Los Angeles

“Narcissistic Disturbances”

Otis College of Art and Design

America has become a society obsessed with its obsessions; a tribe of people for whom 12-Step Programs are themselves the addiction. Any predilection for altered states automatically makes you a substance abuser in denial about your dependency. Slowly but inexorably, we are sanitizing our minds and bodies, transforming them into hollow sanctuaries dedicated to “normalcy.” A recent exhibition “Narcissistic Disturbances,” curated by Michael Cohen, takes our self-obsession and reinvests it with its neurotic edge. In the curator’s eyes, the work of the 16 artists shown here challenges the notion that self-love is a form of illness and demonstrates that actually it can be a site of resistance, a private space for psychic revival in a world of corporate culture. The show further suggests that “narcissistic disturbance” can break down social and sexual conventions through a celebration of individualized pleasures.

Many of the works included in the show were multimedia pieces that explored issues of identity, sexual taboos, and fetishistic behavior of one kind or another. In a piece by Yayoi Kusama entitled Mirrored Room—Love Forever #2, 1984, the viewer peers into a large cube through a peephole. A blue field of small phallic shapes stretches into infinity. Two mirrors on either side of the interior of the box reflect the viewer’s eyes repeatedly, producing a claustrophobic confrontation of self and sex. Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose explore the relationship between love, sickness, and suffering (again!) in a piece entitled Video Coffin, 1994. Inevitably, the exhibition included a number of Jeff Koons’ Art Magazine Ads, 1988–89, in which he appears with his then-wife Cicciolina.

The idea that seemingly dysfunctional behavior like narcissism is a disruption of conventional notions of sexuality and subjectivity is thought-provoking, but, in the end, unconvincing. “Narcissistic Disturbances” slips inexorably back into the constructions of the subject, and of the relationship between the self and the world, on which conventional therapy is based. Thus the “private psychic space” mapped by this exhibition remains just that—private. As the preeminent psychologist James Hillman notes, the problem with conventional therapy is that in encouraging us to look inward we retreat from and neglect the world in which we live. This recoil is, in Hillman’s view, a form of cultural anorexia: though a subversive gesture may occur within a circumscribed group it often has little effect on the outside world. Hillman makes an appeal for recovering an ancient sense of the political through therapy, radicalizing our notion of the therapeutic and encouraging us to see narcissism for what it is: self-indulgence.

Rosetta Brooks