Elena Berriolo

With her installation Bibita (Drink), 1990, Elena Berriolo called into representation a phallocentric, sexually imbalanced world that seems to confirm the notion that human curiosity, whatever its apparent forms, is actually directed exclusively toward either the sexual or the alimentary. In this simple, almost minimal installation, Berriolo developed an iconography of both the visible (here, all that is phallic) and the invisible (all that is transparent, or vaginal) to create a gender-specific, dichotomized imagery that is determined by sexual difference. By placing viewers in a real, physical relationship to the work, by reconstructing an actual relationship between the human form and its surroundings, Berriolo made viewers aware of their sexually determined visible presence in the world. Thus an understanding of, or participation in the work, begins in the prelinguistic or prerational fascination the viewer finds in either (and this is a sexually determined difference) a recognition of his like or a separation of the erotic identity of the subjects called into representation from the objects actually represented.

Bibita was composed of three distinct parts. In a straight, orderly line along the gallery wall at head height Berriolo hung ten cone-shaped bottles normally used to feed and water caged birds. Barely visible stains on the wall suggested that transparent liquid had leaked from the bottles. The conical forms, the droplets, the association with small birds, all convey phallic sexuality. The association was further fueled by the proximity of the objects to the height of the average viewer’s mouth. At the same time, this placement also allowed the viewer to identify with the bird in search of food. The work simultaneously suggested notions of castration, as if phalluses had been severed from their original site and placed, still bleeding, on display.

For the remaining two parts of the installation Berriolo juxtaposed found objects with black-gray washes she applied directly to the walls. On the far wall she painted a precise rectangle of black-gray liquid that extended up the wall from the floor and was, again, as tall as the average person, and as wide as that person’s arm span. Before this gray field, Berriolo installed a stublike post, of the sort used to barricade pedestrian passageways from cars. It rose from the floor to about groin height, and its white surface was ringed by a band of black washes and drips around its center. In the final portion of the installation, a small steel grille was suspended before another gray square of wash. The square and grille were set at face height, referring again to both human scale and the alimentary.

Berriolo suggests a conflict between the scopophilic and the narcissistic, in order to deconstruct phallocentric links between pleasure and power, excitation and incitement. If the male viewer narcissistically recognized his like within the work, he was instantly objectified as a human, phallic presence with respect to the work’s scale, and as the subject of Berriolo’s controlling and curious gaze. Berriolo’s voyeuristic activities encroached upon the territory of the masculine as she overturned the symbolic order of the phallus and took pleasure in looking at an objectified male other.

Anthony Iannacci