Reconsidering Real Feel

by by Maud Doyle

In 1936, when Europe was deeply invested in improving industry, urbanization was rampant, and a dehumanizing division of labor was being established as the norm, Méret Oppenheim covered a teacup in fur.
Now, culturally knee-deep in real-time screens and programmed to sleep metaphorically with our Blackberries, we are, contrary to critical belief, demanding a Renaissance of the body. When we artificially release seratonin and we are happiest and most comfortable with ourselves, we don’t tweet about it: we lie on fur naked and talk to people. More than the orbital pleasures of Google Earth, we crave the visceral, the textured, the hairy.

Supposedly, Oppenheim’s objet-terrible (entitled Object1) was inspired by a conversation in a Paris café with Pablo Picasso. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur bracelet, Picasso said that one could cover anything in fur, to which she replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” André Breton invited Oppenheim to participate in the first Surrealist exhibition dedicated to objects shortly after, so she bought a teacup, saucer, and spoon at a department store and covered them in the fur of a Chinese gazelle, transforming the demure objects of female social decorum into a notorious, sensual, Venus fly-trap.
The contemporary artist Jenny Holzer—who, at the opposite end of the spectrum, generally uses text in neon and LED lights—said of Oppenheim’s Object: “It’s sinister… I like that the fur would be a way to muffle sound. It’s like she killed off the chit chat part of the tea ceremony.” Object is resonant––it speaks not intellectually but rather bypasses consciousness; visceral material engenders visceral reactions in generations of human viewers.

Today, as we know, online arts platforms and archives proliferate, has a “special” arts section devoted to the twitterization and GPS-mapping of the museal experience, and the cyberization of our lives has been widely trumpeted from all directions and hailed as The Future. Often this harkening cites a digital future to be feared, or at least critiqued, but one that’s nonetheless inescapable.

Older cultural critics and institutions, not to be left behind, have embraced this Future in the fight to stay relevant, but in so doing they may miss the point. In March, the Arts section of the New York Times ran a story on the Museum of Natural History’s initiative to make 20-somethings tweet about “The Brain: The Inside Story” (#AMNHtweetup). The full-length Times article included only 151 characters describing the live event, and none on the exhibit, so the museum can only hope that the 318 tweets by participants covered the event adequately.

On the other hand, there has been a quieter, but consistent cultural move in the direction of tangibility. Everyone seems to be growing beards these days, and the very people for whom Facebook-stalking is easier than conversation wear wooly sweaters, fur skirts, and leather pants, not gore-tex. Michael Pollan has become one of today’s leading cultural critics by writing on food, rather than on Hollywood or Reality TV or the Internet. And while Tron: Legacy was a total disaster, Anne Hathaway was lauded for the simple act of being naked,2 because, in the end, we’d still rather see human skin.

In 2007, Tara Donovan’s show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was extended for nearly a year by popular demand, revealing a collective desperation for a texturization of the dull minimal walls of the white gallery space. The clouds of masking tape that mutated across the walls of the Met used a banal material to transform the desolate white space we’ve become accustomed to––Donovan’s work does not intellectualize the nature of pencils and pins and masking tape through blow-ups or repetition but instead implies the universality of organic form.3

Of course the popular digital art of today makes valid points about our cultural investment in the digital, in the web, in new media. Cory Arcangel’s massive photographic works, like his blow-up images of Photoshop color gradients, are right on target when it comes to cultural criticism.4 He points out, in large-scale, something everyone sees on their computers when they’re juicing up their digital photographs, suggesting the programmation of the way we see and interpret images, the new iconography of the digital image-making processes, the tendency we have to mediate the world we live in and color-correct it (and yes, even if you’re “antiquing” a Facebook photo, you’re engaging in new-age mediation).

You can “get” Arcangel’s work in description—it doesn’t need to be seen to be understood. There is, however, another vision of art-making that has returned to the New York art scene from history. The first retrospective on Lynda Benglis in New York, and the first retrospective in 20 years, is currently on view at The New Museum,5 and engages the empathetic as well as the intellectual mode of receiving meaning. Benglis, who rose to prominence during the ‘60s and ‘70s, takes color off the walls and pours it onto the floor in glowing frozen waterfalls of foam and rubber. Her vision is moving whereas Arcangle’s is only intellectually stimulating. Occupying the same physical space as a work of art makes it immediately accessible not just to your mind but also to your sensory body, and you feel the humanity of the gesture of pouring paint.

Granted, entire artist’s careers have been made on reproductions (see last week’s article on bestseller Richard Prince), or on the masculine minimalist smoothing of surfaces. But the massively popular retrospective of 1960s New York artist Paul Thek at the Whitney, which ran from October 2010 to January of this year, again suggests a different trend. Thek’s nod to the contemporary fad for masculine minimalism in the late ‘60s—colored plexiglass boxes that acted as vitrines for sculptures of bovine hunks of meat—occasionally grew hair. While everyone else was painting comic strips and silkscreening Brillo boxes, Thek was modeling beeswax into hunks meat.

By the time Thek died of AIDS in 1988, he had already been forgotten by art history. Though he had just one solo show during his lifetime, the recent “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective” reinstated his deeply personal and peculiar hands-on work in art historical memory. At the same time, the mass production of stainless steel balloon animals is finally falling out of fashion (that is, Jeff Koons’s current solo show is in Atlanta,6 not in Manhattan).7

The wild success of artists like Maurizio Cattelan and Damien Hirst, too, has to do with bodies: bodies are universally comprehensible, universally compelling. Suspending the body of a horse from a wall, its head swallowed by the immaculate drywall, as Cattelan did in “After Nature” at the New Museum in 2008, is compelling even before you think about it (though we could possibly agree that, unlike Object, you shouldn’t try to think about it too deeply). And everyone loves a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde because, well, everyone loves a tiger shark. Easily one of Hirst’s most famous works, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living8 (that is, the tiger shark) has mesmerizing rough, greying, sagging skin and a cavernous mouth of teeth—and yes, standing in front of all those rows of teeth is an embodied experience.

Still, these artistic initiatives in the world of skin-to-skin contact are usually discussed in terms of market value (Hirst and Cattelan), the 1960s New York canon (Thek) phenomenology and MacArthur genius grants (Donovan), geology and Jackson Pollack (Benglis). It is easy to write about intellectually stimulating and critical work—the texts of Jenny Holzer, or the digital images of Cory Arcangel, or the reproductions of Richard Prince. On the other hand, writing about Oppenheim’s Object is hard—because ideas and emotions that drive it are felt rather than stated. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.

In the digital age, thinking about humanity is more productive than worrying about the possibility of losing our humanity. As we fall deeper down the cyber rabbit-hole, and our eyes become increasingly mediated by the inches-small screens to which we constantly refer, we must also recognize that we crave texture. We are still sensory humans, with hair, and toenails, and teeth, and emotional instincts, and we want to feel things. 2001 has come and gone, and there was no space odyssey, the machines did not take over the space ship, and the universe did not dissolve into floating, abstract shapes. Instead, when a volcano erupted in Iceland, ashes spread out against the sky in a funeral for science, and no amount of technology could predict where or when the ash clouds were going to move next, and we find ourselves very much tied to this material world.

MAUD DOYLE B’11 lies on fur naked and talks to people.