The premise initially seems a little far-flung, indulgent, like an obsessive collector pursuing her esoteric whims down increasingly subterranean trails. There is an inability to cohere politely. The works in Bloodflames III, like the freaky figures in Balthus’ The Street (1923, on view twelve blocks north at the Guggenheim), seem held together by space alone, each suspended mid-gesture, at maximum tension, as they are propelled towards their individual, doom-laden, historical trajectories.
The artist-curator, Nick Mauss, is well aware of the way that institutional framing can render weird art palatable, through the earnest invocation of ‘marginal histories’. In many of these cases, an artist’s work, rescued from obscurity, is designated a very circumscribed form of visibility. In the flat, white space of an exhibition format, their ambivalences get overlooked (for example, the evilness of Charles Henri Ford at Beyond Bridges, 2007). They can get morally misplaced.
Mauss conjures a stylish mess that deflects the imposition of a virtuous reading. The mess has the effect of rendering ineffectual the familiar labels associated with individual works, labels which are usually verified by a group show context. Flouting the correct terms (research-based, queer, post-colonial, neo-conceptual, decorative) before the works in question now begins to feel like an insensitive mistreatment.
The fat reader that accompanies the exhibition offers some better words, for example, the brilliant ‘sapphic modernity’. In the essay “Losing Feelings” by Jasmine Rault, sapphic modernity is defined as the confluence of aesthetic modernity and female nonheterosexuality in the Paris-New York avant-garde social sphere prior to Radclyffe Hall’s infamous obscenity trials, and consequently the establishment of a public lesbian identity. Rault writes that “[Eyre de Lanux and Evelyn Wyld] insisted […] on the irreducibility, complexity, or queerness of interiority–a sense of inside (human and physical) that could not be so simply communicated by the emerging modern lesbian identity nor by the increasingly standardized interiors coming to be identified as official modern architecture and design.” Against tiresome, proscribed categories, Sapphic Modernity sets the mood for the rest of the exhibition.
Setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition, sapphic modernity is utilized, not nostalgically, but tactically, to uphold queer and weird histories on their own terms, through means of a very precisely firm, entirely intimate, sensibility of style.
Here Lutz Bacher’s pink neon tribute is not allowed the space, the isolation, to promulgate the crass, one-liner reading it may have espoused on its own. It is made too infectious. It beams and beams from its prominent corner, tainting a violent pink the cocked-hip Nymphenberg ceramic with whom it performs a cold flirtation, a duet in bitchiness; it also penetrates across the balcony, casting its synthetic blush onto Louise Lawler’s vacuous record picture, and down below, onto Evelyn Wyld’s tufted taupe rug on its monstrous, wonky black pedestal.
If it starts to feel excessive, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s extraneous. Although one might begin to point a finger at Friedrich Kiesler (1890-1965), the minute German architect, artist, designer, and theoretician to whom this exhibition owes its title. Kiesler is one of many predecessors to this exhibition’s ideology. In Bloodflames III it is obviously someone else’s sensibility behind the screen, tweaking this and that beloved treasure into sumptuous discord. That each work is placed so intentionally seems to assert that even excess is a stylistic device. We begin to find ourselves in the realm of ‘Vision’, as belonging to a (Fashion) Designer, whose aesthetic motives transcend rational explanation, whose Vision can only be described tangentially, through Myth and Histrionics. ‘Tout Terriblement.’
Towards the entrance of the gallery is a dream narrative, a castration fantasy experienced by the artist Rainer Ganahl, involving the late gallerist Colin de Land. In the dream, de Land dives repeatedly at Ganahl’s testicles (Eier), causing Ganahl to scream, “Isn’t it enough that I fucking have to see you self-destroy yourself and now, you want to drag me down with you!” Hung here, the work summons a vertigo-inducing sense of displacement in Alex Zachary Gallery, a gallery space that appears to retain a hint of its own hedonistic-kinky past. Where are we again and what year is it? What is new? What is old? Who do I know?
The dream is part of Ganahl’s series Das Zahlen der letzten Tage der Sigmund Freud Banknote [Counting of the last days of the Sigmund Freud banknote], a body of work consisting of dreams he recorded between the August 2001 and February 2002, when the Austrian Schilling banknote was replaced by the Euro. The works consist of a typed out dream printed onto the same page that held Ganahl’s original scribbles he made immediately after experiencing the dream. To this page, a 50 ATS banknote (imprinted with the stern face of Sigmund Freud) was attached. Other information printed onto this page include of the value of the 50 Austrian Schilling (ATS) banknote, its converted value in relation to other major currencies, the stock index data for Dow Jones and Nasdaq, and the amount of books on Sigmund Freud that were offered on Amazon.com and Buecher.de at that same time. Ganahl took pains to transcribe his dreams as objectively as possible, and contextualized them occasionally with a few details relating to his waking life.
Their initial premise is that of a neo-conceptual serial exercise, reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s ‘Following Piece’, but then they are barely anchored to this format. They are explosive works, equipped with a surplus of facts (related but hardly, bordering on paranoiac), that cluster around the dream like so many jangly embellishments. Hysteria, tabulated in stock market plummets, in the changing values of currencies marking the accelerated rate at which global power shifted in that time, in the sleepy jabs at the paper, in the dreams themselves providing a ruthless, hilarious counter-narrative to the waking experience of the New-York–International-art-world-social constellation, along with the events of September 11 and its aftermath. They draw on our collective anxieties, precipitate them, and yet somehow accomplish this with innocence. They are a sagacious product, with an unsavvy bleed.
Writes Ganahl, “dreams are made of decoy materials that render libidinal energies and vibrations promiscuous and versatile. We often see alliances in dreams that would be made impossible but desirable or are abject and unthinkable in real life. Dreams flow in liquids that are as fluid as money.” These Freud-faced Schillings are scattered throughout the exhibition. They float in between works, like so many bill-butterflies escaped from the Raoul-Dufy-for-Bianchini-Ferieri purse.
Emanating from the low-ceilinged playroom downstairs is a cloying theme song, oft repeated, setting the tone to Lucas Duwenhogger’s mesmerizing film From Cotton via Velvet to Tragedy, (1991). The film opens onto Arturo Pellegrino (played by the artist), an invalid or hypochondriac fashion designer wasting away in a color-saturated padded bedchamber in the Proustian tradition. Responding to a disembodied voice, the first of several persistent visits from the celebrity interviewer Barbara Lee Diamondstein, Arturo Pellegrino takes the opportunity to ramble about his interest in gardening, his love of the Orient, his philosophy of Quality, his homosexuality, his hatred of periwinkle and normality, etc. Most of his lines are direct quotes from Karl Lagerfeld. As the interview progresses, Pellegrino becomes increasingly suspicious of the attentions of his interviewer. He believes that Barbara Lee wants him dead, like an opera singer. She wants him to die of AIDS. In his desperation to be released from the situation, he places a message in a bottle, and throws it into the ocean, hoping to find a companion who will blow up the Statue of Liberty with him. After five years, no one responds and Pellegrino is distraught. After another five years, he makes an appearance at an AIDS benefit sponsored by Vogue.
In the wake of Jack Smith’s death (1989) and the AIDS crisis, Duwenhogger’s film proposes a masochistic indictment of this gay culture with which he so lavishly identifies. The Tragedy in the film becomes the supremely compromised result of his attempt at a radical revolt, to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Instead, Pellegrino finds himself a bobbing head in an AIDS fashion charity, a pathetic acquiescence to a system that understands and capitalizes on his fears.
Like Duwenhogger’s film, Bloodflames III is simultaneously effervescent and draining. It is unfortunate that there is no divan nearby where one can rest one’s brain. But one begins to feel that the role taste plays in manipulating feelings has never been felt so acutely in space. That empathy is built on the luxury of time, sensitivity to object surfaces, that for a fleeting moment in the gallery, one floats above life, buoyed by edible foams.