In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, scholar Elaine Scarry describes the inability of language to interpret and express physical pain: “By its very nature, pain resists, even destroys the language that grapples with it.” But what of the capacity of visual art to interpret and translate this bodily experience? “For a Long Time”, on view now at Roberts & Tilton in Culver City, attempts to answer this question by showcasing visual work that grapples with physical endurance and its effects. The result, though ambitious in scope, is a little too conventional.
“For A Long Time” takes its cues from a long lineage: in 1974, an assistant nailed Chris Burden to a Volkswagen Beetle for his performance piece Trans-fixed; in 1989, Matthew Barney jumped for hours on a small trampoline in Drawing Restraint 6; and, in 1997, Francis Alÿs pushed a solid block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for seven hours until it melted in The Paradox of Praxis I. Several among the show’s artists—Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, and Hamish Fulton—have made a lifelong practice of using their own bodies as raw material. Abramović’s Rhythm 10 (1973), for example, depicts the artist kneeling piously before a series of neatly arranged knives; in a smaller, neighboring frame, a descriptive text written by Abramović reveals that her performance will consist of cutting herself with each knife. In A Machine For Living (1981),Vito Acconci, the self-described “godfather of transgression and pioneer of performance art,” pairs charcoal drawings and photo-documentation of himself swinging his body around a hulking, nonfunctional sculpture. The work is strong but predictable, and the show benefits from the presence of a few younger artists, such as Whitney Hubbs and Erica Love, who diversify the group.
“For A Long Time” is at its best not when it considers pain and physical endurance at large, but rather when its artists seize upon the moment of breakdown, the threshold between having control and becoming unhinged. In their respective video pieces, Smile (2001) and Remote Control (2009), Kehinde Wiley and Erica Love achieve this unnerving quality. Wiley, famous for his heroic, realist paintings of Titian-esque, young African-American men, has made a multi-channel video picturing four African-American men, each attempting to hold a smile while facing the camera. As time wears on, their smiles turn to strange grimaces, their cheek muscles twitching in discomfort. In her single channel video, Love holds Barbara Kruger’s book, Remote Control (1993), her hand in the same pinched position as the appropriated image on the cover. Love holds this positions until she can no longer bear it, and, after thirty-seven minutes and twenty-six seconds, drops her unsteady hand.
The show’s intentions are worthy, but the work and its curation is too tidy, failing to push into new territory or offer anything unexpected. The human body is still as enduring and even dangerous an agent as it was forty years ago. Yet after an era of art practices that bravely tested its limits and terms, we need new propositions.