Five women dressed in pastel spring dresses and slingbacks trudge through mounting piles of slippery material as they dig their hands, elbows and feet into a 7,500-pound clay cube, carve out a piece and hurl it at a wall. As a crowd smiles on, the gesture creates a satisfying thud. This was the scene last week as Kate Gilmore debuted a performance, Through the Claw (2011), for the opening of The Pace Gallery's group show "Soft Machines."
For Gilmore, the performance is "less about endurance and a daily grind. It becomes more about accomplishing a goal, starting from a beginning and reaching an end, it shows the deterioration of the object as well as the participants and it allows for a more obvious physical and mental transformation," she told A.i.A. Weaving through the crowd as the photographer for the performance, I overheard conversations about the fecal-like quality of the clay and the ferociousness of the performers. Gilmore was herself surprised by her performers and "how fast they tore it apart (just 2 hours and 15 minutes) and how incredibly savage they became."
Curated by Sarvia Jasso, Harmony Murphy and Nicola Vassell, "Soft Machines" takes its theme and title from a 1961 William Burroughs novel that describes an ever-vulnerable human body constantly barraged by cultural and political forces that try to gain control over it, like a virus. According to Jasso, the curators wanted to show how "each artist exemplifies how we are capable of acknowledging how different external forces affect us, how they manipulate our mind and body."
Burroughs' book is written in a cut-up technique transformed in Kathryn Garcia's If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, We'll Take the Pits (2011), which contains ripped images of fleshy body parts, pieced together to create an erotic co-mingling of people, not unlike the unsettling dolls of Hans Bellmer. While Garcia's work explores the frantic passion of sex, it is executed methodically; tears in the paper are controlled and restrained.
Two videos, one by Paul Pfeiffer and the other by Ma Qiusha, delve into the paralyzing pressure to succeed. In Desiderata (2004), Pfeiffer's game show contestants stand in silence surrounded by flashing neon signs and lights, always waiting and never winning, frozen with desperate hope. With From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007), Qiusha embodies mental anguish. The artist stares into the camera, recounting how her parents would have preferred a son and her inability to satisfy their expectations of her success: "I always felt there were a pair of eyes on me." Her words slowly begin to slur and she opens her mouth to reveal bloody saliva and a razor blade. These pressures, whether created internally or externally, become self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
In Stuart Brisley's dark and tactile installation, The Collection of Ordure (2002), and collaborative photographs by Liz Magic Laser and Ana Ostoya, Imprint (photographs) (2009), power lies in the materials unwittingly secreted by the human body. For Jasso, Brisley's piece "references waste and excretion, but it also points to the fragility and frailty of the body." Lazer and Ostoya's prints of blood-like smears on fabric and materials in New York City commercial spaces are small, unframed and hug the wall. They are eerily reminiscent of crime scene photographs but also playful—in a final image, full body imprints of two people indicates a kind of willing participation.