DETROIT — Based on her experience, artist Lauren Kalman has a pro tip for how to successfully mold one’s bodily orifices. “The word of warning is, don’t open your mouth as wide as you possibly can, and then fill it with a hardening substance,” she told me. “I almost got that plaster stuck in my mouth.”
The conversation took place during a solo exhibition of new works by Kalman at Holding House, called DEVICES FOR FILLING A VOID. It features mixed media works produced by Kalman over the course of several years, based on molding the negative space of her body.
“Some of these I did with body-safe silicon,” said Kalman, “others are plaster in a balloon — super low-tech. Some are expandable foam, in a weather balloon, and then I hold them or lay on them until it sets, and then I make another mold.”
While Kalman’s molding methods may be bootlegged, the resulting objects are extremely elegant and refined, with details that reveal Kalman’s undergraduate roots in jewelry-making. The large, ovoid vessels are smooth, slip-cast, or hand-built ceramic, punctuated by golden accents and offshoots — actually gold-plated copper that Kalman transfers to wax molds via electroforming. Some of the pieces are quite figurative, easily identified as molded off Kalman’s palate, or the space between her fingers in a loosely clenched fist. Others are highly abstract and only identifiable as interactions with Kalman’s body in the context of photographs that hang on the gallery’s walls, surrounding the vessels and forms atop pedestals.
These photographs add layers of tension and alienation to work that might otherwise be a seamless aesthetic exercise. In the same sense that one might enjoy bacon less if they watch the pig get slaughtered, the connection to Kalman’s specific body and the process she has undergone to produce these objects is laid out in graphic terms, as she photographs herself interacting with the finished objects in much the same way she produced them. Kalman is nude in the photographs, stretching her mouth to accommodate golden dental appliances, flopped stomach-down and head turned away over a rolling ceramic pelvic mold, or back to the camera edging precariously down onto a large ovoid ceramic base with a nodule presumably entering her anal cavity. To see the process that produced these works is to see them in another light, and Kalman’s willingness to put her body at stake is a continuing motif in her work, which has included live and video performances in addition to object- and image-making.
“That’s the challenge and the critique of female performance art and imaging — is it not just reinforcing these same modes of objectifying the body?” Kalman asked. “At some point I had to stake my flag and say I find it empowering to use my body, and important that I’m the performer in my work, for the most part, and also the photographer. At some point, the body becomes the subject, and for me that’s why hiring models feels wrong.”
As someone without male genitalia, I can sympathize but not viscerally relate to watching a guy get kicked in the balls. Conversely, Kalman’s interventions with her body evoke a personal, bodily response in me, as a female viewer with similar orifices. It makes for an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience. From watching a video segment from her piece “Circus of Broken Desires” in an adjacent installation of selections from Kalman’s concurrent body of work, Avatar — in which the artist slowly scootches, one naked butt-cheek at a time, across a filthy warehouse floor — I feel as though I may have developed a vicarious UTI.
Kalman’s inspiration for some of her fantastical objects came from real-world medical devices designed to train, straighten, or augment the body for the purpose of healing deformations or attempting cosmetic improvements. A kind of headgear-from-hell, based on a device designed to hold the soft tissue in place while healing from a broken nose, has been extended to include the relief-cast of Kalman’s nasal passages. In the picture where Kalman has reincorporated the object, her eyes roll in crucifixion-style anguish while a long thread of drool streams over her bottom lip from her clamped teeth.
Kalman has managed to achieve a tricky balance, creating beautiful objects with no attention spared to detail, through a process that evokes horror and alienation. In this way, DEVICES FOR FILLING A VOID is a an object lesson in contemporary womanhood, largely characterized by a struggle for ownership and agency within a body that patriarchy feels entitled to judge, alter, and violate. In a photograph that greets visitors on the entry wall of the gallery, Kalman is nude and pictured from the waist up, holding a medium-sized white ovoid topped by a gold nipple. There is an unmistakable visual lexicon of motherhood in the way she holds the object, and in the literal act of sucking the nipple of the device — but, of course, the role is reversed, disrupting the tableau.
Kalman is not using the void of her womb to create a child to nurture; rather, she has created a formula for seeing herself not as a collection of empty spaces, but as a generative force capable of nourishing herself through this exploration. It is a remarkable sentiment, and in a culture that constantly places the demand on women to create space for others, a truly radical image.