Head Gallery, in association with The Artist's Institute, presents a unique collaboration between Marina Abramović and Haim Steinbach. Last summer, in the idyllic setting of the Upper Hudson Valley, Steinbach put together a small barn-studio in which he incubated a series of Abramović clones. He then severed their heads to facilitate the production of a new range of ‘commodity’ shelves.
Installed vertically for the first time, blood and urine drip down from one shelf to another like a fountain-cascade, culminating in a grotesque carpet of flesh that runs over to the window and hangs down the side of the tower block, for over fifty floors. Then the liquefied bodies of 25 paedophiles are poured down the interior tube that the flesh produces - around an interior bone-maze - dripping out onto the pavement 20 minutes later. At the same time, Tarantino’s post-colonial critical masterpiece Django Unchained is projected on the side of the building, with commentary by Steinbach himself and Bill Viola.
The project began with a talk by Johanna Burton, titled "Reification-is-progress--we are not animals". This was followed by a conversation between Haim Steinbach and Alain Badiou on the relationship between decapitation and truth-procedure. At midnight, short videos presenting a visualisation of the birth of a child and/or a prediction of sacrifice and torture were screened, as Bill Viola unfurled his impenetrable exegesis on the mystical undercurrent of splatter embryonic fluids; and finally Daniel Birnbaum closed the evening with an explanation of 'speculative sputum culture' and 'spectral accelerationist deglutination' in his inimitable Artforum-speak without once, miraculously, referring to Lovecraft.
Out in front of the building, on the sidewalk under the coagulated offal and bone structure, the flesh is beginning to stink. Things have gone too far. Fifty babies and a horse thrown into the mix - you do the fucking math. You tally it up. A lost horse is a lost horse! And 50 little children--not as bad as a lost horse--but still. What was this about? Was it a probing of the notion of community, of the community-to-come, the generic community of a universalized equality-as-mush, a refolding of all human elements, paedos as much as innocent children, into a uniform soup of humanity that finally marches out of the realm of Necessity. Or is this just a reduction to a cruel kind of bureaucracy and number crunching. The number, the statistic, as the final arbiter of aesthetics. Ledger-inscription as evidence of...what? Radical politics? Participation? Class war? Relational engagement? A totting up of the slaughtered, as an accountant’s column for a statement of intent. An abject inventory inspired by nothing except the desperation to serve up a spectacle.
The depravity is too rehearsed. Lumpenly designed to include the correct levels of horror and to laboriously trawl through the clapped out vocabulary of 20th century avant-garde nonsense. The indexing of desperate egos against a Hit-list of art historical abjection. Luxuriating in the terror and oppression of others. Is it funny to witness the look of horror of the young children lured with lies about new lives, prosperity and wealth? With lies about cures and release dates for their relatives? Is it instructive to record the facial expressions of a child watching the torture of their Mother? Is this critical? The begging and pleading that is met only with mocking laughter? Is it amusing or intellectually rewarding to watch as one hundred and fifty people are transformed into smooth flesh-cream and then some of them pumped around a flesh fountain, modelled on the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome, while the rest are pumped into toothpaste tubes and sold in a signed and numbered edition of 250 - or put on "commodity" shelves with Spiderman clocks? Sneering sadism and banal violence. A kind of cynicism for life. Or is it exuberance – this is the question?
After a while, outside on the street, a few figures are pushed out of a van: Prince Charles, the old Queen Elizabeth at 160, the flame-haired King Harry and the two young Princes, Beatrice and Philomena, one sporting a titanium prosthetic, are shoved onto a special 'commodity' stage/public art piece that Steinbach has erected in black granite in front of the ground floor gallery. One by one the royals are dispatched with a bolt gun and left to lie on the floor. Someone films the bodies for a bit but he seems to get bored and goes back inside the gallery.
The bodies are swept away and the street is empty for a few minutes - just the gently swinging body-tube and ornate shadow below. Django's credits fade. Then, unexpected, like a thunderclap, the door of the gallery slams open. There is a puff of toxic pink smoke. The art collector and arms dealer Blaze Mannon bursts out with one of the goblin-mutants that had been cryo-frozen and displayed on a Steinbach 'commodity' shelf with three Abramović heads. It had got unfrozen! Now its on Blaze's back rubbing its face against the affecto-intelligent fabric of his 5,000 dollar suit. Blaze is screaming and clawing behind him as the goblin is now biting and slashing at his back --- slashing open his suit then systematically cutting away flesh to reveal his backbone. Blaze screams and falls forward onto the floor. The goblin stabs his claw determinedly into his back, curling his fingers behind the vertebra – pulling violently – Blaze flails manically behind him - ineffectively – then SNAP – Blaze’s body goes limp like a rag doll – his face flopping forward comically into the liquiefied flesh. More pink smoke puffs out of the door. The goblin has pushed his suck-tongue into the vertebra searching for marrow. Blaze’s gaze is directed paralysed-forward in frozen-horror as his face sinks into the coagulating pink.
A muscular Head Gallery security man emerges from the door, grabs the goblin figure and throws him across the road. The goblin smacks against the crete and skids across to the gutter. Motionless at first then lifting itself up on one arm and attempting a 'fuck-you-finger'. A second security guard walks across the road and stamps down on the goblin’s head, crushing it. Skull fragments explode into the air.
The first guard is now attending to Blaze, a valuable and long term patron of the gallery. He lifts up his head, and tries to get some form of response. He makes a quick assessment of the situation – Blaze wasn’t one of the one’s they wanted to kill - then following instructions from an ear piece – quickly twists Blaze’s head, snapping his neck. He stomps his face to ground beef. Better a dead collector than a paralyzed one.
Next out are the two remaining mutant freaks. The man with three faces holding his hacked off penis stump and then the fairy Princess with her wing grafts, gagging and coughing as she emerges into the evening air. At one point Johanna Burton staggers out of the door retching onto the paving outside. Followed out by the famous communist art critic Hadrow Williams, shirtless, looking up at the sky before re-entering the gallery.
As the blobby-liquidy flesh coagulates outside, and its juices run down the street - one of the few remaining baboons from the performance limps out of the gallery, an Abramović head tucked under its arm. Its face has been hacked badly on the left side and one of its legs clearly broken in two places. He limps through the liqui-flesh that is pooling in the gutter, flesh-bubblegum, and then off down the street, over the dead collector, past the giant palms, like a scene from the Jurassic. Easy meat for the various predators that roam the non-protected sections of NU-York. He is now as vulnerable as the old and broke alzheimer’s patients that the hospitals release with their drips at dawn.
Outside the late Nu-York sun beats down the side of the top of the building, 80 stories above. At street level a languid heat lays heavy above the crete - the shadows are deepening and extending but the atmosphere remains hot and heavy. In front of us the milky white opaque glass façade of the head gallery, glossy, blank, unremitting, inscribed with the name of the current exhibition.
After maybe five or six minutes there is a muffled hooting sound. Three bursts then silence. The door bursts open and people desperately try to fight their way out. Almost simultaneously the whole front of the Head Gallery is basted outwards. A massive explosive force pulverizes the gallery window and doors and the gallery contents against the façade of the building on the opposite side of the road - smashed up human bodies, shredded flesh, organs, hair, bones, fragments of clothes - dripping slowly down the brick work like a complex skein of flesh and matter, liquid-jelly settles and coagulates in the mortar lines. The interior of the Head Gallery is blasted back to its reinforced concrete walls and the metal security door to interior offices. The smoking and blackened gallery structure resembles a classic period Michael Asher. The other side of the road looks like abstract expressionism made out of meat. So, better.
The coagulating flesh is now stinking out front. But clean up teams are immediatly on the scene - the interior and street area is foam-cleansed; plasti-blast teams re-coat the walls, polish the crete floor and a new aluminium and pre-fabricated glass front is fitted within hours. At the same time a variety of crates are delivered to the gallery. A man in overalls applies the final details: vinyl lettering spelling out the artist’s name HAIM STEINBACH And within another hour a new set of guests are arriving. In ones and twos at first then in long lines. Hailing each other as they arrive. Dropped off in cars and taxis.
The Head Gallery techs appear content with the results. They claim in the following years that this was an exercise in market management. A necessary culling of collectors to free up capital. To unclog blocked up channels of exchange and calcified taste. And just whatever…
Then there is the sound of an engine - like an old 20th century motor, more screaming, more laughter. A man in shiny pink overalls exits the gallery and calls a hovva-pod on his wrist-com. The pod descends within minutes, whisking him away. There is the sound of more laughter. The sky above is a deep orange. A greyish-pink liquid trickles out through the door, and concealed drains in the front of the gallery. Sticky liquid flesh. Pooling and coagulating on the street outside.
Haim Steinbach’s M-C-M (1994) addresses the issue of cultural accumulation and circulation through the BenVida’s CC (Collector Cull edition) (2011) is a recording of a political manifesto calling for a 'restructuring of the art economy' through a ‘violent reduction’ of art collectors. As Vida describes, an increase in art collectors will increase demand for art which, assuming a fixed supply, increases prices (gratuitously) - to stretch even the highest budgets. It therefore might seem logical to assume that collectors themselves would have an interest in reducing the number of collectors themselves. As a way of reducing prices. But collectors nowadays want the prices high to balance the cancerous banality eating them away from the inside out. As an equivilence 'X' of psycho-sensible and exchange values. All these objects - as the last desperate hope that things might add up. Shoring themselves up against eternity and feeding their death-drive despair. The capital exhange must be high to match the misery congealed in this desperate appeal to cultural trinkets joylessly hoarded up like some old piss-stained alcoholic in a tenement flat protecting memories of when he was a pre-schooler on the beach with Mommy ... when life was real ... pure ... meaningful. Like some kind of perverse flagellation, to repay for the crimes of mediocrity and desperation, fed by endless hours of labour stolen from invisible populations.
Steinbach’s M-C-M is on view
January 12th through March 1
Performance by Ben Vida:
Saturday 12th January at ICA, London
7 - 10pm
Jennie Ekstrand, Matthew Logsdon, Janet Yoon