Nineteen years ago, Anselm Kiefer unveiled an installation at Marian Goodman Gallery called “20 Years of Loneliness,” which featured two decades’ worth of the artist’s work stacked in a towering pyramid (there were rumors that Kiefer was planning to set it on fire) along with two tables filled with large ledgers whose blank pages were stained with squirts of the artist’s semen.
The critical reaction was merciless.
In The New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote:
From one vantage point the piece reads like a giant Drop Dead to the 80’s, its booming art market and its many Kiefer-worshipping collectors […] Loneliness? Why not “20 Years of Rising Prices”? The work also seems like a desperate play for attention, given the fact that in recent years Mr. Kiefer’s critical stock has dropped considerably.
There is an ongoing debate over the usefulness of negative criticism, which is along the lines of “Why not just ignore bad art and talk about the good?” This is a discussion I find more or less irrelevant.
When I write about something it is because it’s got some there there: an inner tension that engenders an interior conversation. Often this happens in the presence of original ideas ingeniously executed. But just as often it doesn’t. A work’s quality, significance or beauty doesn’t always provide that spark. Usually it’s something elusive and imperfect but prickly enough to demand examination.
And at other times there are shows so imbecilic that they cry out for some kind of intervention. Intentionally or not, they exist as affronts to the artistic community through self-seeking sensationalism or sheer empty-headedness, and play into the hands of those in the wider culture who would marginalize boundary-pushing visual expression even further than it already is.
Is Andreas Slominski’s “Sperm” at Metro Pictures one of those shows? (Richard Phillips’ current painting and film exhibition at Gagosian almost certainly is, and I say “almost” only because I didn’t stay long enough to watch the Lindsay Lohan surfer-movie-cum-fashion-shoot in its entirety.)
The press release for Slominski’s show explains it all:
Andreas Slominski’s “Sperm” comprises the semen of humans and animals splashed on the walls and floors of Metro Pictures. The theme of the exhibition is that of touch, specifically the moment sperm fuses with the ovum and fertilization occurs. As the foundation of existence, Slominski identifies touch as one of the most important forces in our world. “Sperm” represents both a shift in focus and continuation of Slominski’s engagement with this notion of the instant of contact, which has been a key element in the traps that have been a signature aspect of his work for more than 25 years. The elaborate and often hidden processes that go into Slominski’s exhibitions and works have long been the poetic and brutal crux of his practice.
It goes on to state that “’Sperm’ disrupts codified notions of sculpture in a way similar to Slominski’s traps, but where the traps replace marble or plaster as material, “Sperm” eliminates the tangible object.”
Are we truly, as Gore Vidal memorably put it, the United States of Amnesia? Are we seriously being invited to ponder the significance of replacing marble or plaster as a sculptural material, as Marcel Duchamp did in 1913, or of eliminating the tangible object altogether, as the Conceptualists, Performance Artists and Body Artists did decades ago (most pointedly, in Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” of 1972, where he lay hidden and masturbating under a wooden ramp on the gallery floor)?
The press release also states that in his use of sperm:
[…] Slominski acknowledges the burgeoning ubiquity of imaged semen—a new development in the history of images, which only first appeared in so-called adult films in the 1970’s but has proliferated since the onset of the internet. “Sperm” is Slominski’s laconic elaboration on this expanded field.
Good to know. The text concludes with a note of thanks to “Cornell University Equine Research Park, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation.”
I tend to give artists the benefit of the doubt, however, and it could be that Slominski has been particularly ill-served by the text. I’ve never seen his traps in person, unfortunately, but the images available on Metro Pictures’ site are quite arresting, especially “Trap for Birds of Prey” and “Dog Trap” (both 1999).
They seem like the work of an intelligent, probing artist who has looked carefully at African masks, Joseph Beuys and Krzysztof Wodiczko (not to mention Duchamp’s caged marble sugar cubes from 1921, “Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?”), and who is dealing with issues of personal and political containment and dominance.
This dialogue between past art and current ideas is entirely absent from “Sperm.” The gallery is practically empty, save for a few bales of hay, a scattering of colorful flip-flops and a vial of stallion semen, along with wall texts citing the human or animal sources of the stains on the wall and floor.
“Stain,” however, is too emphatic a term. The traces of semen are virtually invisible, which may be the point, or it may not. Despite the press release’s claims to the contrary, the wall-mounted horse specimen and a still-viscous gob of bull jism on the floor of the gallery’s largest room are quite tangible as objects. In fact, the show’s built-in obligatory transgression is not the lack of material objects but the viewers’ projection of what it would feel like to handle the stuff.
But if you ignore all that and think about the installation in light of Slominski’s traps and the ruder aspects of animal husbandry, there is something sinister, sad and ridiculous about his presentation of captured horse semen and spattered bull sperm. That he implicitly equates the powerlessness and domestication of large mammals with the human sphere by spotlighting stains from airplane pilots and others tends to verge on the simplistic, to say the least.
“Sperm” is a misfire, but I wouldn’t count it as cynical or vacuous. Still, its ideas are too diffuse to have any impact, or to prod further thought. It is one thing to encounter an empty gallery, and another to leave it empty-handed; as was the case with Acconci’s “Seedbed,” one does not necessarily follow the other.
Andreas Slominski: Sperm continues at Metro Pictures (519 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 27.