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Reviews / November 3, 2015

Maria Eichhorn: X-Rated Institutional Critique

Maria Eichhorn’s show at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver calls attention to the mediation of sex and sexuality. Jonah Gray reviews.

Maria Eichhorn’s current exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery is animated by a tense interplay between restraint and libidinal indulgence. The subject matter is almost entirely sexual—often explicitly so—and yet Eichhorn handles this “hot” material in a decidedly cold way. The artist’s endgame is not titillation (although she isn’t above enticing her audience) but calling attention to the ways in which sex and sexuality are mediated. How can an exhibition that features graphic portrayals of anilingus, fellatio and “needle play” come across as staid and even austere? In this case, much of the show’s dour visual effect comes from Eichhorn’s adherence to a particular post-Conceptual (is it Protestant?) spartanism.

Hanging hundreds of photographs of books printed at a 1:1 scale would dial down the sensual charge of nearly any imagery. The same can be said for displaying 16-mm films of sex acts in their storage canisters beside a switched-off projector and a perfunctory wall text listing the acts in question in the driest possible terms. (Anal coitus, anyone?) For those hoping to be pleasantly surprised by a little ear licking (one of the practices on show), you are more than likely to be disappointed. Gallery goers must specifically request a screening of the short films making up Eichhorn’s Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices from one of the gallery attendants, who will then load up the chosen reel. Eichhorn’s works reach a point at which the mediating apparatus and/or situation becomes the focus over and above the ostensive content; the frames themselves become a key aspect of the content.

Film Lexicon narrows in on questions of viewership and display, cataloguing an ever-expanding array of sex practices and sexualized body parts (currently consisting of 20 entries) carried out by a range of mostly white, hetero- and homosexual couples captured up close in static shots that strive to frame only the involved organs. The reel entitled “clitoris,” for example, is an improbably tight macro shot of just that for roughly two-and-a-half minutes, or the length of one roll of 16-mm film. The more involved the act, the more that interpretive staging comes into play. The overall air of the performances, however, is largely of a mechanical, piston-like interfacing.

During her artist talk, Eichhorn said that she doesn’t consider viewing the films essential to understanding the work. By her reckoning, its charge lies in foregrounding the trappings of display. What about those of us who did watch some of the reels? Eichhorn makes us consider both the extent of our own perversion as well as the role of the viewer in the continuum of meaning making and the production of desire. In my own experience, pleasure and visual delight came second to a feeling of mild embarrassment. When I learned that the artist was tracking how many times each reel was viewed, I couldn’t help but ask for some of the less-requested titles. For a needle-phobe like me, the most excruciating sequence involved pinched skin pierced by a succession of hypodermics.

Prohibited Imports, the series of colour photographs that make up the bulk of the exhibition, documents spreads from books by Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans and Jeff Koons, and a portfolio of photos collected by Alfred Kinsey. The explicit imagery in each book has been censored in a peculiar way: every penis and vagina has been erased and replaced by a blurry, cloud-like shape that conforms precisely to the outlines of the offending organ. Mapplethorpe’s memorable picture of a man inserting his pinky up his urethra? Now his finger seems to disappear into an ethereal penis-shaped void. The books were originally modified when Eichhorn imported them into Japan from Germany and, knowing they would be redacted upon entry to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, developed an exhibition around the modified books that highlighted the hyper-selective approach of the Japanese censors.

The archaeological aspect of the works at the Belkin comes as no surprise for those familiar with Eichhorn’s oeuvre, which had its beginnings in West Germany in the late 1980s. Her engagement with institutional critique, and with deconstructing art’s hidden structures and codes more generally, has fueled numerous projects like The Politics of Restitution, which traces the provenance of artworks stolen by the Nazis and lays bare the fraught nature of their return. For Documenta 11, Eichhorn famously founded a kind of tautological corporation using the funds designated for her production budget. The latter work exemplifies Eichhorn’s upfront approach towards her own implication within contemporary art’s larger economies, be they semantic or pecuniary. Indeed, the polemical dimension of her practice is often sharpened by its nuance, refusing to use “the institution” in general as a convenient straw man. For example, Eichhorn recently re-routed the production budget of another show, but this time used the funds to pay for much-needed repairs to the public gallery in which the exhibition was to take place.

Her Belkin exhibition is distinct in that, except for the addition of certain supplementary materials, the works on display here were entirely pre-existing and do not address their specific site, per se. During a Q and A at the Belkin, Eichhorn and curator Scott Watson didn’t explain the exact rationale for selecting the suite of works currently on display, but they alluded to a more ambitious unrealized project. Eichhorn’s proposal involved excavating a tunnel under the campus extending from the gallery to the university’s boundaries. Apparently, the original orifice motif was never completely abandoned.

But complications arise when Eichhorn’s work is transposed from its original setting into another. At the Belkin, the modified books of Prohibited Imports live on as framed photographs. This gesture of removal deeply attenuates, if not completely severs, the material link to the first version of the project. We are no longer confronted with the concrete evidence of censorship so much as the idea of it. Likewise, if the power of the first iteration came from how it addressed the particular locale of its creation and display, that effect feels lessened in the work’s new home. The curatorial text for the show raises the very real spectre of censorship in Canada. In viewing Eichhorn’s work here, it is hard not to wish for a variation that makes a correspondingly strong statement about this country’s problematic practices. As it stands, the work paradoxically trades on a kind of exoticism that sets up “foreign” societal mores as objects of derision.

During her artist talk and the ensuing Q and A, Eichhorn seemed uninterested in discussing how her own assumptions or subjectivity affects her work. In response to a question about her overall approach to making art, for example, she chose not to address her engagement with the strategies of Conceptual art, or, for that matter, to note any baggage attached to her strategies at all. She said simply that she always “starts from zero.” Was she implying that her approach was somehow neutral? Later in the Q and A, other audience members and I raised this presumption of disinterest in relation to Prohibited Imports. Eichhorn had said the project was, in theory, endlessly iterative using different books as source material. The gist of our questions was, roughly, what does it mean that the work focused on imagery deemed acceptable in Germany or Canada, but inappropriate in Japan? While she did ultimately indicate that there were limits to the materials she would use (no child porn, for example) it was clear that she didn’t consider these limits in terms of her own ethical or moral horizon, asking, “Isn’t that illegal all over the world?” At the time, I was struck that an artist so concerned with deconstructing social and institutional biases would be so reticent to reflect on her own position. But maybe it should not have been such a surprise. As this exhibition attests, Eichhorn has made a career out of balancing perplexing dichotomies on a knife’s edge.