Blowing on a Hairy Shoulder / Grief Hunters

BLOWING ON A HAIRY SHOULDER / GRIEF HUNTERS, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, September 7–December 4, 2011
Date: January, 2012 | Publisher: Art Papers

Israeli artist, theorist, and curator Doron Rabina used his latest curatorial project, Blowing on a Hairy Shoulder / Grief Hunters, to revisit the strained relationship between two heavily debated concepts in the history of art: origin and originality. This is a perennially relevant topic; any maker of self-conscious, contemporary art must contend with problems of antecedent, historical debt, novelty, influence, and repetition. Acting as a filter, and thereby preventing the broad implications of these themes from getting out of hand, the show’s puzzling title poetically outlines Rabina’s thesis. In an interview recorded for ICA, he explains that it refers to the “semi-erotic… body as the first origin” and his belief that what compels artists, and acts of creativity in general, is “a kind of rebellion against death as the end, against the meaningless end of this life.”

Mignon Nixon’s psychoanalytic art history, exemplified by her treatment of Louise Bourgeois’ formless sculpture in the book Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, 2005, also thematically relies on the body, mortality, and creativity. Nixon casts Bourgeois’ work as a quest “to retrieve a primal origin,” asking the unanswerable: “What is it like to be at the very beginning of sculpture? of subjectivity?” These questions are widely played out across the exhibition’s video, drawing, and photography.

Popular shorthand for ancient times and prehistory, monuments and bones recur in the show. In Tamir Lichtenburg’s concise photograph Spirala, 2011, a white spiral bookbinder is an analogue for preserved bones. The missing book is as important as the fossil, pointing to our lost origins in language. Uri Nir’s Sphinx, 2006, recreates the Egyptian tomb’s form—an early sculpture—using a single, vulnerable human body, emphasizing a near-impossible struggle with history. In Yochai Avrahami’s digital c-print Untitled, 2009, the exposed spinal column of a horned animal cuts diagonally across open scrubland, its curved, pale ribcage formally mirrored by the fan of white plastic slats on a garden chair. Avrahami is known for documenting the Israeli-Palestine conflict. This endows the piece with a layer of unresolved religious and political violence, which continues in nearby works and speaks to the aggressive, “shadowy death instinct” that Nixon—drawing upon Melanie Klein’s psychoanalysis—places at the heart of human, and artistic, development.

Mark Manders’ Figure with Thin White Rope, 2007–2008, is a nearly life sized, brown-gray ceramic model of a woman lying on her back, hips angled up. Bent, one of her legs is hooked by a severe-looking, iron-and-string contraption: an instrument of torture or support? The sculpture is unsettling as it reimagines ancient creation myths premised upon the emergence of human bodies from the Earth’s clay. While the figure’s hips, face, and feet are carefully molded, its arms are missing. Its breasts and genitals have been smoothed into nonexistence. Figure with Thin White Rope recalls Marina Núñez’s 1990s portraits of dehumanized women in old-fashioned mental asylums, cropped at the groin or the shoulders. Tackling injury more explicitly, Lior Waterman and Amit Levinger’s video Plasma, 2008, cuts between a sentimental musical performance and a visibly-moved woman watching television, who is suddenly hit by an object hurtling through her window.

While Rabina views death and destruction as definitive ends against which creative practice protests, Nixon suggests that origins and endings fold into each other. Gilad Ratman’s large-scale The 588 Project, 2009, is a two-channel video projection of a performed version of the usually private, therapeutic practice of mud-pool submersion. Gelatinous, gray, bubbling mud coats the bathers, who are reduced to amoeba-like obscurity, their heads disappearing beneath the primal soup as they breathe through plastic tubes. In another shot, liquid clay slides out of the orifices of suspended, wooden recorders, through which the air also forces haunting, discordant notes. Combined with the bathers’ aimless stillness, the thick sludge’s obliteration of signs of gender, personal identity, and even facial structure contributes to the feeling that we are witnessing an earlier form of life.

Contemporary Jewish identity features explicitly in several works, such as Asaf Koriat’s tiny wall piece The Earth, the Sun, and the Moon, 2006, where Israeli coins are arranged into a model of the solar system. In Harel Lutz’s close-up photograph of an upturned hand, two blue ink marks bisect the major, wrinkled lifelines. The resulting shape is a Star of David, a symbol with an ambivalent history, here intimately mapped onto a palmist’s shorthand for individual fate, from birth to death. This recontextualization of the problem of origins, away from the Western modernist and postmodernist arguments familiar to American viewers and artists, is one of the show’s major strengths. Rabina’s selections dramatize a complex of personal, mythological, and politicized relationships between beginnings, endings, and fresh starts, frequently confronting the darker experiences from which much art emerges.