Sean Smuda on Karen Sherman:::Minor Bodies
The first thing seen and felt in Karen Sherman’s exhibition Minor Bodies is how the body might be spent, fortified, shared, indebted, tamed, and trained to perform. Resolving Power is a large wooden spike on scissor expanders that comes down from the ceiling. It would compress and pierce the average body to a single hospital green point under it, about the size of a head or stomach. There is a hybridity, multitasking, and longing amongst Sherman’s mostly hand holdable (but don’t touch) unvarnished pine sculptures: pleasure, pain, and their training, by self or other master. Training as looking as feeling two-inch spikes on a ten-inch handle’s porous, unsealed grain, and supposed use: caress and insertion at various speeds that augment or diminish knots and textures. This exploded manual is spread out over the main room by (#2?) pencil paper drawings of animals, objects, and processes such as restraints used for horse breaking and an amphora of blood transfusion. They suggest choreographies based on relationships with potential surpluses of joy and strictures of pain. In them, Resolving Power’s long, slow education continues to its vanishing point of perfection. The unique movements that Sherman’s work instructs imply a body beyond eyes and gallery in their discretions and promiscuities of discerning pleasure and disciplining pain to savor and strengthen a personal physics.
The equal and opposite reaction of this physics is the meta-entrance Universal Host, just to the right of Resolving Power. Squeezing through its vertical aqua lips, like a birth in reverse, reveals a video of a long plastic tube been drawn through an eyelet screw. Frictive, static dust accumulates, a metaphor for looking at art if ever there was, and one of its genesis’s seedy seminality. On a pedestal, in a case in front of the screen, two lights illuminate petri dishes of this dust. “One lights the filth from below and one lights it from above. Each reveals different things about the filth… ”, writes Sherman.
There is something unfinished about the dirty works of the first floor. Despite their finely tooled forms, there is a rawness that the viewer must ask the body to complete. Putting its potential to their shapes suggests curling hair, dildonic ecstasy, probable stigmata, and complete disappearance. Minor bodies/little deaths. Small, wooden animal-training boxes’ bear a resemblance to coffins jutting out from the walls, like a filing system of nerves, or a mausoleum for orgasms. Invoking senses past, they unspool cortical muscle memory and conjure scenes perhaps unuttered to neighboring viewers.
Going downstairs has more corporeal physics. Laws of attraction and orbits are enacted in the video Hildas and Trojans, in which hardware spins, magnetized to a charismatic cluster, falls off, reconfigures, and reattaches. Literally a fugue of joiners, hinges, hasps, nails, and screws. Do the math and find which best embodies your pliability and preference. And then: a seemingly unlikely, but perhaps inevitable family cluster, The Force That Stops Us from Collapsing. Smaller wooden figures, Proteins Live Forever, surround its asterisk headed tower of wood and seem to feed into it. The Force’s electric lights redouble this and call to mind a fireworks display over a magic kingdom… blood pressure! After all its hard work and training the body can at last resolve power into joy and escape itself forever, or at least be motivated to get up and do it all over again. As the first in Sherman’s three-part series, Universal Donor, this incandescent ecstasy emitted from its system fugues hot around her work’s cool head.
Shout outs to Dodie Bellamy, Peter Sahlins, and Elizabeth Sutton, and their analogous atmospheres: “Whistle While You Dixie” (Semiotext(e), 2015), “1668, the Year of the Animal in France” (Zone, 2018), and “Art, Animals, and Experience” (Routledge, 2017).
Sean Smuda curates Pirsig Projects and Biennale Beinalley, and is maker of the print and performance series Universal Capital.
Minor Bodies ::: Minor Intimacies
By Christina Schmid
The minor is always a question of relation: mostly, to the major, which might mean size or significance. A major injury; a minor one. In music, a minor key breaks up the range of an octave into whole and half tones differently than a major one. The spectrum thus divided remains constant. Still, a minor chord vibrates differently, activates and evokes an emotional cadence beyond the grasp of the major. The minor works the major from within.
In “What is a Minor Literature?” philosophers Deleuze and Guattari enlist the minor to make sense of Kafka’s prose. Writing in the language of empire–an inevitable language for an educated Jewish subject of the Habsburg crown–Kafka did not bend the rules of grammar but the habits of idiom. His words were utterly intelligible yet a hard-to-pinpoint difference always remains. To be a sort of stranger within his own language.
Sly civility is the term Homi Bhabha proposes for the attitude that confused Christian missionaries in colonial India: those whose souls they had set out to save spoke to them with such eloquence, sincerity, and fervor that the missionaries felt an inkling of doubt: is this too good to be true? Are these people the newly truly faithful and converted, or are they messing with us? “Now we are completely lost. We don’t know whether these Indians are fucking with us or whether they believe what we’re saying, we can’t control them anymore.”
The minor always has a political dimension. It cannot afford grand gestures of protest. Cloaked in faux humility, the minor imperfectly masks resilience and makes room for sly survivance. Moments of slippage are so subtle they may induce a state of paranoia in the powerful. The minor poses an epistemological challenge: it is a question of resonance.
What is a body? A mass situated in space. A point providing a perspective, a resonance chamber, an archive of experiences held together not by force of will but somatic memory. Something touching which is touched. A collection of fifty-three billion cells: my flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners. The bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome. The its outnumbers the mes. We are an array of bodies. Writes dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay: “I believe my cellular body knows dialogue in a way that I rarely experience in ordinary life.”
Minor bodies compromise the darlings of neoliberal individualism: independence, free will, agency. On the scale of the minuscule organic machinery that makes us possible, the triad of volition-intentionality-agency gives way to constant electro-chemical dialoging. Minor bodies raise the specter that control may be an illusion with serious limitations. What if the act did not fully belong to us? Why is it so threatening to think that within the act there is a considerable involuntary share of activity? Far beyond conscious control is where minor bodies move.
When Harvard biologists teamed up with animators at XVIVO, a scientific animation company, the resulting imagery illustrated unseen molecular mechanisms. Nerd thrills: watch a kinesin protein, with John-Cleese-ian mock gravitas, promenade along a microtubule inside of a cell. “This apparently happens in your body all the time.”We are, after all, very complex animals.
We are compost, not posthuman. We rot. We sprout. We are all lichens. Sexy symbionts or the instruments of an altogether different evolutionary opportunism: We are walking, talking minerals, one Russian minerologist theorized. Minor bodies divide the spectrum of possible action and inaction differently; they relocate agency. Who is guest, who host?
The Ultimate Host hugs the threshold between two rooms. Green, tight but giving, an opening you kick, crawl, push, dive through, your boots wrapped in protective blue cover-ups. You are touched by the thing in the doorway, held, restrained by its sheer lethargy. Until you no longer are. Inside, a projection shows a transparent hose snaking through a metal eyelet screwed into a wall. The metal ring is tight enough to shave off–something. Lint. Residue. Microfilaments. The Part That’s Human: a wooden box houses a set of petri dishes, each a sample of “floor filth,” ready to be inspected.
Then you face the ultimate host again. The strange act of reverse birthing, sans messy fluids, void of pain, reminds you: you are a body. “How was that for you?” Laborious. Like, labor? No. But close enough to imagine the uterus as ultimate host: holding, growing, feeding another body, a foreign body, a cluster of cells organizing and dividing into organs. Your blood is never the same after having hosted another body: antibodies linger long after the invasive alien has left. You never know.
Proteins live forever.
Here, they inhabit the basement as a 3-d protein puzzle: individual pieces look like building blocks of some crazed matador meets Star Wars sinister toy collection. Then there are drawings, upstairs: representations of non-human mammalian bodies. Rendered in graphite, bodies are in distress, manipulated by only occasionally pictured hands: a horse’s leg angled and fixed in a restraint. A dog head tilted backward to draw blood right from the jugular. Bunny bodies: swaddled, cuddled, engulfed by larger bodies. Such intimacies do not reveal whether these gestures are a matter of affection or domination, medical necessity or scientific curiosity.
Sitting on shelves interspersed with the wall-mounted drawings, an array of objects begs similar ambivalence: wooden bodies smooth and spikey, strung with latex rubber bands or held by metal springs, probe-like tools of toys or torture, purposeful without ever disclosing their function. Carved, handled, polished and bearing the growth lines of living matter, the material’s warmth supplants associations with Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers’ instruments for operating on mutant women: but something about how power is mapped onto the body in distress, the disobedient body not bent by will, reverberates.
Elsewhere, veins push against skin bulge from arms tied with rubber bands: pulsing pathways that hold bodies invisible to the naked eye. But Seeing Is Believing: a drawing of an electron microscope, almost with a touch of steampunk nostalgia, reminds of the dawn of the age of visibility. But we no longer trust our eyes. What would it mean to tune into minor bodies, their uncanny frequencies? To move from the liver, the spleen, or the gallbladder with her green bile? “Minor Bodies” does not offer an answer but in the space between image, object, and experience something resonates.
Christina Schmid thinks with art and writes as critical practice. Her essays and reviews have been published both online and in print, in anthologies, journals, artist books, exhibition catalogs, and digital platforms. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis as an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art and Social Practice.
Arwen Wilder on Karen Sherman:::Minor Bodies
Karen. Of course you would make this show. It is like a paper wasp nest, monochromatic, patterned, made of chewed up wood pulp and spit, a little threatening, a little fragile and very beautiful. “MINOR BODIES”, you call it, and I look for the astral-body scale, find instead the perineal-body scale. The only mineral in the place is in the endless rotating of the micro-hardware, “Hildas and Trojans”, in the basement which I watch with stupid fascination as they sort and re-sort and form into arthropodal puppets, tin dendrites, untidy hedgehogs: half phallic, half yonic. I know “Minor bodies” are meteors, comets, asteroids. But I think, here, minor bodies is your appealing signature self-deprecation. Or it is the little animals, in their furry softness. Are they being helped or harmed with those syringes? Blood out? medicine in? something more sinister or cyborg? I remember how I had to grab the cat by the neck and get a little extra skin, the softness of her fur, how the insulin needle was so sharp it went in easy, but how I could feel that it was flesh the needle pushed into. Twice a day and every time surprised me how fleshy.
The map of the show is a treasure hunt and is as beautiful an object as any of the pieces. Follow the lines and look for clues. What am I looking at? What is it to be body looking in this room? Look through the uncovered internal window, and look through the lens. What is the difference between a microscope and a telescope? What if my biceps could power some useful thing, or my veins were filled with latex like a fetal pig prepared for dissection? Why are these tiny coffins coming out of the walls? Are there things trapped in them? They could hold ashes or tiny dead animals. Scatole Personali.
The paper of the drawings is mounted so that the edges curl a little bit away from the walls. The graphite is light on the paper so I have to lean in to make it out. What does it feel like to go through that firm and squishy hole head first? It is cold in the other room. I think if I look closely through this magnification, then the biological might appear galactic. But then, it turns out, it is just the act of looking through, and the brighter light that is the joy. It is the same with “The Force That Stops Us from Collapsing”, the rapid scar tissue formation of sticks at angles and then the snaky structure and balance and it all leads to just a light bulb.
The objects on the walls and floors all look like untreated wood and paper. All made skin smooth except for one dissident splintery side surface. I know these things were trees once, but there are so few clues left of verdancy: the visible rings in one piece of wood, something almost like leaves coming out of one coffin. What looks like blood in tubes turns out to be plastic beads.
This show is a little dangerous, a little sexy, a little medical. Blood and vaginas and vials and rubber tubes and false positives and needles and vertebral erratics. Electricity and veins and disturbing fingers of mushroom growth and hairs, ambiguous tools, maybe dildos or awls. Gentle or forceful insertion, ambiguous the in or out, the corporeal or the fabricated. The criss-cross awl seems to have punched the hole in the floor. It seems to be a continuation of the ceiling. There must be a name for that part of the gallery, the power spot in the room where people hang the keystone piece. Of course, the power has been considered.
Arwen Wilder makes dances with Kristin Van Loon as HIJACK and raises children with Heidi Eckwall at 3140.