Late last month, I nearly passed out at a concert. My senses fuzzed blank, dominated by the earsplitting, hypnotic wrath of the droning cacophony erupting from the stage courtesy of Nordra, the solo project/assault of Zen Mother’s disarmingly petite in contrast to her aural fury, Monika Khot, who opened for Zola Jesus (whose band Khot also plays in). And when I say nearly passed out, I mean seconds away. My vision clouded over as I shakily stumbled to the bodily fluid-stained brown leather sofas placed near Le Poisson Rouge’s grubby gender-neutral bathrooms. If I waited any longer, leaning on a pole in the middle of the venue, I would have crumpled right to the ground in front of post-punk, noise, whatever-you-would-call-his-music icon JG Thirlwell whose presence I not-too-subtly took note of just before I fumbled my grip on consciousness. Embarrassing. It wasn’t the summer heat that did it to me; it was the utter relentlessness and maddening repetition of Nordra’s barrage. As I settled onto the sofa in a cold flop-sweat, I was not alone. A mother and young daughter sat across from me, the daughter with her fingers jammed in her ears. I get it, honey!
I bring up my harrowing almost collapse for a reason beyond soliciting sympathy. South Korean artist Mire Lee’s oozing sculptural kinetic carnage makes me feel the same way: lightheaded, nauseated, and, above all, in awe of her brutal aesthetic ruthlessness. Her current exhibition Black Sun at the New Museum is no exception, a steamy, sweltering quarantine tent, curtained by two layers of clear butcher shop vinyl. Inside reveals a humid, hostile alien planet surrounded by sopping clay-soaked fabric torn and draped from scaffolding, twisted entrail ropes, accumulations of womb-like pods, and sci-fi pistons pumping into slow churning pools of gunk. Hyperventilating through the overpowering wet dog smell of clay (a young girl, resembling the child at Le Poisson Rouge, trailed her large museum-going family while pinching her nose in visible dismay), reminding myself not to lock my knees was all I could do to try to prevent a hard tumble onto the grated floor.
Though her first solo exhibition in the United States, Black Sun is not the first time I’ve encountered Lee’s delightfully revolting creations. At the latest woefully and comically depressing Carnegie International at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, Lee’s inclusion stood apart from the collection of typical survey exhibition art: soulless installations with novel-length wall text, decolonizing video art, and pretty abstractions that, upon further reading, turn out to be about the horrors of American imperialism. Lee, in contrast, presented monumental, moving steel blades, entangled in blood-and-fat-filled pumps, that carved and masticated pink and red resin innards. These shards of sloppy viscera flopped around the metal blades into a soupy run-off slick of silicone oil sick. Entitled Untitled (My Pittsburgh sculpture), it was as if the U.S. Steel Building became not only sentient but ravenous, laying bare the violent history of industrialization and capitalism’s insatiable devouring of workers as raw meat. Eat your heart out, Upton Sinclair!
Curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Madeline Weisburg, Black Sun is undoubtedly less of a blood-soaked slasher massacre, but that doesn’t mean it is any less distressingly suggestive of the body. In fact, the exhibition may be even more abject with its various shades of shit-like clay and tangled fabric dangling from the ceiling like colons waiting to burst. The installation is broken down into several distinct sculptures, some more scatological than others. For instance, Black Sun: Horizontal sculpture features a pile driver-shaped spear positioned on the edge of a pool of clay within which gears and motors laboriously mix up the fecal-mimicking material. While Black Sun: Horizontal sculpture’s mechanics are imposing in their size and ambition, the small tub hidden in a corner of the installation space reveals a more pathetic and putrid vision. Black Sun: Asshole sculpture is a round yet malformed basin that looks as if a lung or some other unidentified organ was slapped to its sides. Like Black Sun: Horizontal sculpture, Black Sun: Asshole sculpture is hooked up to liquid-pumping machinery and yet, this is not the shock-and-awe splatter of violent diarrhea. Instead, Black Sun: Asshole sculpture burbles and bubbles, slowly slopping out like a wet fart.
Peering into the center of Black Sun: Asshole sculpture, I was reminded of the previous exhibition at the New Museum, Wangechi Mutu’s Intertwined, namely her bronze basket fountain sculptures. These works such as Musa strike a jarring contrast with Lee’s Black Sun: Asshole sculpture. Though both are basins filled with liquid, Mutu’s Musa contains a gorgeous alien lizard lady, a terrifying yet alluring symbol of power like a yet-to-be-named goddess. Black Sun: Asshole sculpture reveals nothing but a watery poopy void. You know, like an anus.
In an interview with Artforum, Lee admits, “I thought about calling my exhibition at the New Museum ‘Assholes’ but decided that it was too direct.” I wish she had and not just because of the role model-worthy hilarity of naming a New Museum show Assholes. Instead, Black Sun is titled in reference to abjection enthusiast and theorist Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. The book is an unsurprisingly dense psychoanalysis-heavy text that also contains some strikingly poignant articulations of the experience of depression, which Kristeva calls a “black sun” (“Out of what eerie galaxy do its invisible, lethargic rays reach me, pinning me down to the ground, to my bed, compelling me to silence, to renunciation?”).
This is not to say that Lee’s nod to Kristeva is not accurate or appropriate. The slow-moving muck within Black Sun perfectly mirrors the bogged-down insurmountable monotone feel of anhedonia and the sluggish quicksand pull of depression, yanking sufferers down to earth or back to bed. Yet, more than the title itself since the phrase “black sun” also brings with it a host of other connotations, including Bataille’s solar anus and a more inappropriate interpretation of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” the insistence on naming the Kristeva reference directly in the wall text overdetermines the experience of the work. It places guardrails on understanding rather than letting viewers’ associations run wild in an installation that is thrillingly bursting with potential allusions and evocative formal juxtapositions. And I don’t count myself out of this critique either. I, like I assume every other critic, immediately googled “Kristeva Black Sun pdf” to speed-read and discover some particularly relevant quotes–or even pluck out quotes that aren’t relevant at all but are so profound that it’s impossible not to try to shove them in somehow. Take Kristeva’s notion of melancholy cannibalism (“Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed, digested…than lost”), which relates much more to Lee’s dually consumed/consuming works like Untitled (Pittsburgh sculpture). Even still, Cassie Packard plunks this quote into her Artforum article, which I, separately, also wrote down in my notes.
But to solely analyze Black Sun through Kristeva doesn’t adequately capture the full breadth of the oppressive and transportive experience of stepping into that sticky plastic, metal, and clay chamber within the museum as if you stumbled into a secret lab in Area 51. Nor does it give the satisfaction of playing associations games, to which I’m particularly partial. And it’s not without warrant. Black Sun’s extraterrestrial qualities are thoroughly cinematic, paying tribute to, in particular, Ridley Scott’s Alien (which I rewatched a few days ago inspired by Lee’s exhibition). The rotten clumps of ovules in Black Sun: Vertical sculpture resemble Facehugger eggs. The chains hoisting up various sculptures from the ceiling are reminiscent of the bizarre drippy chain-covered chamber within the spaceship, Nostromo, where Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett comes face to face with the xenomorph. It’s no surprise that Lee specifically names H.R. Giger as an influence.
Alien isn’t the only film that flickered into focus while hoping clay wasn’t spraying on my pants at the New Museum. With copious tentacle shapes, Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 berserk marital horror Possession also came to mind with Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and her illicit affair with the squid-like creature. Though Black Sun doesn’t feature the heightened camp hysterics of Possession, there is a definite conflation of both disgust and eroticism with so many leaky holes, udder-like breasts, and phallic pistons, as well as the implicit connections to BDSM and shibari with all those beckoning ropes and chains. Finally, the use of clay also recalls the constant reappearance of the clay wall that backed the hallucination-inducing snuff theater of David Cronenberg’s cautionary television tale, Videodrome.
Despite the otherworldly feel and futuristic film references buried within, Black Sun is quite paradoxically also grounded in the earth-bound: clay, dirt, shit, and abattoir aesthetics with several, what looks like, bleached cow bones (or branches) tied up in Black Sun: Vertical sculpture. Even Lee’s choice to expose the inner workings of the installation—all those peristaltic pumps, hoses, fans, and motors, both in and outside of the tent—reveals a fascination with tech at its most analog, conflating the machinic with our own digestion. The effective immediacy of her choice to ground her body horror in towering IRL sculptural intimidation becomes more apparent when compared with Sabrina Ratté’s video House of Skin, currently on view at Lyles & King’s group show Synthetic Bodies, which echoes many of Lee’s concerns in an animated format. In House of Skin, Ratté presents a parade—or death march—of indistinguishable flayed Francis Bacon-esque boneless meat blobs, often combined with silvery machinery, within a shimmering digital abyss. According to her website, these protein piles each relate to a different David Cronenberg movie, and yet, unlike Lee or Cronenberg himself with his bizarro prop constructions, they exist in a digital void separate from our own world. Though I found myself mesmerized by Ratté’s grotesqueries, the video didn’t make me feel the same primal aversion as Lee’s uncanny art.
This is also why I found a video that Lee made in collaboration with Sophie Soobramanien, which was placed in a corner outside of the Black Sun installation zone, an unnecessary tack-on. This video, entitled Black Sun: Holes and Other Horizontal Forms, features some of the process of creating the works within the installation, as well as a random assortment of heavily pixilated imagery, including, from what I can remember, close-ups of fish and other animals. For what it’s worth, the sea creature connection may not be all that off the mark. I scribbled down most of my notes about Lee’s installation while listening to Hyunhye Seo’s (otherwise known as Angela Seo in Xiu Xiu) experimental classical album, Eel, which has a similarly slimy and slithering composition of mostly scratchy feedback that feels right at home with the slippery environment in Black Sun.
Eel, like Nordra’s music, would also likely force me to flee, cotton-mouthed and swirly-eyed, to the far end of a concert venue (that being said, I’d still go). It’s electrifying that some of the most abrasive and uncompromising music is being created by women of color. Likewise, it’s not immaterial that the most skin-crawling, projectile vomit-inducing woozy artificial renderings of the human body at its most repulsive are being made by women of color too like Lee and King Cobra. Sure, white women have made art with unsettling bodily resonances since Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, both of whose work is recalled by Black Sun. Yet, there are additional layers of history, meaning, and subversion when the body horror comes from those long labeled as the Other. In particular, for Lee, Anne Anlin Cheng’s consideration of the long-held link forged between the “yellow woman” and ornament in her book Ornamentalism is particularly relevant here: “There are few figures who exemplify the beauty of abjectness more than the yellow woman, whose condition of objectification is often the very hope for any claims she might have to value or personhood. We thus cannot talk about yellow female flesh without also engaging a history of material-aesthetic productions. The yellow woman’s history is entwined with the production and fates of silk, ceramics, celluloid, machinery, and other forms of animated objectness.” Though Lee’s objects may be animated, they do not conform to an existence of ornament or beauty. Instead, with its hot, brown interior, with those ginormous pieces of skid-marked sheets affixed to the walls, Black Sun asks audiences to not just gaze into the rectal abyss but slip directly into a sweaty, unwiped asshole.