Art Review: Summer Exhibitions at the Wexner Center
At first blush, the three exhibitions currently on view at the Wexner Center can seem disparate and distinct. Jason Moran’s life-sized installations of legendary jazz venues operate on a scale far grander than Cecilia Vicuña’s modest and low tech precarios, while Barbara Hammer’s video installations and mixed-media works play on technological experimentation and exploration. These differences are only skin deep though. Spend time with all three exhibitions and you’ll see larger themes emerge in each; themes of mortality, impermanence, and the fragility of our bodies and our world.
Barbara Hammer: In This Body is perhaps the most explicit in addressing these concepts. The works on view present an unflinching look at aging, illness, and disease. Using x-rays, medical scans, film, and clinical breast models, Hammer shares her experience with cancer in a way that will be all too familiar to those who have navigated serious illness. It’s uncanny (and perhaps unnerving) to realize how well modern day medical imaging lends itself to abstraction. The sobering realization being that in spite of the intimate relationship we have with our bodies, there remains a great disconnect between what we experience in our bodies and what our bodies actually are. At a very real level, our bodies exist in a way that is both invisible and unknowable to us.
This disconnect is on full view in Evidentiary Bodies, a video installation that immerses viewers in a surreal portrayal of Hammer’s life with cancer. Superimposing images of brain scans and x-rays over the body of the artist makes visible that which is normally hidden. Close ups of the artist with eyes closed evoke the relaxed countenance of a death mask. In a particularly poignant section, a naked Hammer struggles blindly as the visual miasma of the disease winds past her unabated. The confusion and loss of control that Hammer presents is heartbreaking. This visual cacophony is then set to a mournful cello score that favors spare gravitas over maudlin exposition. If video is indeed the portraiture of the 21st-Century, then the frank and moving self-portrait that Evidentiary Bodies offers is likely to be the standard by which future works will be judged.
In Lo Precario/The Precarious, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña presents a slightly different perspective on fragility and the world our bodies inhabit. The exhibition presents over fifty of Vicuña’s delicate and intimate sculptures hung salon style along an entire wall of the gallery. The pieces themselves are constructed from the tiny, discarded detritus of life on earth; some man-made and some natural. The effect is not unlike a series of sketches or gesture drawings, but with a slightly surreal edge. While adept at recognizing and manipulating the formal qualities of these tiny sculptures (color, texture, shape, etc), Vicuña recognizes that they are much more than the sum of their parts. As she points out in “Arte Precario,” “An object is not an object, it is the witness to a relationship.” In that light, these precarios illustrate the relationship that one material has to another, as well as relationship those materials have to us.
Like Hammer, Vicuña shares an appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between life and death. She understands at a fundamental level that the two go hand in hand; that nothing is permanent, and that our efforts to craft or create permanence are illusory at best and counter-productive at worst. In a recent phone conversation with Richard Fletcher & Maria Joranko, Vicuña offers plastic as a an example of our misguided attempts to create permanence when she states, “It doesn’t become something else, degrade, or bio-degrade in the manner that everything else in this planet lives and dies. Therefore, it is an invasion from another planet from the dark side of our mind that doesn’t want to see that death is necessary for life to be renewed.” Contemplating Vicuña’s precarios through this lens of relationships and impermanence elevates the work to something much grander than their modest materials would suggest.
Jason Moran showcases the acclaimed musician’s visual art along with a selection of pieces and installations from such luminaries as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems. The centerpiece of the exhibition are the four life-sized recreations of historically significant jazz venues. Devoid of players, the sets ask that we consider the environments we create in, as well as the role the world we build plays in shaping our creative destinies.
Speaking of the spaces we create in, Stan Douglas’s video Landa-Kinshasa is epic in groove and execution. Imagining a fictional recording session from the legendary Columbia 30th Street studio of the ’70s, Douglas presents a group of 10 musicians who are positively locked in and working as one. (Look at what these dexterous and practiced and talented bodies can do!) The constant panning and relentless flow of the music lures viewers into a kind of hypnotic transcendence where five minutes can turn to 15 and 15 can turn to an hour.
Another notable inclusion to Jason Moran is the Carrie Mae Weems video installation Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me – A Story in 5 Parts. The video presents vignettes told through a series of characters, many portrayed by Weems herself. Taken in their totality, these episodes trace the relationship of African Americans and African American bodies to American history. In playing many of the roles, Weems makes explicit that the history that’s touched prior lives (and prior bodies) continues to impact her and our country to this day. It’s history not as a series of isolated events, but a history that lives on in the present we all inhabit. Not surprisingly, Weems understands just as personally what it means to navigate the world (and its attendant expectations) as a woman.
A long-held maxim posits that the personal is political. Accepting this adage as a given means accepting that there is nothing more political than the bodies we inhabit. Bodily autonomy, the freedom, to move our body from one place to another, to keep our body free from harm, out of cages, alive; to control our own bodies and make decisions regarding them is the very nexus of freedom. Art that acknowledges the primacy of the body; that reminds us of its importance and its vulnerabilities is art that understands at the deepest level what it means to be human. It’s art for everybody. For every body.
Jason Moran, Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious and Barbara Hammer: In This Body are on view at the Wexner Center through August 18, 2019. For more information visit: www.wexarts.org.