Vivid vivisection by the venerable Cindy Sherman, get Bruce and Bellmer free!

The Vivisector, curated by Todd Levin, sets out to investigate two distinct bodies of photographic work by the infamous female artist Cindy Sherman. Firstly ‘Sex Pictures’ (1989-92) and ‘Broken Dolls’ (1999), which both explore mannequins, prosthetics and dismembered or reconstructed figurines. I never tire of Sherman’s oeuvre but as far as I’m aware, this is the first exhibition to re-contextualise, re-evaluate and contend her works against pieces by male artists.

If the title of the exhibition is unfamiliar, a vivisector performs a vivisection, the practice of conducting operations on living animals for the purpose of experimentation. It is a term also used to describe a ruthlessly sharp and detailed criticism. The action refers to the cutting open of an organism for pathological or physiological investigation, promoting the awareness of the exposure of a body, especially evident in the unflinching effigies on display.


The Vivisector installation view Spruth Magers, London, 2012

As we know Sherman continuously examines the human body, often preoccupied with gender and sexuality, she notoriously uses her own body as the subject, subsequently objectifying herself, questioning how the gaze is invoked always and with the relentless series and multiplicity of imagery Sherman has created a vivisection of not only her body but photography, as a visual practice.

Within the ‘Sex Pictures’ Sherman delegates her role to the dolls, who we may assume are substitutes, standing in for her body exactly, simply used solely because she could not physically distort her body in the desired manner, or because the contortions would appear to gross if they were ‘really’ human. The dolls are realistic substitutes, anatomically correct prior to mutilation and familiarly nostalgic.

The use of red, on the walls, makes everything appear quite seedy. The windows in the gallery have been boarded up, presumably for a number of practical reasons and aesthetic ones; explicit imagery, ancient artefacts (which need controlled light), to avoid reflection, to create low light levels to best experience the neon and for stylistic purposes. Plunging the works and spectator into relative darkness forces a theatricality on the experience of viewing the works. Pressing the buzzer, looking over my shoulder, face shrouded, I slip inside, head bowed, straight through to the gallery, not making eye contact with anyone, desperate for anonymity while voyeuring.

The Vivisector installation view Spruth Magers, London, 2012

 The first of two rooms comprising the gallery, is painted dark red. A warm historical colour, used commonly in museum installations during the 19th century. For me, red is the colour of sex, escalated by the fact the windows are blocked off. The gallery is almost transformed into an Amsterdam sex shop and I reminisce about ‘The Hoerengracht’ by Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Shown at London’s National Gallery in 2009, it transformed the Sunley Room into a walk-through evocation of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. It felt real and raw and undeniable, mannequins with boxes over their faces stared out invitingly from within the constructed windows.  

The Vivisector installation view Spruth Magers, London, 2012

Hanging at the head of the room (directly in front of the entrance) Bellmer’s mutilated female figure, deprived of limbs and with a mask like face. She pouts, looking downwards coyly or shamefully, however coquettish she fails to resemble a generically fetishized sex doll.  With numerous breasts, she is posited at the conjunction between desire and revolt, the model of surrealist idealisation. Bellmer worked in similar realms to Sherman, with notions of alterity and femininity.

Femininity as a concept has historically encouraged many male artists to revolt against the ‘rational’. Bellmer is an exquisit examples of an artist obsessed by a ‘muse’, who in Greek and Roman mythology was defined a woman or a force personified as such, taken as a source of inspiration. In this particular piece, her shape, especially the mound on her head and her position, remind me wholly of Neffertiti (perhaps she is on my mind after Isa Genzken).

Bellmer obsession with the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid-1930s went beyond inspiration, fetishized and objectified they became the subject of his art, worshiped they are now iconic, and provide an undeniable reference for Sherman who arguably treats her own body as if it were a doll, or at least as a commodity to dress up and strip off at will.

Hans Bellmer ‘We Follow Her With Slow Steps’ (1937) Photograph.

Symbolically the breasts are arguably presented as woman’s main feature, (especially in Sherman’s Untitled 335 and Bellmer’s ‘We Follow Her With Slow Steps’, encouraging questions about the artist’s enviousness (in the male artist’s case) or breast fetishism (mastofact, mazophilia). Or maybe the artists give priority to their fascinating capability as instruments of motherhood (infantile fixation). Either way it is their erotic significance which in this context becomes, for me, the focus. 


Bruce Nauman ‘Double Poke in the Eye II’ (1985) Neon.

 I find neon a fascinating medium, one I associate especially with, as previously mentioned, sex shops. Sequentially timed, Nauman’s striking multi coloured neon wall sign features two human heads, disconnected. One yellow, with his mouth closed, the other blue, has is mouth open. Centring on themes of violence and sex, the piece also has a strong comic element, for between the heads, with red hot fingers, the figures constantly poke each other’s eyes out, caught in an infinite back and forth. It would be in appropriate here to make a pun relating the piece to French intellectual Georges Bataille (Georges Battle-eye?!!) Whose writings had at their core, Eroticism and transgression.

A number of strikingly renegade features in this exhibition, force us to consider its theatricality. Firstly, the introduction of music. So enamoured is the tradition of a white cube space, cold silent and white that any noise, from an unidentifiable source seems alien. The mysterious soundtrack which accompanies spectators in their viewing is ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmile’ (also known as the Doll Song) from Jacques Offenbach’s opera. The musical backdrop recounts the story of a poet who is deceived into falling in love with a mechanical doll, perhaps an influence for Bellmer, or potentially a surreal consequence.

The second anomaly is the unusual, yet considered choice of the wall colours. The imagery in Sherman’s ‘Broken Dolls’ (1999) series is muted matte grey, toning perfectly with the dull grey walls of the back gallery on which the framed images sit. This greenish greg wall colour was commonly applied in late 19th century installations. Here all of the works are forced into the corners of the room, stacking floor to ceiling, away from the centre, they mimic that which might be noticed out of the corner of one’s eye. The soft, washed out, retro romantic appearance is juxtaposed with the harsh sexual imagery, violent dismemberment and explicit poses. The figures offering themselves to the viewer in obscene stances, caught in the grips of pleasure and pain. The continual implication is of autonomous participation. Sherman’s? Our own? An unknown voyeur?

The Vivisector installation view Spruth Magers, London, 2012

With the portrayal of seductive poses comes the introduction of a Freudian concept; the uncanny, depicting any instance in which something can be simultaneously familiar, yet foreign. Because of this familiarity, the uncanny can often create cognitive dissonance due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. A tension which accurately resembles that which might occur between the animate and inanimate.

Cindy Sherman ‘Untitled 335’ (1999) Photograph.

 I am certain that the premise of this exhibition was not to pit male artists against a female one, but for me it is exciting to consider the impact of gender on artistic perspective. Especially considering all of the works on display have been selected for their explorations of specific themes, and incidentally the development of a collective interest in the transgressive figurative female form.

Sherman is unmistakably the cynosure of the exhibition, the focus of admiration is on her, I get the impression all other works are included not to challenge her but more to support her. The large scale ‘Sex Pictures’ occupy an expansive red wall, from one end to the other, slight variations in their framed sizes but all confrontational and creepy, especially in the low light levels which have been set for the exhibition.

A factor uniting all of the obscene visions presented, is the concept of the incomplete object. Fetishes and substitutes of unknowable desires are often crippled during the process enacted by the artist. All scenarios are staged, dually subversive and erotic, distinct and explicit. Sherman’s childlike innocence is forever imbued with sexual experience. And in my experience all art has the potent potential to be a turn on.

Article by Alison Humphrey

The Vivisector was at Spruth Magers London, more information can be found here; http://www.spruethmagers.com/exhibitions/322