DASA, or the Deutsche Arbeitsschutzausstellung (The German Health and Safety at Work Exhibition) to give it its full title, is a museum in which you can put on a pair of hygienically padded headphones and take a guided tour of the history of work. Behind this is the serious point that working people – whether typing at computers or tapping blast furnaces – are exposed to danger. Ear muffs, goggles and back exercises were all invented to protect the body during the production process. If the mind responsible for that body is to understand how vulnerable it is and how it works, clear images are needed. ‘Short Cuts – Anschlüsse an den Körper. Ein Cross-Over durch Kunst, Wissenschaft und Körperbilder’ (Short Cuts: connections to the body. A criss-cross tour of art, science and images of the body) is the wordy title of an exhibition that provides just that. The 17 artists involved use photography, video, installation and interactive computers. Curators Iris Dressler (art historian) and Hans D. Christ (artist) state that in organising the show they were interested in ‘surfaces’ and not in ‘physical feelings’.
Dressler and Christ are aware that the image of the body at the end of the millennium has been a staple of art magazines, major exhibitions and symposia for many years. The key features of this show are the unusual venue and the claim to be showing work by young and largely unknown artists. Timm Ulrichs, who was born in 1940, is the oldest. The End (1997), his photograph of a closed eyelid with the words of its title tattooed on to it, hangs at the beginning of the exhibition. Nearby, Spanish artist Daniel Garcia Andujar’s Body Research Machine (1997) uses a pompous set of apparatus that purports to provide, in the form of scanned data, information about the visitors who walk through it. You realise that all this high-tech hoo-ha is a fake when smoke rises after the scan button has been pressed, but the work is based on the fantasy that you can magic people out of some sort of data-essence – which reduces gene and clone technology to a level that even Mary Shelley had gone beyond.
Surprisingly few artists addressed the two aspects that have been illuminated most strongly by art based on the body and its image in the last few years: gene technology and the field of tension between sex and gender. The American artist Janine Antoni uses the latter most obviously – but in a way that is already slightly old-fashioned. Her three-part photographic work Mom and Dad (1994) shows an elderly couple (her parents) losing their sexual identity through make-up and styling.
The photographs exhibited are mostly examples of the flood of artfully produced body pictures that has been pouring out for some years, but which have become bogged down in technicalities through putting technique above content. This applies as much to Bea de Visser’s Getting Back Through You (1996), eight portraits of people superimposed on the artist’s face, as it does to Frank Goeldner’s series ‘O.T.’ (Untitled, 1992), in which a trick is used to make the subjects’ skin seem transparent. But Gabriele Leidloff’s installation Ugly Casting (1997) does convince. She shows eleven photographs of death-masks. The sequence of still images produces a cliched scene of a kiss, which is then set in motion in a video. Zoe Leonard uses similarly macabre material in her presentation of anatomical models and plays with the contradiction between subjectively felt shame and a scientific approach that allows the body to function as an object of research.
Ritual 1-2 & 3 (1997) by Dutch artist Peter Bogers takes a more spectacular approach. In contrast with many works in the show, which approach the theme of the body with calm reticence, a ticking wall-clock establishes the tempo in Bogers’ space. On one wall you see real-time pictures from various other exhibition areas, or of yourself, caught up in Bogers’ video works. On the floor are 12 TV monitors set in a circle. The scenes playing are edited in such a way that each screen shows a violent scene from a feature film and then freezes. This produces an endless sequence of punches and bullet wounds. You stand in the middle and follow them round, or you can sit down in front of a smaller video screen and watch loops of action scenes dissolving into each other. Headphones play a soundtrack like a DJ’s set, with shots and blows as the beat. You are aware that Bogers’ sources help shape our image of the body, but it is the only work in the exhibition to make it clear, through the vehemence of its manipulation, that this is wrong.
After that you can rest on E.R. Sonntag’s rubber seat, entitled Omo (1996-97), enjoying the vibrations running through your body, until Bogers’ images start to slowly drain out of your brain – unfortunately they will never disappear completely.
Translated by Michael Robinson