The phrase "read you like a book" has some basis in fact: Most observers will agree that the human body can be read for meaning, much like a text. Some artists have taken the metaphor literally, concentrating on the direct representation of body parts or inventing ways for live bodies to become art. In the early Seventies, for instance, Jonathon Borofsky covered his body with numbers for a pop "Self-Portrait"; later, Chris Burden arranged for a friend to wound him with a pistol as part of an art performance. More recently, members of Congress protested an NEA-funded performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where one artist pierced the scalp of another and towels stained with HIV-tainted blood were passed near the heads of audience members.
These are disturbing messages for the body to convey, but they are satirical and cautionary--directly opposed to the acts of hatred, sadism and genocide that are routinely inflicted upon humans in the name of politics. And artists continue to mine this territory: At the Ginny Williams Collection, T. Ellen Sollod and Corin Hewitt somberly explore the interplay between body and text, ringing out the year that brought us a deadly civil war in Rwanda, the continuing rampage in Bosnia and a general rising tide of abuse against "undesirables" worldwide.
Sollod spent some time in 1992 living near what used to be Rome's Jewish ghetto. Campo de Fiori is now the center of conflict between youthful "Naziskins" wanting to revive brownshirt nationalism and the activists, artists, students and others who refuse to accept the return of these tyrants. Their cry, uttered in many languages, is "Never again." Sollod uses the phrase as a textual element in her major installation, Witness, at Ginny Willams. "Mai Pui" (Never Again) consists of several steel tables, each holding a wax "book"--really a closed sculptural representation--and a body part made of black-fired raku clay. Below each foot, hand, heart, etc., is a metal tag with the words "never again" in German, Croatian, Polish, Italian or English. The juxtaposition of the beautiful, butter-colored faux books, with their purity and impenetrability, against the wrinkled, dark and revolting "remains" is unsettling. The books can be read as a metaphor for history closing itself off and sanitizing its treatment of the Holocaust, while the body parts remind us that the process of eliminating enemies en masse, while intolerable, continues on a daily basis.
Sollod's fascination with fascist history continues with "Memoria Historica," a wall grid made of 63 cast-wax pages--some containing actual fragments of books about German history that can be read through the translucent coating. More text than body, these delicate rectangles composed of genuine beeswax still look uncomfortably like human flesh tacked up to cure.
Corin Hewitt, Sollod's partner at this exhibition, uses video and his own nude body as tools to express another kind of text--the story of life and death. The New Mexico artist's Cardiac Cycle/Autorraphy includes an antique-style autopsy table, complete with drain holes and wooden bucket to catch the gore. This is the wooden stage on which Hewitt acted out (and videotaped) an absurd drama, stitching himself up (the "autorraphy" of the title) inside a clear plastic bag fashioned in the shape of a heart, allowing assistants to fill the bag with fluid, and then, after a simulated death, letting the fluid drain off. The resulting video, along with the props and video stills, makes up the substance of the installation, and the combination of the three (especially the clinical, monster-movie seriousness of this rubber-glove pantomime) can be incredibly haunting--or incredibly stupid.
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But for those curious about art's cutting edge, this could be the real thing.
Witness and Cardiac Cycle/Autorraphy, through January at the Ginny Williams Collection, 299 Fillmore Street, 321-4077.