I have to start with the tongue. Protruding from the wall of one of ACE’s broom-closet side galleries, Teresa Margolles’ Tongue first appears to be one of the art world’s plethora of oral casting sculptures, differentiated only by the stainless-steel ball piercing it. But, oh them text panels! It turns out the tongue was cut from the corpse of a teenage Mexican junkie in exchange for money for his family to buy the rest of him a coffin, then forensically preserved to be presented as a work of art. Difficult. As a longtime fan of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (a collection of medical anomalies), I’m not particularly shocked by the aestheticization of leftover body parts. But the queasy politics of the negotiation that brings a poor Mexican child’s pickled organ into a rich, white, home-decoration showroom is . . . difficult.
Which is, of course, the entire meaning of the work. Margolles, a street-wise native of Mexico’s slums, specializes in works that incorporate parts of murder victims, though Tongue is the only piece ACE has been able to import so far. When actually shocked by art, it’s best to get some distance before making any pronouncements, so I’ll pause to look at a body of work that also relies on its power to disturb — in at least as visceral a manner, ultimately.
By any reasonable criteria, I should hate the work of Adrian Piper — it’s formally sparse, politically didactic, almost militantly rationalistic, and made by someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Having gained fame at a very young age in the early ’70s, Piper has gone on to produce increasingly confrontational and politically specific multimedia work, culminating in such discomforting pieces as Cornered (1988), in which the black artist, unctuously authoritarian in her nice-lady costume, needles hypothetical white museum-goers about their statistically probable octoroon status. Elsewhere, Piper viciously satirizes the defensive inner voice of the uncomfortable bourgeois viewer, embedding images chosen for their racial and political import in a soundtrack swirl of cliché-ridden liberal cocktail chatter. (“Don’t I see enough of this in real life? Art is supposed to be uplifting!”)
The effect of Piper’s twisting of the institutional questionnaire and voicing of stereotyped defensive rationalizations is to trigger scrutiny by the viewer of whatever rationalizations arise within the viewer. From “I’m Canadian, we don’t have racism” to “Wait a minute — I’m black!” all strategies of avoidance, watertight as their internal logic may be, are called into question. Much of the discomfort results from the deliberate, even formalist use of mammalian fear triggers, most notably eye contact. Interesting and important as the ideas expressed in the verbal content of the work may be, the real meaning — and place of artistic action — in her work lies in Piper’s familiarity with, and articulation of, the almost sculptural space defined by the immediacy of the art experience and in the potential for the expansion of our models of reality during states of acute self-consciousness.
Several works exemplifying this approach are on view in MOCA’s “MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper’s Videos, Installations, Performances and Soundworks, 1968–1992” (in spite of its abominable sound design, a rewarding cross section of the artist’s electronic works). Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma, which curdles the tidy pedantics of audio-tour museology just enough, is a standout. The monumental What It’s Like, What It Is #3 (1991) situates the viewer in the bleachers of an overlit white cube-cum-arena. From the four sides of a central rectangular column, a black talking head slowly rotates, facing out in turn from each of four monitors, reciting a litany of negation — “I am not lazy,” “I am not shiftless,” etc. — that sucks the otherwise unbreached institutional security from the room. Other works are less confrontational. The early sound works toy more directly with the audience’s perception of time. Some pieces, such as the dorky installation The Big Four-Oh (1988), get by on a highly idiosyncratic poeticism, while the 1983 video Funk Lessons, in which Piper instructs a mostly white crowd of UC Berkeley students in the theory and practice of booty shaking, is both disarming and revelatory, pointing to the underlying corporeality of her oeuvre.
The bottom line in Piper’s art is its physicality. The relentless shaming in her “pseudo-rationalization mimicry” pieces is not about communicating the idea that your inner chatter is preventing you from experiencing the work directly, but rather it uses shame’s ability to arrest the mind and awaken the endocrine system into a heightened state of self-awareness. The artist deliberately invokes an analogue of the brain-freezing immediacy of great art, so that while she does take the opportunity to plant some sociopolitical evolutionary depth charges, the main lesson is How To Look at Art.
Although it’s difficult for me to share Piper’s faith in the power of humanity’s rational resources to save the species, her work exemplifies what riches of humor, complexity and spirituality a rigorous and academically unfashionable intellect can offer in the form of art. At the same time, she shows just how high the bar has been raised to make academic illustrators and pseudo-conceptual mannerists accountable for their lousy art and lousy thinking. Most of what passes for “conceptual” these days is watered-down pap, rooted neither in a wide-ranging interdisciplinary curiosity about the science and humanities nor in a familiarity with traditional art theory and practice. Instead, it apes those stylistic cues that most reliably evoke the intellectual intimidation attributed (usually mistakenly) to earlier “conceptual art.”
But not always. I’ve followed China Adams’ peculiar career since she was snatched by ACE from UCLA’s undergraduate program on the basis of her auto-cannibalism piece, where she ate a cubic millimeter of her own flesh in front of a notary and displayed the resulting document. If I recall correctly, Adams insisted that the work was not about sensationalism, but rather an investigation of the crossing over between categories of noncannibal and cannibal. While her subsequent shows have occasionally explored some very odd byways — who can forget the roomful of tape loops of Adams working as ã a phone-sex operator (“Say you’re Picasso, baby! Oh my panties are so wet! Tell me about Cubism!”) displayed with the wonky geometric canvas forms she sewed while talking to her telephonic johns — they’ve been generally redeemed by their humor, sensuality and surprise.
This holds true for Adams’ latest project, Blood Consumption. Opening simultaneously with several interesting shows (including Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film, which I’ll hold off on until the Center for Land Use Interpretation unveils its new exhibit about earthworks and entropy), Adams’ new work stands out immediately as practically the only dose of color in a museum-size space full of outsize black-and-white photos and monstrous off-white paintings. Warm-toned 5-foot-high head shots of nine of Adams’ friends gaze benignly out at the viewer, creating a mildly disturbing mix of cozy intimacy and animal alertness. On closer inspection, each portrait is accompanied by a drinking glass coated with a brownish scum, and a notarized statement that Adams subsisted for an entire day on the subject’s blood. The bleedings were carefully orchestrated, so that Adams went nine days straight on her plasmic diet, thus qualifying her as a vampire. As usual, Adams’ work is a little too vulgar and funny to fit in with contemporary faux conceptualism, and is rendered impure by weird filigrees. The notary testimonials, for example, are completely deadpan, except one. After drinking the blood of Joe Daniel on September 21 last year, Adams noted in the third person, “It is without hesitation that she confirms experiencing a heightened sense of élan coupled with a dynamic sense of vivacity.” Flirting with the tabloid fodder of teen goth vampire cults that surfaced a couple of years ago, Adams nevertheless again denies sensationalist motives, emphasizing instead “the fulfillment of unsexualized love” implicit in the act. Whatever. The work is strong enough to make an impression even if you’re not grossed out.
Which brings us back to the tongue.
It’s not much to look at, but it makes you think. What are the differences of attitude in Mexican culture regarding the sanctity of remains? What is the attitude of Mexicans toward bodily sacrifice on the pyramid of economic inequity? Does the sanctity of the pristine American art institution cover such extreme dislocations? If not, then why does that of the (open to the general public) Mütter? Most goth art is sort of annoying in its finicky depiction of cartoonish horrors — some geek laboring over a drawing board while “The Compleat Hellraiser Saga” spools on auto replay is my idea of everlasting torment. At least Margolles is operating in the world her work describes, edging one step in over-the-top theatrical Catholicism toward the nonconsensual third-party bodyworks of Manson et al. Ultimately lacking the subtlety of Piper’s manipulations of the complicities and denials that well up in response to provocation, Tongue seems flat and binary by comparison — it either works or it doesn’t, leaving only a few marginally interesting ethical questions in the wake of its initial charge. But I can’t say it didn’t move me, and I’ll be curious to see a full show if ACE director Doug Chrismas can manage to convince the Border Patrol that NAFTA covers this kind of thing.
On Saturday, October 14, at 2 p.m., in MOCA’s Ahmanson Auditorium, Adrian Piper will deliver a talk explaining her concept of the “indexical present” and revealing her artwork’s secret meaning in the context of Ashtanga yoga. $10. Reservations required; for information, call (213) 626-6828.
MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper’s Videos, Installations, Performances and Soundworks, 1968–1992 | Museum of
Contemporary Art at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., Downtown | Through November 5
TERESA MARGOLLES’ TONGUE; CHINA ADAMS’ BLOOD CONSUMPTION; OTHERS | ACE Gallery Los Angeles, 5514 Wilshire Blvd.