The Skin of Experience: Thoughts on “Nu Age Hustle” at Momenta Art
written by Conor O’Brien, The Living Gallery
“Hide from a North American Empathic” by Saya Woolfalk comes with a lengthy description telling the history of the Institute of Empathy located in Greene County, New York. The Institute’s founders, according to this origin story, came upon a humanoid skeleton during an excavation in upstate New York. Through contact with this skeleton, apparently composed of both animal and plant genetic material, the excavators underwent a physical transformation that turned them into “Empathics,” a being that is “extremely receptive to the introduction of foreign genetic material.” Pictured above is the skin or “hide” shed and ornamented by an Empathic being.
The history of this Institute literalizes the empathic experience. Those who choose to become Empathic can join the Institute, come in contact with the same genetic material, and transform into one. The process of “objectifying perception” involves a senior Empathic guide help translate a junior Empathic’s lucid dreams into paintings. Ritual is experience given structure and form. It is a performance, a representation of experience, though much of the time without the performer knowing it is just performance. “Hide from a North American Empathic” is a comment on ritual, the skinning and ornamenting of experience.
Much of the work in the “Nu Age Hustle” show seems to deal with this process. Elisa Garcia de la Huerta’s piece “Their eye,” said to be “inspired by visualizations [the artist] experienced during a healing and alignment meditation,” uses a sewn collage of various fabrics to create a hallucinatory tapestry. The eye in the center of the piece, perhaps the negative image of the viewer’s eye, seems to project the piece outwards in a reversal of the eye’s function, projecting rather than receiving image.
The description of Elisa Garcia de la Huerta’s piece claims it is a “hymnal for amorphous and non gendered shapes floating in an exotic pleasure paradise.” Many of the pieces are similarly concerned with questions of gender, and physical v. spiritual experience. Jacolby Satterwhite’s piece “Country Ball” is made up of two screens, one playing a home video of the young artist with his siblings dancing for their mother on Mother’s Day, the other screen is made up of 3D animated “genderless” figures dancing in a psychedelic space amid floating neon letters, large wedding cakes, and barbecues. The space in the animation was inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Vaginal Davis creates a playful and childlike watercolor portrait of the historical figure Peter Seawally, the African American prostitute/ transvestite whose court trial wherein he defends his practice of cross dressing, sensationalized in his own time, has been appropriated as an early example of someone publicly defending queer-rights. The portrait depicts Seawally in a pink dress, the phrases “alias Eliza Smith,” “alias Mary Jones” repeated in the margins of the portrait. Within the dress, the artist’s signature “VDasPS” is written repeatedly. Below the figure is the tongue in cheek phrase “Shim who must be obeyed/ Peter Seawally the He/She Monster.”
As the multi-level pun title suggests, Katie Cercone’s “Trilluminate Universiddhi” combines elements of hip-hop, new age meditation, materialism, and Disney movies. A small television set sits on the floor surrounded by the ephemera of an adolescent girl: doll house, Disney bed sheets, lotion, skis, fake wedding cake, etc, creating an overwhelmingly decadent setting. A small television plays a video of the artist in various yoga poses, the artist’s cover of A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag” plays in the background, interspersed with her singing a song from “The Little Mermaid:” “Wouldn’t you think I’m a girl who has everything…I want more.”
Sanford Biggers’ video installation “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II,” similarly incorporates elements of both ancient spiritual ritual with modern pop culture. The video features a inter-borough breakdancing competition that takes place on a dance floor designed with reference to the sacred geometry of Bhuddist mandala.
Greem Jellyfish’s piece “Analgesic, Narcotic and Hypnotic Massage Lotion” features a collage resembling a disoriented magazine ad: disembodied hands applying lotion to a woman amid a waterfall collage. The motion of these hands is at once soothing and violent, they seem to claw or scratch as they massage in the “hypnotic” lotion. Next to the picture is the lotion itself, and a pair of headphones playing a meditative 13 minute track. The description to the left of the portrait collage mimics the language of advertisement, saying of the lotion: “Sad in any state will benefit from this nourishing treatment, but it is especially suited for sad complexions.”
Greem Jellyfish’s piece evokes this relationship between advertising and ritual. She uses many of the same signifiers that are found in advertisements, though these signifiers are used in such a way that they become disorienting. The images of waterfalls and hands applying lotion crowd and overlap with the female model in the photo. The written description, while certainly appropriating the phrasing, sentence structure of written advertisements, is actually more poetic than it is coherent: “It helps heal even the most frozen heart’s complexions” or “To this day, each lotion is filled by recorder flute to maintain its delicate balance.”
If ritual can be defined as a kind of guided experience, then advertisements are certainly ritualistic. Advertisements do not just present a product to the public, they regulate how the prospective consumer should experience the product. Ads inundate their viewers with particular associations, creating a context in which the consumer uses the product, and guides them toward a desired end result, i.e. spiritual fulfillment. The consumer is normally an unknowing participant in this performance, unaware that the seemingly genuine fulfillment they experience is actually something they’ve been trained to associate with use of that product. This is the way most rituals, religious or secular, work.
The relationship between ritual and experience is further complicated in the piece by Tobaron Waxman. Several bars of soap are piled in a corner of the gallery and encased within each one is a piece of matzah shmura, a kind of bread which in Jewish tradition must be kept dry during Passover. Besides from being described as an allusion to the Holocaust and the Nazi practice of making soap from the fat of Jewish bodies, the piece is also described in this way: “If handwashing is an allegory for relinquishing accountability, the closer the washer gets to the matzah, the closer they are to rendering it the antithesis of itself.” It is a conceptual piece that hypothetically combines the sacred and profane into the same gesture: the secular ritual of cleaning oneself, which induces by association a feeling of spiritual cleaning, i.e. feeling “fresh” or “reborn,” is complicated by the act of profaning the matzah as well as the pieces deliberate evocation of the Holocaust. The soap may clean ones body, but the spiritual associations are prevented from being experienced. The piece reveals the more spiritual elements of self-cleaning to be externally imposed, which we are conditioned to associate with the use of certain products.
For more information on this gallery space, visit: MomentaArt