Welsh artist James Richards and Canadian artist Steve Reinke’s collaborative video What weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself was first exhibited as part of Richards’ representation of Wales in 2017 at the 57th Venice Biennale, and recently restaged in December in the group exhibition “The Mausoleum of Lovers” at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin. There, What weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself was paired with two video works, Bambi’s Beastly Buddies (2004) and Within Heaven and Hell (1996), by the late American artist Ellen Cantor. The exhibition offered up a polarity of positions; one turned the gaze inwards in a process of searching for an empirical form of self, while the other erupted from within to provide a distinctly oppositional definition of identity.
“The Mausoleum of Lovers,” much as the title suggested, designated a space for the veneration of modes of desire and intimacy. Viewers travelled from the gallery’s bright foyer into a quiet, dimly illuminated, cloistered interior partitioned off by rudimentary PVC-strip curtains and loose carpeting. Here, quiet contemplation on definitions of love and companionship could take place.
Cantor’s Within Heaven and Hell, which was set in the back of the gallery’s two-room exhibition, recounts an autobiographical relationship that the artist had experienced during her travels to Europe. The unnamed male love interest promised Cantor the world, but she later reveals that he was only ever in pursuit of a sexual relationship in which to dominate her. The story begins like any account of clichéd cinematic romance—with decadence and libidinal impulsivity—but at the film’s fulcrum, Cantor describes making love during menstruation, and recalls her lover’s comment that their resulting blood-covered bodies reminded him of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The spell of Cantor’s romantic fantasy breaks as she further describes the relationship spiralling into descriptions of real violence and terror.
Clips from The Sound of Music and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paired throughout the film, with Cantor underscoring their remarkable symmetry. A scene set around a dinner table in both films, for example, lets Cantor impeccably describe the violence inflicted on women through the reality of the everyday. The patriarchal structures that Maria in The Sound of Music and Sally from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre experience become equalized: they are rigid forms of violence in inward and outward extremes. In his 1987 book Male Fantasies, German sociologist Klaus Theweleit describes the metaphor of the flood as a threat to historical conceptions of partriarchal control, the “flood means death; the solid [phallus] dissolves (whether the flood comes from within or without).” By evoking the same gore as a horror film—eroding the male fantasy applied to her person—Cantor suggests that her own body is perceived as violent in its very nature.
Cantor takes the violence enacted onto her body and inverts it into a form of power, refusing prescribed definitions and seizing her power as the monstrous. Scholar Patricia MacCormack, writing in 2010 about the West German horror film Possession (1981), argues that the colour red symbolizes a “productive, creative, abortive blood to flood and wash away signifying symbolic systems, showing the female and desire itself as fluid.” MacCormack continues to describe “female morphology [as] constituted through qualities of the monster—multiple, ambiguous, openings without lack, folds without hierarchy.” Cantor takes neither the position of Maria nor Sally; she operates as a tertiary protagonist who, by consuming both roles, rebukes the motifs described within her source material and the material of her life by presenting patriarchal violence as omnipresent.
Richards and Reinke’s What weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself, by contrast, presents an inverse position to Cantor’s: the physicality of the body, here, defines a periphery for the self to be trapped within, rather than erupt from. The film opens with autoerotic self-portraits of Albert Brecker, a production designer, actor and photographer imprisoned by the Nazis for his homosexuality. Brecker appears doubled in each of his self-portraits, which were sourced from the archives of Berlin’s Schwules* Museum. In one slide, the dapper Brecker dons the latest fashions, while another exposes his body beneath the crisp polyester façade, exposing a mesmerizing display of genital modification and esoteric tattooing.
Brecker becomes a lens through which to view the video’s preceding content, which unfolds as an exquisite corpse of cinematic texturing. Composed from sourced and produced footage, the work assembles nostalgic imagery that becomes a ritualized form of male melancholia. There are photographs of Richards’ youth, footage of an unknown boy gazing into his reflection to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” shots of ice-fishing huts on a frozen lake. It’s a portrait, of sorts, but one that becomes interbred, ambiguous and multiple. Awkward clips of seemingly homemade gay pornography blur the definitions between male fantasy and violence, eroticism and torture.
The video’s military aesthetics describe a desired form of male dominance: a group of men in army fatigues bully a younger cadet, two young men are directed to rub the tops of their shaved heads together in an erotic fashion. Skinhead aesthetics have repeatedly been eroticized by gay culture as a rough, rugged, dispossessed form of pure masculinity; how, though, can this image, defined as a rejection to forms of caste power, continue to function as an insurgence to heteronormativity when continually commodified through aesthetic industries,? As Leo Bersani writes in the introduction his 1996 book Homos, an “intentionally oppositional gay identity, by its very coherence, only repeats the restrictive and immobilizing analyses it set out to resist.”
What weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself composes a portrait through aesthetic associations of identity. As a gallery text puts it, the “double self-portrait is redoubled, repeatedly,” suggesting a multiple yet ambiguous hybridization of Richards and Reinke through the double life of Becker. The viewer is left to find the connective tissue between this opaque collection of visual signifiers. From this collaboration a new subject emerges, one that, in relation to Cantor, operates as a fluid regressive emotional state of introversion.
Cantor, Richards and Reinke offer up the body as a sacrificial material within this mausoleum—but they do so in divergent ways. Cantor rejects the infliction of violence that Richards and Reinke suggest creates an archive of identity, and instead proposes a form of power ready to erupt, engulf. In her hands, violence becomes redirected and generative.
Alex Turgeon is a Canadian artist based in Berlin.