Hell is a Place on Earth. Heaven is a Place in Your Head.
As COVID-19 continues to proliferate throughout New York City, forcing all art institutions to remain closed to the public, museums and galleries have been scrambling to convert their programming to an online-only format. A standout example of this adaptation is P.P.O.W.’s current presentation, Hell is a Place on Earth. Heaven is a Place in Your Head. Taking the form of a dedicated website, the exhibition coheres into a timely, thematically unified presentation that candidly addresses the circumstances of its occasion.
On the site, eight films by six artists—Carlos Motta, Guadalupe Maravilla, Carolee Schneemann, Hunter Reynolds, Suzanne Treister, and David Wojnarowicz—are available for viewing via embedded Vimeo players. The exhibition’s title quotes a line from Wojnarwicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (Vintage Books, 1991), a collection of essays recounting, among other experiences, his outrage and despair at the American response to the AIDS epidemic. This reference is apt, as four of the eight works in the exhibition deal directly with the theme of AIDS, the last major plague to disproportionately affect a socially and politically vulnerable demographic in the United States.
The most politically explicit work in the exhibition, Carlos Motta’s Legacy (2019), documents the artist struggling to orate a timeline of the HIV/AIDS epidemic while wearing a dental gag. Drooling from his gaping mouth, Motta struggles through the 30-minute performance, which transforms the factual, journalistic script into a feat of physical endurance, establishing a visceral metaphor for the oppression of those impacted by the AIDS crisis. Bury Them and Keep Quiet I (2004) is more ruminative and symbolic; we see an array of 100 gloves culled from the streets of New York City set on fire, a static shot which is overlaid with footage of Motta sweeping up and burying the ashes. Apart from the imagery of the gloves constituting an eerily prescient parallel to our current reality, where the necessity for medical PPE dominates our news cycle, the work addresses the lasting impact of an epidemic ignored by social and governmental bodies for far too long with a somber, funerary directness.
Fittingly, themes of domestic isolation and the natural yearning for human contact are similarly prevalent throughout the exhibition. One of Carolee Schneemann’s most well-known works, Fuses (1964-67), comprises a vertiginous collage of bodies and materials that expresses the coalescence of individual selves into an erotic, sensual whole. Augmenting the film’s innovative imagery are Schneemann’s novel processing techniques, wherein she burned and painted the 16mm film strip, resulting in a densely layered montage of media and subject. The film’s focus on interiority—both domestic and psychological—and its emphasis on bodily contact establishes a stark contrast to the palpable sense of isolation expressed by Hunter Reynolds’s Conversations with Kathleen White, Medication Reminder (2012). Here, several portrait-like shots of the artist sitting before the camera, alone in his home, are arranged in a multi-panel frame. The audio is a remix of both automated and human messages reminding him to take the pills prescribed to him following complications related to HIV. Throughout the video, Reynolds responds to the audio as if it were a present, sentient entity, opening the work onto another uncannily timely associational field characterized by confinement, physical compromise, and technological communication.
Suzanne Treister’s two videos, SURVIVOR (F)/Screensaver 02 (2016 – ongoing) and SURVIVOR (F)/The New Planet (2016 – 2018), imagine a future unbound by the limits of human consciousness and terrestrial existence. Deceptively simple in format, her films paradoxically evoke a sense of dystopia and transcendence, imagining a future defined by an expanded understanding of the universe while instilling a sense of entropic doom in the face of human expansion into the far reaches of space.
Similarly otherworldly is a recent film by Guadalupe Maravilla, Spirit Level (2019), which expands the implications of the exhibition to encompass the struggles of immigrant populations in the United States, particularly under the current, openly hostile administration. Dressed in elaborate costumes designed by Maravilla, performers undertake a series of invented rituals and choreographies while the artist discusses, in voiceover, how the conditions for immigrants have changed since he first came to the US from El Salvador in 1984. While the compromised body is an explicit theme in the work—one which ties neatly into the rest of the exhibition—Maravilla’s film, as the title suggests, is more of a liturgy for the struggle of undocumented peoples.
The exhibition is appropriately concluded by Wojnarowicz and Marion Schemama’s When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1989/2014), which centers on imagery of Wojnarowicz kissing and caressing another male actor. Wojnarowicz’s resonant voiceover poetically considers the transience of human bodies, memory, and the fundamental desire for human connection. The language oscillates between a consideration of death and eternal oblivion and the earnest, ecstatic desire to care for another person, reminding us, once again, that the crisis we now face is a collective struggle—one that may set us physically apart but, in so doing, reveals the yearning for connection that unites us.