Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

“Anonymity & Identity”

The tantalizing prospect of forbidden pleasures hangs over the current exhibition “Anonymity & Identity” at the University of Maryland’s Art Gallery; this show was one of several rejected for funding by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) back in the bad old days of Reagan-Bush. Using the absurdly irrelevant, not to mention indefinable criteria of “artistic excellence,” “artistic merit,” and “long term artistic significance,” then-NEA acting Chair Anne-Imelda Radice overruled the unanimous recommendation of the appropriate NEA advisory panel and denied the show funding. This both guaranteed the show an audience and assured that it would be surrounded by a certain amount of intellectual posturing about censorship, sexuality, and body imagery.

Those who rush out to College Park with prurient intent will be frustrated, however, for there’s hardly a naked body image in the show, and the ones that are included are not easy to discern, their nudity deeply embedded in aesthetic investigations of narrative structure and violence. There is nothing very “sexually explicit” or even very sexy about any of the other images, either, but they do require viewers to consider the body in unconventional ways and become aware of the strange bone-and-wrinkle garment we inhabit, often without paying too much close attention to its actual appearance. The show’s rejection by the NEA, therefore, seems to have been rather arbitrary.

“Anonymity & Identity” really is about photography, with the body as a subtext. It presents images of sections or surfaces of the body (mostly hands, fingers, and skin) so enlarged that they seem to be portents of something unknown. This focus on and enlargement of a body part has become so popular in recent years that it has become a genre of its own, a category of photographic practice of which these artists, particularly Geneviève Cadieux, Thomas Florschuetz, and Holly Wright, are prominent practitioners. It’s the sort of exercise every photographer probably undertakes at some point in a career and is now one that has achieved theoretical status with the emergence on discourses of the body.

Cadieux’s images are the most poetic of these large studies. There are two of her works here, both with two parts. Le Corps du Ciel (“the sky’s body”) juxtaposes an image of a colorful, cloud-filled sky with an enlargement of a bruised area of skin. The opening out of the skin image that takes place during the process of enlarging gives to the discolored skin rich patterns and subtle shifts of shading similar to those reproduced in the image of sky. The implied relationships and contrasts between subject, color, texture, and degrees of intimacy are both enticing and reticent. The balance between these two qualities is sustained not only in Cadieux’s work but in all the work in the exhibition.

Cadieux’s other two-part work, Amour Aveugle (“blind love”), further exploits these problems of identity by confronting a long horizontal Cibachrome print of a pair of eyes with a similar-size print of a pair of lips. The investigation of the exhibition’s theme really begins in this work, which invokes both the intimacy and the ambiguity that result from the enlarging process. These ambiguities turn the surfaces into nearly abstract patterns of closely related color areas, which, in spite of their considerable size, are surprisingly difficult to read. Additionally, such close focus on only the eyes or the lips withholds enough visual information for certain identification—thus, anonymity. This anonymity is played against the fact that the Plexiglas sheets protecting the photograph serve as mirrors, reflecting and at the same time incorporating the viewer into the anonymous body fragment. This work is elaborately enticing, providing both a conceptual and a visual illustration of the complexities alluded to in the exhibition’s title.

The aggressive and lusciously colored images of fingers, hands, and eyes in the work of German artist Thomas Florschuetz are less nuanced, but still dramatic. His monumentalized digits, descending from the top of the photograph against a brilliant red ground, transform a humble body appendage into a totem. Two such images are placed with characteristic postmodern nonchalance beside an enlarged eye fragment in Untitled Triptych No. 34. He also uses the repetition format in Untitled Diptych No. 30 and No. 31. In these, however, the mysterious body parts are cut off at the left and right edges of the flanking images so that they seem to form a single silhouette along the diptych’s axis. These are particularly anonymous abstract forms performing compositional acrobatics rather than conceptual ones. There’s a certain humor, however, as well as a kind of morbid fascination with what photography can show us about the body in his Untitled No. III, in which a vertical column of flesh intersects a horizontal puddle of the same.

This image, as well as most of the black-and-white photographs by Holly Wright here, suggests to viewers that they might be looking at something other than what they actually are. There’s a kind of naughtiness implicit in these images, in showing how parts of the body we always can and do look at can, through isolation and enlargement, be made to resemble parts of the body we’re not supposed to look at, don’t look at, or find hard to look at. There’s a superficial pleasure in puzzling out the compositional components, and the works are excellently crafted. But whether they really illuminate issues of individual identity or anonymity is still very much open to question.

Amore profound investigation of these issues is undertaken by Annette Messager in her large installation Péché (“sin”) for which clusters of heavily framed, murky photographic reproductions hang on strings over a large triangular area of wall. The photographs represent a diverse and horrifying repertoire of violence being carried out on the bodies of naked women. Each reproduction or cluster of reproductions is combined with a similarly framed photograph of a pointing finger, calling attention to the vicious images in the adjacent frames. It is always a shock to confront such images, and Messager’s adroit structural distancing devices only underscore the ghastly implications of the fact that these are photographs, not paintings or drawings, of imagined violence. Messager’s feminist critique evaluates a culture of institutionalized violence which produces and promotes such devastating images.

Religious allusions present in Péché‘s title also occur in Gary Hill’s magnificent video installation Crux (“cross”). This 26-minute work is the most complex and impressive in the exhibition and perhaps makes the exhibit’s most elaborate exploration of body fragments. For Crux, Hill attached video cameras to each arm and leg so that they filmed only his hands and bare feet and whatever landscape happened to be in range beyond them. A fifth camera strapped to his chest produced an image of his head silhouetted against architecture, trees, and/or sky. The five resulting tapes play on five monitors which establish the end points of a cross on a high, darkened wall in the university gallery. During the course of the performance, Hill explores a medieval ruin and then walks out of it through woods to a riverbank. The placement of the monitors induces the impression that the body must have been strapped to a cross, but that results from the fixed positions of the monitors, particularly the two showing the hands, which, because they always present the same angle of vision, produce the impression that the arms themselves are not moving. At one point, both hands come together to examine an object picked up in the ruins, and because the images are so widely separated, they make viewers conscious of the ritualistic nature of action.

This isolation of the hands, feet, and head—the very extremities through which we most intensely experience the world—creates a heightened sense of vulnerability. The invisible body becomes a powerful presence as the viewer tries to pull together these detached parts and to reconstruct a whole by imagining the experience through which the artist’s body is traveling. That imaginative experience, created from the sensations following from those images of hands, feet, and head, brings into the experience of art the way that identity and meaning are invented from such sensations. Linking this extremely experiential imagery to the Christian metaphor of the cross, with its overtones of suffering and redemption, lifts this observation of fairly normal human movement into the realm of the archetypal, and human frailty and perseverance are ennobled.

According to one of the show catalog’s essays, the photographic image is a “tool” with which to define the “mechanics of the individual.” This may be an example of the way artistic theory and practice sometimes become mutually irrelevant, for, happily, none of the artists in “Anonymity & Identity” is working with a mechanistic poetics. In fact, the effect of the show is just the opposite. Certainly fragmentation, isolation, and a kind of visual and even conceptual violence can result from the act of “taking” or “shooting” a photograph (it’s even reflected in language). But the exhibition also presents some late-20th-century versions of the Greek idea of bodily perfection. If we are offered a fragment, we reconstruct the whole; if we are discomfited by some of its functions, we also appreciate its possibilities. If we must confront the body’s vulnerability to time and violence, we are reminded of the beauty that reconciles us to the horrors. Even Messager’s analysis relies on the assumption of bodily integrity. Art itself assumes and recreates the wholeness, and the most effective critiques of modern fragmentation and anonymity, like those here by Cadieux, Messager, and Hill, are built on that.