Natascha Niederstrass‘ Behind Closed Doors: Body of Evidence at Gallery 101 is an installation which examines the creation of Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1° The Waterfall, 2° The Illuminating Gas (1946-1966) and draws on the elaborate manual that he created for its production. It displays a re-creation of his studio with the body parts from the work rendered as a chopped up mannequin. On the walls are photos of the infamous Black Dahlia murders. The exhibition text points to the Steve Hodel’s book, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, in which he suggests that his surgeon father George Hodel – an art connoisseur and associate of Man Ray – murdered Elizabeth Short. This historical event is then set up as an inspiration for Duchamp’s enigmatic work of art.
There’s a slightly weird over-literalness to the conceptualization here. It’s a faux forensics re-imagined through a fusion of contemporary and Victorian era aesthetics. The studio is presented like an operating room in the middle of a black abyss. Its isolation within this black box suggests both the diorama and early forms of cinema. The overt theatricality of the display also implies these things. The body parts on display seem like props from a weirdly de-fanged Grand Guignol performance. But as much as these suggestions are present, there is also little to push them. Instead, the rhetoric of the presentation twists back to relying on a form of museum aesthetics. The centrepiece of the show comes off like the remainder of a hollowed out regional history museum, something only accentuated by the way she uses text on the walls. And it is this, rather than these rival qualities, that ultimately determines how the work is read.
The meta quality of the work also has something in common with trends toward art exhibitions as exhibitionism for artists and their processes, something carefully manicured through the use of curatorial statements, interviews and documentation to provide the appropriate Inside the Actors’ Studio experience of art for its consumers. Niederstrass is neither unique nor exemplary in this respect. The studio is presented in media res of production, just waiting for the absent waxwork of Duchamp to enter the set. The twisted, chopped up body, rendered in graphic form on the wall, resembles a severely simplified Bellmer drawing with all of the fetishistic passion drained out. (The title, wittingly or not, refers to a recent book about Bellmer). The limp literalness also does something to vitiate both the violence and intensely ambiguous eroticism of Duchamp’s work. His original was remarkable for the degree to which it undermined reading after all. (This is something Niederstrass did quite successfully in L’affaire de Camden Town). This is not to wax lyrical on Duchamp’s erotic and visceral qualities, but to point out the degree to which the show’s aesthetics seem to be so heavily situated within a Murdoch Mysteries style of artifice for the sake of her tableau. The ‘artist as criminal’ theme is strictly limited, like the role of a stereotypical killer in a police procedural. If she were to go all the way into the cold minutiae of scientific presentation, the exhibitionist quality of the work might have been significantly different. But instead, there’s a kind of mannequin’s burlesque. The ‘body’, as she presents it is just a dummy and a strictly neutered one at that. The violence of (or to) the body is literally suspended over it in the distance. Images of Sharp’s mutilated corpse hung on the wall take on a decidedly anti-transgressive role, domesticating the weirdness of the art object by implicating it in the more familiar melodrama of human history. This is much safer that suggesting that it is not that violence is aestheticized by art, but that art and aesthetics are intrinsically modes of formal violence against life. Or the grimly humorous pondering of Thomas DeQuincey, or Joris-Karl Huysmans, on how readily murder can be a richly aesthetic act, a notion that currently plays a dominant role on the TV series Hannibal for instance.