BUFFALO, New York — I don’t know you like that: The Bodywork of Hospitality, at the University at Buffalo’s CFA Gallery and Anderson Gallery, is both exceptionally apt and prescient. It also underscores the potential of university museums and galleries, including those far from the art world limelight, to mount daring, innovative shows that most mainstream museums wouldn’t touch.
Guest curator, and former artistic/executive director of the Montreal Biennale, Sylvie Fortin began researching hospitality as a complex theme in contemporary art considerably before the COVID-19 pandemic and other decidedly inhospitable crises; the first (somewhat different) iteration of this show was last year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. Diverse artworks by 17 international and US artists engage Fortin’s hospitality/body theme from multiple perspectives that go well beyond the conventional meaning of “hospitality” as generosity and conviviality.
Cross-species hospitality, for example, in Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s engrossing, and disturbing, video “Hybrid: An Interspecies Opera” (2022), which explores the longstanding relationship between humans and pigs. Gorgeously scored by Bethany Barrett, with a libretto of quotations from scientists and archaeologists, the video’s five movements feature images of human-swine interaction from antiquity, wild boars at the edge of some town, genetically engineered pigs in research facilities and laboratories, and 3D-printed ceramic pigs. The live pigs — thoughtful, emotive, curious, tender — are being raised to donate their organs to humans, for which they will die. Talk about taking hospitality to the extreme.
Or humans-nature hospitality. Lithuanian Eglė Budvytytė filmed her mesmerizing video “Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars” (2020) at her country’s coastal Curonian Spit. In the video (also exhibited in The Milk of Dreams at the 2022 Venice Biennale) several young adults purposefully traverse a pine forest, sand dunes, and water, always remaining close and physically attentive to one another. Evoking animals on the move or a composite shape-shifting organism, they are part of nature and its processes, not its anthropocentric masters. The accompanying song is enthralling.
While its two sites are several miles apart, this is a wholly integrated show in which correspondences — sometimes pronounced, sometimes subtle — develop between disparate works. Budvytytė’s video connects with London-based Adham Faramawy’s video installation “Skin Flick” (2019–21), which prominently features a horned, ever-changing protagonist, and likewise concerns bodily transformation, fluidity, and merging with nature, especially flora (the horned figure invokes the Daphne myth).
The representation of bodies is fascinating — whether overtly or obliquely, and in relation to myriad forces and influences. Toronto-based Luis Jacob’s towering, white, headless, “classical” male nude sculpture, made of epoxy resin and marble dust, seems to be taking a selfie with an invisible camera or, perhaps, a picture of viewers, confronting them about their potential reactions to his frontal nudity (“Sphinx,” 2015).
Loose glass beads in cracks and corners on the floor amount to the body weight of Jeneen Frei Njootli, a 2SQ Vuntut Gwitchin, Czech, and Dutch artist living in Old Crow, Yukon (“Fighting for the title not to be pending,” 2020). The many beads assert the artist’s indigenous culture and ancestry but are also subject to disappearance, as some will be surreptitiously taken by visitors. Working with researchers at the university, French artist Jean-Charles de Quillacq devised artificial sweat (based on his own), applied each day as a slight stain to the wall, as if he had been leaning against it: a bodily reminder, an intimate trace, an act of hospitality between bodies and architecture (“Ma Sis T’Aime Reproductive,” 2022).
Other works also directly incorporate the architecture. Ukrainian American Slinko’s video “Economy of Means” (2022) is on a freestanding wall at one entrance, one of many unorthodox and effective curatorial touches. Bread loaves, baguettes, and bagels form basic mathematical signs, dance about in abstract patterns, and engage in a frenetic fight. One only gradually discovers that these casts of foodstuffs are attached to the bodies of shadowy human performers. While humorous and exuberant, the video invokes the politics and economics of food, including privilege and abundance in some quarters, and food insecurity and famine in others, heightened by global warming and Vladimir Putin’s horrid war on majorly agricultural Ukraine.
Lynne Marsh’s striking Atlas_ (2021) wallpaper series cover five dispersed walls. During the worst of the pandemic, she invited performers to enact their interpretations of a gesture attributed to nymphs in Aby Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas archive; this was done in a “volumetric video capture studio,” according to the brochure, and was digitally recorded. Marsh then turned the raw, flattened-out visual data into wallpaper. Each differently colored work is a fragmentary and elusive portrait of one person with repeating imagery: a partial face, a hand, part of a forearm, snippets of clothing.
Throughout, Fortin’s sensitive curation is in service to artworks, artists, ideas, and viewers. In the center of one space — prime real estate — viewers are enveloped by Celina Eceiza’s vibrantly colored fabric rooms “La vida terrenal reconquista al soñador” (Earthly Life Reconquers the Dreamer, 2022). Chalk drawings on canvas, bleached drawings, hand-dyed fabric, embroidery, patchwork, various recycled materials, clay sculptures, and handmade books show bewitching human figures, a spectacular bird, what look like single-cell organisms, flowers, windows, doors, and many other things: a fecund dreamscape with a childlike flair, an entrancing — though sometimes alarming — mini world. Cushions are provided for viewers to sit and recline while absorbing the imagery and (as with me) blissing out.
Shifts and surprises abound. Eceiza’s installation is followed by the tender and tough installation “DNCB “(2021) by Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger. A captivating 16mm film (“hand-processed,” according to Husain, “with non-toxic” materials including turmeric and St. John’s wort) and a video with a hypnotic soundtrack that addresses a time, early on in the AIDS epidemic, when people, assisting one another, turned to the toxic chemical dinitrochlorbenzene (DNCB), used to process color photographic film, as a topical medication, out of desperation. Accompanying audio interviews with DNCB users are informative and deeply touching.
Elsewhere is more prime gallery real estate: a long, centrally located white wall with nothing on it. I’m betting that Fortin is the only curator ever to have done this here.
The empty wall works wonders. It accentuates three small, partially figurative sculptures, in different stages of bodily locomotion, by Berenice Olmedo (“Akro-Banein,” 2020). Displayed on a low, white plinth, they are made of medical materials, including a leg support for a gynecological bed and an orthopedic stockinette: hospitality between bodies and prosthetic devices.
Even more, the wall accentuates Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled (Entrails)” (2019–20), an imposing, black, drooping and coiling sculpture suspended from the ceiling on a gleaming silver chain. Made of fabric, chicken wire, acrylic, and meat hooks, it hints at Modernist abstraction but also suggests entrails and lynching — the violation of a Black individual’s body. Again, correspondences. In Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s three startling digital C-prints from his series The Blinding Light (2013–17), combining images of a contemporary operating room with a scene from a Fra Angelico altarpiece, a deceased Black man’s leg is transplanted onto a white male. The works are a graphic reminder of how white people have used Black people to their advantage for centuries.
I’ve addressed some, but hardly all, of the compelling works in this exhibition, which features a full roster of screenings, artist talks, and performances (including an upcoming one by Canadian performance artist Bridget Moser, who also has an installation here). While addressing hospitality in multiple ways, the show itself is especially welcoming and hospitable.
I don’t know you like that: The Bodywork of Hospitality continues at the UB Anderson Gallery (1 Martha Jackson Place, Buffalo, New York) and UB CFA Gallery (201 Center for the Arts, Buffalo, New York) at the University at Buffalo through May 12. The exhibition was curated by Sylvie Fortin.