No selfies were harmed in the making of this exhibition.
In “The Body Electric,” opening Saturday at Walker Art Center, nearly 50 artists or collectives consider the body’s relationship to technology. But it shouldn’t prompt the “those kids are addicted to their phones” complaints typically triggered by shows like this. In fact, it’s not very selfie-able. There’s nothing shiny or reflective to be found.
That’s just the way Walker curator Pavel Pyś planned it.
While a lot of such art focuses on selfies, Pyś found himself frustrated by seeing younger artists singled out, isolated from any historical trajectory about art and technology. This show is boldly intergenerational, with the youngest artist aged 26 and the oldest 83.
Strobe effects, video, holograms, talking avatars, 3-D glasses, a fog machine, and even a workout bike make this exhibition interactive, cacophonous and not for the sensory-sensitive.
To help keep viewers from being overwhelmed, the show is organized into four clear-cut themes. Gender and race play a significant role in the artists presented here, which is 75 percent women and somewhat racially diverse, with a handful of trans-identifying artists.
The first piece visitors will see is by the only Minneapolis artist in the show. James Byrne’s “Scale Drawing,” originally created in 1975 and re-created for this exhibition, is the black outline of a man drawn on a wall with a felt-tip pen, with the figure’s left hand shown on an old television screen. This early investigation into the mediated body and television, which Pyś found in the Walker’s permanent collection, acts as an anchor for the show.
“It was kind of an icon for the show, this meditation on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, ”said Pyś. “It summarizes so much.”
Pyś, who admits to owning only an iPhone 4, said phones weren’t a driving force of his curatorial vision. This show is more interested in bringing younger artists into a historical context with artists from other eras, many of whom have a history with the Walker.
One such piece is Joan Jonas’ “Funnel,” the artist’s meditation on the cone as both sculptural object and a device to amplify one’s voice. It was first presented in the ’70s as an event and is now revisited, 45 years later, as an installation.
Shown in a room opposite her are video excerpts from the Wooster Group’s 1990s theater work “House/Lights.” In this early work, the experimental New York troupe began dragging a TV onto the stage, thus “splintering, doubling, multiplying the presence of the actors’ bodies on the stage, confusing this space of action and of representation,” as Pyś explained.
This technique of mixing past with present serves the curatorial staging of the show throughout.
In the second thematic gallery, “Performing for the Camera,” instead of glorifying an artist like Amalia Ulman whose 2014 Instagram performance “Excellences & Perfections” explored the ways in which personas can be fabricated on the social platform, Pyś contextualizes her among other artists who expose feminine constructs.
Next to her work are Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait “Untitled” (1981), in which she plays with the convention of a centerfold model — making it more of a source of horror than desire — and Lorna Simpson’s “LA ’57-NY ’09” (2009), a series of black-and-white images from the 1950s and ’60s that the artist reshot with herself in the present day to think about constructions of black femininity.
In grouping older and younger artists who are essentially doing the same thing — turning the camera on themselves to uncover gendered and racialized social constructions — it becomes clear that while technology has changed, the issues that artists investigate have not.
Despite the somewhat dry premise, the show is lively, fun and interactive, and there’s a lot of work to navigate through.
German artist Wolf Vostell apparently was the first artist to bring a TV into the gallery; his 1985 work “Endogen Depression” — a television encased in concrete — is on display in the first gallery. In a 2014 series of “Selfie” photographs, Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska documents how she used pigskin to create disconnected models of her own body (eyes, fingers, mouth, face) and physicalize a form that is typically viewed digitally.
Simone Forti’s “Bug Jump” (1975-78) is a hologram of exactly that. Martine Syms’ “Untitled Wallpaper” (2018) covers an entire wall with media depictions and familiar representations of African-Americans and even a snippet of her iPhone screen.
The final gallery, “The Malleable Body,” focuses on artists who are physically transitioning in some way, and this is where the show gets more meta.
Marianna Simnett’s video “The Needle and the Larynx” mixes medical reporting and a creepy fairytale-like treatment as it shows her getting a Botox treatment to lower her voice. Candice Lin and Patrick Staff’s “Hormonal Fog (Study #1)” is a witchy homemade fog machine that emits an herbal concoction to suppress the production of testosterone, an aid in male-to-female transition.
For “In Sickness and Study,” Carolyn Lazard, who has an autoimmune disease, posted a series of biweekly photographs to Instagram showing her arm receiving a blood transfusion while her hand holds the book she’s currently reading.
Still, this show is far from the selfie.
“We worked from it on the other side, thinking about that interest in presenting the self and performing for the camera, then [that] led us to artists who work on Instagram or YouTube,” said curatorial fellow Jadine Collingwood, who assisted Pyś with the exhibition. “Part of the goal is to think about how artists started to use these flexible technologies — portapack camera, photography in general — and then up to today where it is very easy to produce a video online.”