Performing at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2005, Mowbray repeatedly dunked his head into a tray of Just for Men hair dye and swabbed the gallery floor with his hair. It was a take-off on New York artist Janine Antoni’s 1994 performance “Loving Care,” in which she dipped her long hair into dye and mopped a gallery floor with it. Antoni’s act was itself a take-off on Nam June Paik 1962 screwball Fluxus performance “Zen for Head,” in which he dipped his head in a bowl of ink and dragged his hair along a long sheet of paper to paint a line. Antoni’s performance was a critique of “women’s work.” Mowbray intended his act to speak of the changing roles of men and the anxieties this produces for all involved, but it suffered from relying so heavily on a smarty-pants reference to Antoni.
In “Bathyscape,” Mowbray again taps gender cues — the decorated diving bell reads as female (womb), and the fishing references read as male even without the fishing rod. But here the symbols open up the piece — the gender references become more ambiguous. Mowbray is still hung up on art-historical references. A fur-lined box (Duchamp’s 1941 mini-retrospective in a box, Box in a Valise) filled with loose pages, notes, and clippings relating to the project sits on a table in the gallery. Two sheets of notes reveal that Mowbray’s framed fishing flies are hung on the wall in two loose spirals that recall the general curl of his parted hair while also alluding to some Duchamp spiral pictures. Duchamp favored intellectual gamesmanship and a sort of accidental or anti-beauty that rejected what he dismissed as “retinal” art — art whose satisfactions are primarily visual. His puckishness allowed for contradictions, but fetishizing his imagery feels perverse or like a misunderstanding.
At any rate, the actual æsthetic godfather of this work is Matthew Barney, whose Cremaster films are packed with operatic rituals, hallucinations, and mumbo-jumbo inspired by testicles. Mowbray’s white suit recalls Barney’s satyr get-up in the first completed Cremaster film. As with Barney, Mowbray’s photos and sculptures are dependent on his performances for their meaning: the photos document what happened and the sculptures are props left behind as relics. And Mowbray shares some of Barney’s pretentiousness. But “Bathyscape” impresses, like the best of Barney’s work, by seducing with bizarrely beautiful absurd rites. Who knows exactly what they mean, but it feels as if something important were going on.
FUNHOUSE: Despite Axiom Gallery’s hifalutin explication, “Endosymbiont” is worth a visit.
Located at the Green Street Orange Line T station, Axiom Gallery has been “metaphorically transformed into a biological cell that feeds off the sounds and electromagnetic fields of passing MBTA trains.” At least, that’s what the Axiom Web site tells me about its new collaborative installation, “Endosymbiont” (a fancy word for a creature that lives symbiotically within its host), from Jerel Dye, Jake Lee High, Sean O’Brien, and Fred Wolflink. Don’t be distracted by the hifalutin lingo — what we have here is a funhouse. And it’s worth a visit.
The perimeter of the gallery has been curtained in reflective mylar. Inside, it’s dark. In one chamber, sausage-shaped mylar balloons dangle above blinking computer monitors covered in bubble wrap. Sensors triggered by the movement of gallery visitors and trains rumbling underground cause the balloons to inflate and deflate like living organisms (yet more phalluses!) and make a crinkly noise. In the next room, a pair of sausage balloons hang from the ceiling, and two big inflated plastic bags slouch on the floor. Light from a pair of projectors reflects off the mylar curtain, projecting jittery, watery green-and-white waves on the gallery wall. Bells, electronic buzzing, low metallic rumbles, and dings make you feel as if you were in an underwater space-alien lair.
‘Andrew Mowbray Bathyscape’ | Space Other, 63 Wareham St, Boston | Through June 30
‘Endosymbiont’ | Axiom, 141 Green St, Jamaica Plain | Through July 15