Something is amiss and slightly menacing in one of Manhattan’s numerous Chinatown massage parlors. Acupuncture needles have been stabbed meticulously into anatomy posters, and in the fish tank with its robust fish are shattered bits of a terracotta statue with a few massage suction cups, one encasing a severed stone head. The intervention is the work of Prune Nourry, whose Imbalance installation is a subtle response to the inharmonious state of the environment and gender in China.
Nearby, the Brooklyn-based French artist just opened an exhibition of her Terracotta Daughters at the still-under-construction China Institute as part of French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) Crossing the Line Festival. With 108 sculptures mimicking the famed Terracotta Warriors, but in the form of schoolgirls, Nourry created a striking response to the decreasing number of female babies in China due to the one-child policy and sex-selective abortions. The Imbalance work in the Rio Grande foot and back massage parlor on Grand Street is her attempt to bridge from the museum space into the actual Chinese community in the city.
The parlor is really on the edge of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, as the waning bustle of the annual San Gennaro festival showed when I visited on the opening day for Imbalance last Saturday morning. Rio Grande is down a hallway totally lined with other massage options, their neon signs and curtained windows seeming indistinguishable from each other. But when I got to the end something was immediately different, with faces of the female Terracotta Warriors placed among the signs, and a strangely augmented anatomical figure on the door.
Inside one of the rooms were acupuncture needles pinned into male and female body diagrams beneath a lamp and jarred hand, while in the other there were curious touches like a small Terracotta Warrior with his head missing, replaced by a massage suction cup, and claimed by the aquarium. It was all aimed at hinting an “imbalance” in this place of improving bodily harmony, with the tools of the massage trade made slightly foreboding. Similar to her Holy Daughters project, where she infiltrated the 2011 Durga Festival in Kolkata with her own female cow goddess, the works blend with the existing elements, but with a definite otherness.
I recently visited the Terracotta Daughters at le Centquatre arts center in Paris, and after the China Institute they’ll go to Mexico and eventually return to China for a burial in a secret location until 2030, when the country’s urban population is predicted to reach a billion people. How the country’s gender balance will be reflected in that urban boom will be determined by the demographic decisions today.
Prune Nourry’s Imbalance is on view at the Rio Grande foot-massage parlor (179A Grand Street, Chinatown) from 10 am to 9 pm each day through October 4.