New York

Christian Lemmerz

DCA Gallery

In his first New York solo show, Christian Lemmerz delights in injecting death and decay into an otherwise elegant and precise post-Minimalist esthetic. In Body Bag 1 & 2, 1994, two black body bags are labeled “vagina.” Augenzeugen (Lucy) [Eyewitness (Lucy), 1993-94] presents nine fish tanks filled with formaldehyde and pigs’ eyeballs. Embryo (Anal) II is comprised of what looks like a brown fetus pulled out of someone’s asshole. Naturally, such a project produces a certain je ne sais quoi that an accompanying catalogue essay describes as “revulsion,” and the press release deems “Evil.” In a not too cryptic aphorism in his book Das Zeug (The stuff), Lemmerz himself writes “Revulsion technique: means to an end.” Whether you want to call it evil, revolting, or simplistic, the artist clearly equates this “stuff” with sex, death, and excrement.

If Lemmerz considers his work a “means,” is revulsion its only end? Some possible interpretations of writing the word “vagina” on a body bag: (1) it’s an homage to all the little spermies and eggies lost in the line of duty; (2) it’s an inversion of the image of the penis as weapon, pistol, or missile; (3) it’s a reminder to use your condoms or dental dams when having sex; (4) it’s a speculation that death is a return to the womb. There are a lot of ways you could look at the work, but the image of Lemmerz heavy-handedly attempting to deal with certain “stuff” keeps returning to undermine them all. Body Bags 1 & 2 doesn’t seem to say anything about evil or revulsion or negativity or the heterogeneous as such, and so you’re just left with the impression of an artist congratulating himself on having the pluck to draw an unpopular comparison.

The truly disturbing thing about Lemmerz’s work may be that, when such a humorless artist promises to explore the twilight zone of amorality and taboo, you expect him to deliver. Sometimes he does. Scarface, 1994, conveys a monomania worthy of Poe: large, shiny sheets of aluminum line the walls, marred by an endless scratch at about shoulder height, as though a person had been walking in circles around and around the gallery, marking the walls with a key or a fingernail file. More often than not, however, works like Augenzeugen (Lucy) draw up short, like a Poe story with the end lopped off: the gruesome set-up is there but the complication and climax are missing. Revulsion requires that a thing touch you in some tangible way, but the presentation of countless pigs’ eyes floating in identical aquariums illuminated by a cluster of lightbulbs is both heavy-handed and lacks punch. Formaldehyde forestalls the fragrance of decay that might bring these pigs’ eyes to your nostrils. The tanks prevent you from touching them-picking them up and squeezing them until they pop, which might be revolting. Since they’re so obviously dead, they don’t even seem to be following you around the room. Augenzeugen (Lucy) may well be a means of some sort but, given its inability to reach out and touch someone, revulsion is certainly not its end.

Keith Seward