University of Nevada, Las VegasMarjorie Barrick Museum of Art
October 12 – December 15, 2018
“Do you get vertigo?” the curator of the exhibition asks me as she pulls open the Velcro seam of the inflated blob. Inside, the nylon fabric lifts around me, plumped by an air stream pumped in near the floor. She thinks of this work as a feminist James Turrell—maybe she has in mind his Aten Reign (2013)—an expansive environment, like a womb, but lightweight and portable. She says, “We’ve been calling them vessels.”
There are four of these vessels at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Each one, sewn from brightly colored parachute fabric and inflated, is about the size of a camper. Blue Inflatable (2015), Yellow Inflatable (2016), Pink Inflatable (2017), and Orange Inflatable (2018) are part of Brooklyn-based artist Tamar Ettun’s tetralogy, A Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly. The series of works, made over four years, explores a set of affects that correspond to four colors chosen by the artist: empathy (blue), desire (yellow), aggression (pink), and joy (orange).
In the final year of the tetralogy, Jubilation Inflation centers on joy and brings all the elements of the series into the gallery, including sculptures, photographs, sound works, video, and the inflatables, together with a selection of complementary video works by Alika Cooper, Cheryl Donegan, Trulee Hall, Joan Jonas, and Jen Liu.
As the study of an affect, Jubilation Inflation bristles with the tension of unresolved feelings: “the artist says orange is the color of joy / the sign says in caution orange alarm.” Rose McLarney’s poem “On Orange,” painted on the front wall, signals the conflict that animates Ettun’s performing bodies.
First, there are the inflatable blobs. Their lollipop colors and ballooning mass suggest child’s play. “Influenced by the avant-garde individualism of mid-twentieth century art movements such as Fluxus and Gutai, Ettun asks us to explore the experience of play,” the curatorial statement tells us. “Playfulness, in the context of her work, offers us a chance to process our engagement of the world.” But the blobs take up too much room. They spill out of the gallery spaces, obstructing the view. Sculptural objects placed near the ground or directly on the floor alongside the blobs call attention to their menacing scale. Their formlessness, far from benign, hints at unruly expansion: monstrous hunger, mutant growth that resolves itself in sharp corners that spear the air or reach toward a neighboring blob as if to pierce the skin.
This distress flares up in the video A Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly, PART BLUE (2015). Created in collaboration with The Moving Company, a performance group created by Ettun in 2013, the work follows the unsettling logic of dreams. The movers perform a series of actions with objects, the objects and bodies enduring forms of restraint or duress. In one scene, performers grip a tomato between their legs, squeezing the fruit until it splits and drops, oozing, to the floor. Later, we see a performer battling one of the floating, amorphous, inflatable forms, beating it back with a broom or a stick, as if confronting the pillowy eruption of trauma. Play, it seems, is not the zone of untroubled innocence, but a response to precariousness or a strategy for negotiating impossible constraints.
Ettun’s soft fabric sculptures also hazard conditions of peril. Her biomorphic forms, sewn with patchwork materials—Doreen (2018), Ruby (2018), or Amy (2018)—are twisted, contorted, placed in postures that allude to yoga or dance, but also, perhaps, to pain. There are safety-pin piercings and body parts missing. One of the figures appears to be lunging over the top of a wall. Gloved like a boxer, its long cloth arms stretch grotesquely to the ground. Pink cloth streamers hang from its neck hole and orange feathers burst like flames from its crotch. The title of the work, The Hugger (2018), suggests an entangled, fractious relationship between affection, care, and injury or harm.
It’s tempting to regard The Hugger through an object-oriented lens—that is, to grant the headless body a kind of vitality or subjectivity that demands of the viewer an empathic response. These objects are “crying,” one writer claims, “like externalized and reified wounds.”1 From this vantage, “It is the object we are meant to find beautiful, to find mysterious in its pain, to empathize with.”2 But if we stop here, with the effects of an animated Other, we may miss seeing the cause or conditions that give rise to the wound. Here, I suggest shifting our attention from the artist’s interest in play to the theme of work.
Ettun’s soft bodies—apparently hand-sewn, the product of women’s work, and feminized by their names—raise a question about the relationship of women’s labor to this body of work and its various affects—trauma or joy. This body stuck with pins—one missing its head—one with garish lights for eyes but apparently no mouth: these objects spark not joy but a comic kind of desperation. In these figures, we see an antic strain of performance that brings to mind Sianne Ngai’s description of the zany: “an aesthetic of action pushed to strenuous and even precarious extremes.”3 According to Ngai, strenuous play, encoded in the zany affect—what we see, for example, in an episode of I Love Lucy—indexes contemporary conditions of production. That is, the zany figure must go to extreme lengths to perform a job. (Think of Lucy Ricardo frantically shoving chocolates into her mouth as they advance on the conveyor belt.) According to Ngai, this ratcheting series of exaggerations and contortions reflects the creeping uncertainty and precarity of the service economy. “Post-Fordist zaniness in particular suggests that simply being a ‘productive’ worker under prevailing conditions—the concomitant casualization and intensification of labor, the creeping extension of the workday, the steady decline in real wages—is to put oneself into an exhausting and precarious situation.”4
Among the videos Ettun has selected to accompany the exhibition is Cheryl Donegan’s Cheryl (2005), which pairs low-res images of cheap plastic kitsch with found audio of a woman’s voice repeating a series of affirmations: “I am a winner. I am persistent. I am consistent. No doubt about it. I succeed in all I do. I am an achiever. I am following God’s principles of success. I have one hundred Diamond customers. I always feel great.”
The monologue, with its zany insistence on personal success, highlights the merger of entrepreneurial culture with the self-help industry, typified by multi-level marketing schemes. It reveals the degree to which affective labor has been absorbed by neoliberal capitalism and deployed as a form of surplus value. Simultaneously, the speaker’s entrepreneurial zeal exposes capitalism’s failure to create a place for all workers. It reveals the shadow side of personal achievement as an index of individual worth: the possibility of failure.
Ever-changing conditions in the workforce—the dissolving borders between the personal and the professional, between productive and reproductive labor—require flexibility and rapid-fire adaptation, which accounts for the frenzied appearance of the zany. “I am interested in this sense of being off-balance,” Ettun has said. ”I am drawn to the moment of change—when things are in a state of transformation, transition, and in mutations, when the objects and the bodies blend into each other.”5
While these conditions prevail for both women and men in the workforce, they place different burdens on their subjects across gender lines. Ettun’s soft-bodied objects make me think of the various forms of “soft” labor historically performed by women. Reproductive labor, social organization, and emotional caretaking—now mobilized for their value in the workforce, have not gained corresponding value at home (despite the shrinking margin between home and work), nor have they shifted the burden of this work from women.
When it appears under the rubric of contemporary art, soft labor is often called “relational aesthetics.” Artists who pursue a relational practice—cooking, for example, or other community-based work—may seek to partition the values of art making from those of the market. But this form of labor often replicates work that has historically been done by women. Claiming the status of art for work that is unpaid and uncelebrated among the broader population is, on the face of it, sinister. But Ettun’s work—her stated interest in community engagement, connection across difference, and empathy—reveals the extent to which immaterial labor has colonized all spheres of production, spreading like those inflatables blobs.
Jubilation Inflation registers precarious conditions for both worker and performer (performance being a particularity unstable mode of production). Though Ettun’s work is not about labor—women’s or otherwise—it performs as such. That is, her sculptures and movers are put to work on the basis of affective, relational competencies that erode the distinction between work and play.
Asserting joy in the midst of joyless conditions—defenestration, for example—Jubilation Inflation veers toward zany hyperbole. But there’s a moment in the exhibition when the artist seems to spare her subject. In her video Inflation (2018), Ettun assembles found footage of paratroopers and runs the footage in reverse. We see the parachutes rippling, inflating, leaving the ground. These are not weaponized bodies, falling onto the hard earth, but bodies relieved of the force of gravity, catching a draft and lifting off.
- Natasha Marie Llorens, “For Love of the Triangle,” Alula in Blue (New York: Fridman Gallery, 2015) 11.
- Llorens, 10.
- Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012) 185
- Ngai, 10.
- Ettun, Tamar. Interview by Natasha Kurchanova. Studio International, 10 Feb. 2015, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/tamar-ettun-interview-alula-in-blue-fridman-gallery. Accessed 4 November 2018.