with her performance of The Magic Flute at NYU. Asked to keep a record of expenses for the production, Davis instead created these fake receipts from prominent white male art world figures for random and often lurid items, probably to the horror of the university’s accounting department. Sculptor Charles Ray needed a bucket of Sensodyne for $3000, gallerist Gavin Brown was desperate for some enamel semen sepositories [sic] grape-flavored, and my personal favorite, photographer Andreas Gursky bought a butt plug in platinum with apache fringe. Classy!

Now, alone, these works would be funny, cutting these overblown white male art world personalities down to size, making them ridiculous. But, together with the tacky art that looks as if it came from a thrift store bin, many with the price tags still prominently affixed to their frames, Davis’s work associates these blue chip bores, against their will, with the “low” form of art surrounding their names. I can just feel their collective horror.

Davis’s inclusions aren’t the only works that use humor to disarm their audience. geetha thurairajah’s dual what do you mean paintings take their inspiration from that crackpot History Channel show/meme generator Ancient Aliens. The paintings both have a brown color palette, and abstract, amorphous forms, resembling shadows, or perhaps alien beings, easily fading into the décor of the store. However, the corner of what do you mean 1 features a loosely rendered image of an egg fucking a chicken. Not only a demented twist on the chicken or the egg question, literally fucking with metaphors, it is also a reference to Ancient Aliens’s episode “The Cosmic Egg,” from which the known meme, which reads “Which came first the chicken or the egg? Aliens,” was derived. More than merely interjecting this tinfoil hat lunacy into a painting, thurairajah confuses the boundaries between painterly tradition and trashy throwaway viral digital culture, a culture that is full of coded language and imagery.

Installation view of “no body to talk to” (Courtesy Kaitlyn Mar)

thurairajah’s paintings, coupled with the other meme-related work, Shen’s Bone Apple Tea, which also includes a Chinese mistranslation of the already mistranslated phrase, reveals the exhibition’s most powerful overarching theme: linguistic and visual slippage, and incomprehensibility as a tactic of refusal. This can also be seen in the works that distort the separation between the body and the natural environment, including Brook Hsu’s Psyche 5, which alternately looks like a trapped butterfly pinned on the wall and a tangle of hair. Similarly, Narcissister’s startling Joshua Tree series (Lady with stone teeth), is placed between plants like an ancient undiscovered relic. In this photograph, Narcissister created a face out of twigs, rocks and soil, juxtaposing these earthy materials with a magazine clipping of a woman’s eyes. With the woman’s face seeming to emerge from the dirt, as well as the white teeth-like stones, Narcissister’s collage is reminiscent of David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Face in Dirt), his attempt to get beyond the, what he called, pre-invented world.

Of course, equating nature with the body is nothing new. Perhaps Joris-Karl Huysman did it the most arrestingly (and disturbingly) in his classic A Rebours in which the role model-worthy icon Des Esseintes transforms his house into a greenhouse with countless exotic plants like a jungle of decadence. With page after page of description, Huysman equates these plants with the diseased or diminishing body: “The men brought other and fresh varieties, in this case presenting the appearance of a fictitious skin marked by an imitation network of veins. Most of them, as if disfigured by syphilis or leprosy, displayed living patches of flesh, reddened by measles, roughened by eruptions; others shows the bright pink of a half-closed wound or the red brown of the crusts that form over a scar; others were as if scorched with cauteries blistered with burns; others again offered hairy surfaces eaten into holes by ulcers and excavated by chancres.” Never has nature felt more transgressive. This comparison was only to be taken up more recently by Perfume Genius in his song “Queen,” which casts spells of flowers blooming at feet and bodies “cracked, peeling” and “riddled with disease.”

Installation view of Jes Fan’s I think about Lam Qua everyday 2, 2019, Ceramics, Glass, Melanin, Silicone, Epoxy (Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

This abject conflation of the natural world with the body is seen most strikingly in Jes Fan’s I think about Lam Qua everyday 2. Positioned on a bed of fur on a shelf, flanked by numerous gewgaws, Fan’s sculpture is a web of ceramic that looks like both branches and a bundle of nerves. Set on top of this jumble is an oval tumor-like glass, flecked with a dark pigment. With its resonance with indiscernible bits of the body, as well as its funeral presentation, it reminded me immediately of the baby from David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

And just like that baby inspired jaw-dropping gawking, the title of Fan’s piece references the 19th century Chinese painter Lam Qua, who is best known for his portraits of patients with large tumors or growths jutting out of their faces or torsos, commissioned by an American missionary and doctor Peter Parker. Rather than evoking the colonizing gaze with beautiful renderings of disfigured and othered individuals, however, Fan’s work erases the legible and therefore objectified and exoticized body all together, confusing the boundaries between the animate and inanimate. The work also takes on increased meaning by the inclusion of melanin in the glass, which strips away the societal and cultural overdetermination of skin pigment. Rather than associating melanin strictly with bodies and colorism, it becomes an ambiguous medium, only identifiable by reading the exhibition’s checklist.

And at a time when all identity categories have become hashtags and othered bodies are transformed into consumable images typically by institutions looking to “woke wash” for both kudos points and to avoid actual social responsibility, this embrace of ambiguity in both Fan’s work and the show as a whole becomes an especially relevant technique. Overall, the art in no body to talk to turns toward illegibility as a means of refusal, where existing in a space of in-betweenness becomes a place for escape, disruption and subversion. The show’s press release begins with an explanation that the word “Chinese” was used in 17th and 18th century Europe as a stand-in for “something that is incomprehensible: a term based on their inability and unwillingness to understand such a vast but foreign empire.” But rather than reject this naive and lazy xenophobic association, or provide clear explanations to hard-headed audiences for their own entertainment, no body to talk to leans into incomprehensibility, blurring the lines between identity, language, and meaning between the flowers.

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