PRINT September 1999

Rachel Withers

THIS YEAR’S BIENNALE SEES THE ELEGANTLY crumbly “piano nobile” of the seventeenth-century palazzo Vendramin dei Carmini adorned with a string of black pearls: Jorge Molder’s monochrome photo sequence, entitled nox. Clad in sharp tuxedo, crisp cuffs, and handmade shoes, the Portuguese artist’s on-camera persona—a camp yet sinister cabaret artiste who deals in dazzling, disorienting tricks of light—is as mesmeric and slippery as a David Mamet character. In one image, struck in the face by the camera’s flash, he parries by turning a pocket mirror back at it, trapping a bright snatch of white light and cheating the viewer out of what, illogically enough, she expects will be a glimpse of her own reflection. Reading a sheet of transparent film, studying a blank newspaper, rubbing sleep from his eyes with a gesture that mimes looking through binoculars, Molder juggles themes of visibility and invisibility, clarity and obscurity, identity and division, with wondrous aplomb.

Since 1987, Molder has, unfashionably, called his work “self-portraiture.” But nox’s author, decentered, mobile, literally and metaphorically dancing in and out of focus, exists light years away from any cherished Rembrandtian ideal of sovereign subjectivity, sunk deep in the solitary contemplation of its essences. So, is this “body art”? In the ’60s, the movement was practically synonymous with live performance. In the ’90s, body art stretches to include artists from Gary Hill to Kiki Smith, from Shirin Neshat to John Bock (the last two, big hits of “dApertutto”). Szeemann’s Biennale has been noted for its copious showing of video work. Equally, it might be seen to evidence the ’90s return of the body in, and as, representation: body art, in a newer, broader sense.

To test the assertion, I tuck markers into the Biennale catalogues. Dieter Roth videos himself pottering about his house. Vesna Vesić videos herself moved to tears by Psalm 51. Ann Veronica Janssens suffuses the Belgian pavilion with delicate white mist, turning visitors’ movements into the main exhibit. Again on video, Ma Liuming picks his way demurely along China’s Great Wall, naked except for his well-applied maquillage. The limber Ali (Giggi) Johnson edgily grooves his way through a concrete desert in Doug Aitken’s video installation Electric Earth. My final tally takes in over a third of the Biennale’s lineup. Quite a revival—either that or the term “body art” has become a somewhat blunt instrument.

Body art ’60s style (stripping off, pole squatting, sticking a fork into one’s buttocks, and so on) sometimes aimed to get up an unsuspecting audience’s nose, but it more typically involved doing things to oneself, or to profoundly consenting, and mostly credited, coworkers. The expanded field of today’s body art is bestrewn with what one might call “collateral bodies”: paid performers, volunteers, or unwitting contributors, whose physical contribution to the art-making process is crucial but whose status is liminal (neither accredited producers nor consumers). How, I wonder (without lapsing into old-style identity politics or liberal models of individual authorship and “Cartesian” subjectivity), might the power relations enacted within body art’s production processes be properly registered as part of its meaning?

Disguising herself as a naked man and taking her video camera (and a—presumably male—escort) into a men’s bathhouse, Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra got an honorable mention from the International Jury. In their lumbering terminology, “she explores and controls the authoritarian dominion of male territory.” She gets an honorable mention from me too, for sheer balls. Nevertheless, this white-knuckle enterprise clearly hinges on her equivocal relation to her unknowing subjects. Does the bathers’ sex alone justify Kozyra’s intrusive act, as the jury’s prize suggests?

Maurizio Cattelan, the Biennale’s bad boy in residence, appears to have staged a grueling physical performance by a Muslim fakir who lies smothered in a bed of sand. Working in two-hour shifts, Abdul Sattar Sheik is interred and disinterred in private; only his praying hands are ever visible. The fakir has been well paid, but he would be doing this anyway, paid, watched, credited, or not, claims his agent, who adds, “He’s the most indifferent person I’ve ever met.” Sheik’s Hindu-derived discipline pursues the attainment of sama, indifference to worldly things, so this isn’t the insult it seems. He must be the ultimate decentered subject; yet one suspects the symbolic relations of production this work entails would be little to the taste of those involved in today’s body-art criticism. (Assuming, of course, that this isn’t a classic case of Cattelan jackanapery, involving a pair of deftly crafted prosthetic arms.)

More endearing is the Slovakians’ exhibition: a tattoo parlor where visitors may be videoed while having a bona fide artist’s design permanently applied to their flesh, for free. During press week, twelve people got tattooed, performatively transforming the fiendish device of Kafka’s penal colony into a means for individual adornment and collective gratification. To those needled subjects: Enjoy!

Rachel Withers is a London-based contributor to Artforum.