LONDON — “Looks” is a slippery word. It’s something you can have, as with “her good looks”; perform, as in “she looks at it”; and try on, as one slips in and out of “the latest looks.” Fittingly, the protean word is also the title of the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ current group show, a cross-media exhibition that brings a perspicacious, roving eye to the human body and self-identity in a networked age.
Looks is appealingly smart. It’s not post-human in the hardline Derridean sense, but it considers the ways in which digital or late-capitalist experience has coaxed the clay of human experience into what is arguably a new shape. The exhibition sketches out subjects who are prone to alternative personalities both on- and offline, who in a sweaty tangle of networks and xenoestrogens embark on an ontological slip-and-slide.
Several photographs in the show by Stewart Uoo depict Mz DeSe Bae Escobar, a transgender fashion muse who has been called the “ALTimate Kardashian.” As it plays with gender, DeSe’s image shifts fluidly across and within the photos. In one print, “Bad Bitch Heaven” (2014), she sports a netted mini-dress, metallic pink heels, and a heavily made-up face as she poses theatrically with a gun under a light feathering of snow. Five plastic, pink talons bedeck the nails of only one of her hands, leaving the other bare; a colored contact lens turns one brown eye cornflower blue in what must be a tongue-in-cheek Christopher Williams reference.
The manner in which identity in “Bad Bitch Heaven” is some open-ended combination of gender performance, advertising theatrics, and artificial appendages feels uncomplicated, which may be Uoo’s point. A couple of decades on, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble isn’t as troubling as it used to be; with networks, branding, and affective labor everywhere we look, most representations of identity we encounter are to some degree dialogic, performed, and enhanced.
In Looks, consumer culture has a significant role in the formation of the self, down to the level of hormones. When I came across a series of large monochrome paintings in tones of cobalt blue, mustard yellow, and damp earthen grey, I wondered if I had accidentally wandered into a different exhibition. In fact, the seven monochromes compose Juliette Bonneviot’s 2015 cycle Xenoestrogens.
The works are made not from paint but from a wide array of unconventional artistic materials sorted by color — including contraceptive pills, PVC, pesticides, and silicone — that act as endocrine disrupters. The xenoestrogens in these materials mimic oestrogen in the mammalian endocrine system and are believed to hold the potential to influence gender and behavior. Monochrome paintings and human endocrine systems may seem self-contained, sealed off from the politics and techno-chemical products of rampant consumerism; yet Bonneviot’s body of work points to a certain porosity on both fronts.
Andrea Crespo’s video piece “Parabiosis–Neurolibidinal Induction Complex” (2015) strategically uses the space of the screen to induce a sense of dissociation from and discomfort in one’s physical body. A UV scanner sputters across the monitor, muddying the division between what is outside and inside the digital; a high-pitched mechanical noise unnerves human ears; a stream of hashtagged terms like #polygender #alter #anxiety #sensoryprocessingdisorder scroll across and up the screen too quickly to be fully processed. “Parabiosis” puts forward the notion that selfhood, particularly neurodivergent selfhood, might find a more comfortable home on the multiplicity-friendly web — in alternative identities and avatars — than in a flesh-and-blood body.
In a sketch transposed over a medical chart of mental illness, two cute manga characters share a body that sprouts two heads. Implying that identity is fragmented, Crespo’s system reproduces, in the words of Jack Kahn, “a composite of selves which do not come from a discrete psychic interiority, but from the informational neuroecologies that comprise the digital present.” As much as social media might put pressure on users to perform some idealized (happy! beautiful! fun!) self, in other corners of the web individuals might find themselves performing identities that actually ease the everyday pressure of self-representing as a complete person (instead of, say, a bunch of shifting nodes and experiences).
Like the fluctuating identities explored by the works on view, Looks as a whole is pretty open-ended. Yes, our tenuous 21st century selfhood (and particularly its constituent elements of gender identity and sexuality) is frequently multiple, fluid, and woven into networks — but what then? This exciting and, for many, anxiety-inducing conversation is still very much in its polyp stage, its unsettled, slippery skin getting only marginally more fleshed out with each “new media” reader and “post-digital” exhibit.
Looks continues at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH) through June 21.