ArtIssue 18

Naked in Church

Donna Huanca: Scar Cymbals, Zabludowicz Collection, London, until December 18

Sunday morning a hundred years ago would have found me in church, genuflecting to a benign invisible presence, being gently dazzled by the stained glass of the windows and gold of the altar. (I feel Catholicism is most my style.) So perhaps it’s appropriate that Sunday last week found me paying my respects to the invisible beneficence of the Artist, a modern deity of worship, in the former Methodist chapel that houses the Zabludowicz Collection. Turning in at the ironic yellow roadworks sign that instead reads “ART”, I pattered up the steps towards the white Neo-Classical building and bowed my head in reverence as I stepped in.

I was here to see ‘Scar Cymbals’, the most recent exhibition by the contemporary performance artist Donna Huanca, who plays with ideas of flesh, skin, body and form. She is a Bolivian-American artist, raised in Chicago and now living between Berlin and New York – a peripatetic existence between different cultures that translates into the myriad notes of her work. She is famous for her work with performers – her ‘models’ – who move through the steps of hypnotic rituals; an attempt to “take possession of a space.”

Stepping in to the airy main atrium of the Zabludowicz collection, one is greeted by a three-storey glass structure at the far end that mimics the architecture of the building around it and extends all the way up to the high arched ceiling.
A temple within a church, it presents a layer of extruded outer surface. Transparent, it allows you to see the forms behind it, but also converts them through its own distorting lens.

But I’ve re-arranged the narrative to suit my purposes here. Because the first thing I did on coming in was not to admire the celestial majesty of the glass structure, but to gawk at two naked women: one in front of it, one in it.

The first woman was poised near the entrance of the room, us watchers keeping towards the curved walls at its sides. Her body was smeared in blue paint, and – all too human – the first trip made by my interest slid my gaze down to notice the nipples; the second, to see if I could see the cunt. The thrill of noticing the former mitigated the disappointing obscuration of the latter, which was neatly covered up in the flesh coloured body stocking it now becomes apparent that she is wearing. On her body and her stocking, cerulean blue paint blooms in large circles. There are big blue circles on her elbows, her thighs, her shoulders, her stomach – almost an inverse heat map. The blue ovals carve up her female body into new angles that are not usually considered in the body beautiful; there are no ‘curves’ (as Mail Online might call them) here. These circles are something, rather, like patches of mould blooming on a surface of a petri dish, or the meteoric impacts on the moon. Her nudity is striking, but it has not been fashioned to be seductive. Most strikingly, her forehead down to the eyelids and her neck are blue but her jawline is uncovered, allowing us to place her racial identity; allowing her potentially to speak.

When I come in, she is kneeling behind a transparent pane of glass that stands alone opposite the entrance door itself half-obscured by smears of blue paint on the glass. Has she been painting, trying to express herself? Is she trapped beyond this window? Or is the paint on the pane an attempt to cover herself, and the window a hiding place? As I look, my fellow voyeurs Chinese tourists and awkward teenage boys with their mothers, she stands, slowly and deliberately, to come beyond the pane of glass, and begins elegantly to traverse a giant white circular sandpit in the floor. The whorls of the pit remind me of a microscopic view of human skin, or the tracing of the line of a scar.

Turning back around, in the second storey of the glass temple and high above us a second female performer sits naked, covered similarly in a nude coloured body suit and green paint. Her eyes are open, but her gaze isn’t fixed on anything in particular. Her pose seems less bold, more inward-looking. She doesn’t seem to be aware of or respond to the other performer explicitly, but she too begins to move, from a cross-legged pose to one pressed against the pane of glass. Her side of the temple is lightly smeared too, in green paint, but she seems less exposed than the performer out on the floor, whom you could run across to touch.

There, the blue model continues to traverse the circle, slowly. All movements here are deliberate, slow, elegant. The models are not particularly proud, they are not showing off ‘body confidence’ or ‘body love’ or any of the other sticky markers we’ve tried recently to affix to naked women. They act almost dazed, as if they’ve fallen out of James Cameron’s Avatar and can’t quite manage the realities of the new world in which they’ve found themselves. The slowness is disturbing, especially in a city where interactions and walking pace are necessarily fast and where nudity is often whipped on and off in changing rooms in a flash. But the atmosphere is not tranquil: a giant speaker plays, vibrating through the floor, a menacing heavy distorted bass, giving the whole room an otherworldy atmosphere. These are performers describing a ritual for a society of which you are not made member.

As a relief from this intensity and stillness the rest of the exhibition holds other, non-living pieces by Donna Huanca. On a clothesline in a small side room hang painted body stockings, mostly in green, blue and yellow; perhaps the leftovers of previous performances. Like snakes shedding their skin, the performers have shucked off their new role, in what made their bodies art, and returned to a world where their bodies are flesh.

In the larger back room hang what might loosely be called ‘sculptures’. They are collected pieces where latex, rubber and cloth drape and combine into new forms, some hanging loose, some deliberately shaped and moulded into gravity-defying forms. In one piece, another speaker hides, making the material vibrate and flap with noise. Like the performers, these pieces offer up strange new forms, where you can see the front, back and sides as you walk around them all, just as you circumference the female performers. In a couple of them blonde streams of hair hang seductively down within shapes, inviting you to view them as women. But as you walk around them, these female-ish forms sometimes draw together into a new fascinating shape, or sometimes hang strangely empty, devoid of life.

Ducking back through the main room, and its silent, slowly moving performers, I watch the woman in green begin to climb a ladder up the side of the temple, slowly escaping from our view. Taking her departure as my cue I exit, emerging from the room with its shaking bass, its transformed bodies, and its strange rituals, leaving them there to continue to trace out their ‘Scar Cymbals.’