Stimuli at Witte de With, Rotterdam (1999-2000)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 19(6), pp. 72-3 in 2000.

Stimuli at Witte de With

“Jungles of history, context, and theory seem to have banned the body from the realm of vision,” announces the press release. “Yet it is undeniable that art relies more than ever on direct impulse, on the bodily intake of stimuli.” With this as a starting point, “Stimuli” included works by Vito Acconci, Dennis Adams, Francis Alÿs, Marcel Duchamp, Justin van Duurling, Peter Fillingham, Runa Islam, Ann Veronica Janssens, Rob Johannesma, Piero Manzoni, Matt Mullican, Bruce Nauman, Lou Reed, Nasrin Tabatabai, Fiona Tan, Koen Timmermans, Ulay, and Elina Montesinos.

Overall, the works provided crisscrossing discourses across medium, approach, and the thematic thread addressing “various levels of consciousness, including hypnosis, trance, and shock.” Historically, Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs (1935) presented a playful introduction and precursor, with the optical-oriented disks placed on a series of curatorially selected turntables used to illustrate their motion-induced effects. Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1962), with canvas becoming the frame and framed hair-like fiberglass emerging outward, is smartly covered by Plexiglas— the material tweaks the viewer to try to touch it. Vito Acconci’s video Theme Song (1973) plays on superficial TV and music madness, and Acconci creates his own variety with extremely distorting face-front depth.

Lou Reed’s installation Mental Music Machine (1975) consisted of four speakers set in quadrophilia (four loudspeakers to literally “wrap” the listener in sound). Inside a brightly lit, circular, silver-curtained space, site and sound enclosed the viewer. Bruce Nauman’s video installation Clown Torture (1987), inspired by Andy Warhol’s endless sleeping films, presents the artist as “psychotic clown” playing on hyper-unity, childhood dreams, appearance, layers, and performance versus audience— with two opposing monitors making viewers constantly “guard their backs.”

Work from the 1990s included Rob Johannesma’s Tree Branch Video (1998), which plays on the stillness of photography and moving pictures in a landscape-turned-dreamscape. Hazy color makes the viewer’s attempt to re-focus futile while slight camera movements twist perception. Matt Mullican’s Hypnosis Tapes (1996) consisted of video reconstructions of two late-1970s performances. Meanwhile, elements of Justin van Duurling’s installation Cross Corp (1997)— fluorescent phosphorus drawings of extraterrestrial-like shapes on plastic— were suspended and lined up mystically, highlighted by the surrounding absence of light.

Ann Veronica Janssens’s Corps Noir (1994–99), a concave form in black perspex, provided the murky illusion of the viewer’s reflection, upside down. Approached from its side, the reflection bubbled to form magically. Koen Timmermans’s Cancan (1998), a video on monitor, consists of a loop of 1950s pin-up Betty Page, from the movie Varietease (1952). The loop, catching the performer in an open-crotched twirl, makes her look less human and more like a spider with manic tip-tapping legs. Unfortunately, the focal point— the repeated, open crotch— feeds unflattering readings despite being billed as a demonstration of concern for “the human body serv[ing] as the source of mysticism.”

While hallucinations ran rampant throughout the exhibition, the documentation accompanying Francis Alÿs’s Narcotourism (1996) takes a shocking step further— providing a narrative about shooting heroin for art. Exhibited in Holland, a notorious destination for drug tourists, the work was actually created in Denmark. Alÿs illustrated his sensory-saturated, secret performances— a series of walks under drug-induced stimuli: alcohol, speed, hashish, cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. However, what we get is only abstract documentation framing the apparent performances. Describing his walks, he writes, “The project is about being physically present in a place, while mentally elsewhere.” In his narratives concerning the effects of the drugs, Alÿs adds, “Ecstasy. Visual brightening and erotic impulses. Everything I turn to moves, not physically but conceptually.”

While some may find Narcotourism and Cancan needlessly contentious, a show that bills itself as focusing on art that “relies more than ever on direct impulse, on the bodily impact of stimuli” seemed incomplete without even a dash of 1990s multi-sensory multi-media. Nevertheless, “Stimuli” effectively showed a variety of approaches playing off hallucination as a theme and acted as a window into, and context of, individual artistic explorations.