New York

Janine Antoni

Sandra Gering Gallery

Compulsive eating, and the whole alarming catalogue of self-destructive habits now grouped under the rubric of “eating disorders,” are, like any oral fixation, about substitution—about filling in for what lacks. And, like all compulsive behaviors, they mask anger or rage that might otherwise overwhelm the individual. Artmaking, too, is about substitution, physical surrogates, and creating one’s own world in lieu of an existing one perceived to be inadequate or unbearable. Artmaking also often involves compulsive activity, whether or not such behavior is ultimately productive, is open to question.

In her recent show, Janine Antoni brought together compulsive eating, art-making as compulsion, and the contemporary truism that we are, despite (or perhaps because of) an ostensibly image-saturated society, hopelessly out of touch with our bodies. Antoni began by fabricating two 600-pound cubes, one of lard and one of chocolate. In the weeks leading up to the show, she gnawed away at the cubes and spat out the lard and chocolate, which she then reused in sculptural by-products. The lard served as a base for her own brand of bright-red lipstick, and the chocolate was recast into vacuum-formed packaging of the sort used in boxes of chocolates. The lipstick and packaging were then displayed in mirror-backed vitrines lining a small room at the rear of the gallery; the original cubes (Antoni barely made a dent in the cubes) occupied the main exhibition space.

Biting, chewing, and spitting out lard and chocolate calls to mind the bulimic’s ingestion and then vomiting up of food, and, indeed, Antoni deserves credit for tackling this disturbing behavior head-on. Although the disorder has reached epidemic proportions (according to one survey, 22 percent of all high-school girls in the U.S. are bulimic), some fatal combination of shame (who would want to admit to such behavior?) and trivialization (eating disorders are seen as merely the product of exaggerated physical vanity) has kept the problem behind closed doors.

But this visually tidy, well-packaged show—both sociologically savvy in its identification of eating disorders with pressures to conform to female ideals (suggested by Antoni’s simulation of a Chanel-like boutique) and art historically informed with hints of Joseph Beuys’ lard works and Dieter Roth’s chocolate sculptures—is not nearly nasty enough to reflect the real anguish behind its subject matter. The effect produced by this show is one familiar to readers of women’s magazines. On one page we are given a sobering account full of quotes by medical experts on the toll of binging and purging and crash diets; on the next page a two-week diet designed to help us shed those “ten unwanted pounds” before bikini season; and on the following a fashion advertisement featuring rail-thin models who, one suspects these days, are themselves victims of some eating disorder or another. We walk past the two cubes scored with Antoni’s teeth marks (disturbing testimonies to her obscene dedication to this project) only to enter a duplicitous mirrored fairyland. Full of cosmetics to make us prettier and chocolate to make us fat, the display seems to encourage us to persist in the horrific “body sculpture”—the very eating disorders that Antoni sets out to challenge.

Lois E. Nesbitt