New York


For some time now the otherwise anonymous foursome known as TODT has been taking over galleries with their vaguely militaristic and industrial environments. Part Ed Kienholz and part Fritz Lang, their esthetic is not unfamiliar; in fact, now that cyberpunk has made information rather than industry the new object of paranoia, TODT’s mock-ups of machines with unknown but clearly horrific functions have a curiously archaic feel, an air of early-century antipositivism rather than late-century apocalypse.

Nonetheless, TODT’s work remains sufficiently menacing to disturb, and this recent installation, entitled Womb Wars, 1990, was no exception. The group fabricated a room-size chamber of horrors within the gallery. A series of backlit fetal tondi on the outside wall served as introduction. Inside, a structure of catwalks and metal beams skirted the room, and more backlit photographs of obscure anatomical or forensic subjects lined the walls and ceiling. To one side sat a sort of dentist’s chair, suggesting a sinister medical apparatus.

TODT appropriated their name from an infamous Nazi doctor, and though warfare and administrative terror are central themes in their work, it is unclear here to what end his name is invoked. Even the title Womb Wars, with its contradiction of the traditional romance of prenatal peace, evokes a kind of insolvable paradox. The abortion debate—with its tendency to treat women’s wombs as if they were property over which various factions struggle for control—is, of course, an inescapable connotation, but the majority of the photographs make no specific reference to pregnancy or even infancy, and the issue isn’t otherwise addressed.

One suspects, finally, that a broader war is being waged, one for which the battle over the womb is simply representative. It is a war over the very idea of the body’s own privacy, its need to fend off the intrusion, not just of politics, but of all unwanted forces that would breach its self-determined, phenomenal borders. What we see, then, is the body as subject, strapped down and examined—illuminated, dissected, and photographed—defenseless against the scrutiny and manipulation of others.

TODT simply poses the images of that threat, and they place the viewer in an uncomfortable position of complicity; standing in the room, surrounded by its gruesome elements, we can’t help but waver back and forth between identifying ourselves as perpetrators and as victims. It is this strange ambivalence that lends the show its power, a power that increases as our confidence in our own place and purpose diminishes.

James Lewis