St. Gallen

Jason Rhoades

Jason Rhoades’s installation My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage . . . , 2004, was the final exhibition to take place in the spaces of the Hauser & Wirth Collection at the Roundhouse. Specially conceived by Rhoades for the idiosyncratic architecture and vast dimensions of the former locomotive shed, the installation is also one element in an evolving project by the artist that will culminate in a center for his work in Mecca, California. Put simply, the Roundhouse has been incorporated into the plan as a model of the structure to be built in the desert landscape.

Here in St. Gallen, My Madinah was a spectacular and highly contemporary piece of showmanship. Colored neon lights that hung from the ceiling emblazoned the air with a multitude of English phrases referring to female genitalia—an awesome 1,724 expressions collected by the artist, ranging from the gentle and rather poetic (sugared almond, enchanted garden, slice of heaven) to the aggressive (undertaker, bitch ditch, skunk guts). Although the many names ostensibly point to the same thing, they have radically different meanings. One’s ricocheting emotional responses only go to prove how unstable our comprehension of female sexuality remains.

The patchwork carpet of towels that covered the floor of the largest space was held in place by milky, semenlike glue. Invited to lie on the towels, the audience was meant to contemplate the firmament of names above them. A distinctly New Age tinge, heightened by the presence of crystals scattered among the towels, seemed to conjure an air of the sacred, even as a book on display—1724: Birth of the Cunt—evoked the Enlightenment ideals that shook off the shackles of religion. Amusingly, Immanuel Kant, whose birth date happens to be 1724, was here associated with Emmanuelle, the heroine of the ’70s soft-core porn films, shown in excerpts in a separate room of the exhibition.

Some of the juxtapositions were rather prosaic, for instance that of a life-size white fiberglass donkey, an ancient symbol of randiness, with the phallic plastic vegetables that adorn the large wheels suspending the neon lights in several of the niches. Perhaps one could interpret the contents of the market-stall cart standing at the entrance to the exhibition (and acting as one of the stores of material left over from the installation proper) as the conjunction of corny female eroticism (ribbons and lace) with male lust (more plastic vegetables). More intriguing was the literary context of the installation, outlined in the essay “The pussy—past and present,” written by Gianfranco Sanguinetti for the book. Accompanying the 1,724 synonyms, reproduced in embossed form so as to be “read” by the fingertips, the essay draws on (male) writers who have addressed the subject of women’s genitalia. From the earliest, like the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose and Dante’s poem The Flower, through Shakespeare to Novalis and D.H. Lawrence, we find an idiom that is comic and crude, colorful and brutal, ironic and self-parodying. Without this background Rhoades’s eclectic potpourri of vaguely mystical themes—meditation, worship at the altar of human origin, and magical energy transference—might have veiled the aggression behind many of the names for female genitals. Seeing this ambivalence lends a subtler layer of meaning to an installation that may be entertaining, clever, and beautifully produced but does not necessarily linger in the mind.

Felicity Lunn