Maria Eichhorn

Vox, Montreal / Artpapers, Atlanta: 2006

Maria Eichhorn: Film, Video, Sound Work [Espace VOX; November 4 to December 16, 2006] features a cross-section of German artist Maria Eichhorn's production. On view are six works that range from documentation of older projects to works that actively engage both the viewer and the exhibition situation here and now. As such, the exhibition exemplifies both the limitations of conceptual or information-art practice and its potential to activate discourse on different levels.

There is an elegant side to conceptualism as object-making. A kind of presentation fetish is now a convention for information-oriented art practice, especially when the work employs non-narrative strategies of institutional critique. A specific presentation lexicon for the gallery has evolved: luxuriously produced and framed documents, display cases, videos, and so on. On the one hand, documentation-as-object allow us access to works that once activated a particular set of conditions, often outside the gallery system. On the other, these quasi-academic, quasi-aesthetic archives make a compromise between the marketplace's presentation requirements, the dictates of the museum or the traveling exhibition, and the realm of (non-visual) critical discourse. At best, these works allow us to think about similar conditions elsewhere. They offer case studies: examples of alternatives whose strategies can be considered in detail as they are now out of the fray. Ultimately, these documentary pieces are no stronger or weaker than a text about the work, they make the work palatable and open to consideration.

Occasionally, documentation-as-object adds an extra dimension by allowing us to consider primary material evidence. Such is the case with Prohibited Imports, 2003, a project that entailed the repeated shipping of a potentially controversial group of books from Germany to Japan, in an effort to provoke the Japanese Custom's practice of censoring books. In the original gallery exhibition in Japan, a display case housed the twenty-four books that, like a scientific probe, had made it through the censoring apparatus. This case is in the current exhibition. A shelf on top allows us to examine two copies of a book of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. One was censored; the other was not. A censored image juxtaposes an extraordinary physical delicacy to metaphorical violence: the contour of the resting penis, which is the center of the photograph, has been meticulously and finely sanded, removing the layer of ink and leaving the white paper beneath.

Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices, 1999-2005, is the exhibition's most compelling work. Its impact results from its precise activation of its context as it implicates the viewer in a set of circumstances predicated on the conditions of reception of the work in the present tense. One enters the gallery to find a projector. Following the artist's explicit directions, a gallery attendant explains that Film Lexicon is a series of three-minute films titled Breast Licking, Ear Licking, Eyes, Mouth, Cunnilingus, French Kissing and Love Bite. We may see one or any number of them. The films themselves are static shots, more or less clinical representations of their titular promises. This both heightens and dries out the level of engagement simultaneously. The work attenuates mystery, exoticism, and transgression, amplifying the sex industry's economic/power relationship. Once you see one film, you know that it won't get more or less interesting. In the absence of pleasure or connection, the piece heightens another kind of exchange: alienation-a condition for commercial pornography-is flipped on its head as the privacy of the website encounter or anonymity of the sex shop is reconfigured into a two-way encounter of an entirely different sort.

Espace VOX resides on a downtown Montreal street best known for its mix of strip clubs, sex shops, major cultural venues, and tourist draws like the International Jazz Festival. The poster for the show, a tasty image from Film Lexicon, is posted on the gallery's storefront, competing with the publicity for the sex-video cabins next door. The city has renamed this area the 'Quartier des spectacles' [Show District] in an effort to tease the global tourist dollar-a branding that depends heavily on the pseudo-gritty mix of sex-strip and tourist promenade. In this context, Eichhorn's Film Lexicon provokes a consideration of the deep contradictions between representation and reality, between desire and commerce.