Curated by New York writer and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, Dirty Kunst purports to be something of a naughty survey, promising ‘rude art’ and filth that ‘frightens, provokes, angers, and just plain disgusts’. The majority of the artists hail from New York City, and the first piece encountered on entering the gallery is Joel Castro’s image of the Statue of Liberty rising from a pair of parted buttocks. This supposedly dare-devil shoving of America where the sun don’t shine jostles for vulgarity with Michael Joo’s three jars of piss of varying shades, Yellow, Yellower, Yellowest (1991), and Lisa Yuskavage’s acid-green study of a reclining girl thrusting her vagina forward, one of the few works that manages to be interestingly repellent, not least for its sickly-green luminosity.
Tom Gallant, one of three UK artists in the show, is showing a series of pages from porn magazines cut into with delicate filigree waves and sweeping curls, his interventions both beautifying and submerging the sexual shapes below. Less elegant is Patrick Hamilton’s dog kennel that houses a flickering VHS of a labrador performing cunnilingus on a woman, the sign ‘Bobby’s House’ hanging cutesily over the entrance, but rather than shocking the piece is comedic, even slightly silly.
I was looking forward to seeing Sebastian Errazuriz’s piece, a golden projection of a supposedly well-hung Jesus Christ, but the projector, jutting from a half-opened suitcase, hadn’t been switched on. I looked at the wall expectantly, then looked at the gallery assistant, who silently switched the projector on at the plug, but it was a shame that the magic of that hovering image was now slightly tainted. A shame too that the gallery space was soundtracked by loud, off-putting Jazz. I asked if the music was part of the exhibition and the assistant replied ‘No, I’m just listening to the radio’. I wondered if it was worth having a conversation about whether or not the music might affect the viewer’s experience of the show, or how he thought the artists involved might feel about having his personal soundtrack imposed on their work, but decided against it.
The gallery aside, I desperately wanted this show to live up to its press release; I wanted to be challenged by an art taken up to, and perhaps even over, those lines of ordinarily acknowledged modern decencies – but none of this work shocks. In fact I can think of many artists whose work of thirty or forty years ago was more shocking and provocative. Genesis P-Orridge’s actions of the mid-70′s for example, in which he harmed and injected himself, wrapped in wires and his own blood and sperm. Or the art of Chris Burden, or that of Cosey Fani-Tutti exposing herself in mens magazines. These artists risked being ostracised, or worse, risked prolonged personal injury in challenging the accepted. They were also artists whose work used something of themselves, so perhaps an artwork which shocks does so because it results from the artists use of self as artistic device. The old adage of suffering for one’s art may not be merely an aimless cliche, after all.
So: Dirty Kunst does not provoke enough, not because London is made of sterner stuff than New York, but because few of the participants seem to really mean it. Which image of a national symbol disappearing up a human rectum is more affecting: a real image of an experience of it, in all its sexual nastiness, or an approximation of that experience shot out of photoshop? Many of these artists seem to be operating at an arms length and, in this context, Dirty Kunst becomes a mere playground of appropriation. At best, a show about artists laying heavy claims on the situations of others – at worst, a show of artistic excuses.
Dirty Kunst finishes today at Seventeen
This review was originally written for and published on Art Wednesday