Text by Emily Sack
Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, a staple in the art historical canon, is known for embodying the conflicted relationship of sex and religion. The penetration of the angel’s arrow is simultaneously so pleasurable and so painful to Saint Theresa, that her reaction resembles sexual gratification instead of religious experience. Thomas Zipp’s newest exhibition at Alison Jacques Gallery explores these contrasting yet often overlapping concepts but with an almost menacing interpretation. Zipp borrows Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1920) for the title of this show. Freud’s preoccupation with sexual motivations forms the basis of the art, but it is not necessarily a psychological study through art.
The gallery is divided into two distinct spaces relating most closely to a church and side chapel. In the “nave” of the church multiple components become Polymorphous Oratory (2012). The largest and possibly most bizarre of objects in this room is a conical system of two larger than life ear cones (pictured) attached to headphones on a pedestal at the rear of the gallery space. This puzzling contraption encourages visitor interaction, but listening through the headphones does little to elucidate the purpose of the object. A steady hum of visitors is perforated by occasional clarity of sound, but in general the cones, generally used to improve hearing, only serve to distort sound and perception.
The main space also contains ten neon lights mounted high on the walls. The lights, a bit like what stained glass Dan Flavin would be like – cheap materials somehow made into sculptures of light with a certain surprising elegance. Electrical cords snake down the walls to the outlets, eschewing traditional illusionism and acknowledging the real world constraints of electricity.
The final component of Polymorphous Oratory is a icon or reliquary of sorts, illuminated by a row of electric votive candles. The painted canvas is covered in aluminium foil reflecting the light and referencing Byzantine icons with the backgrounds of gold leaf. The brightness of the lights placed on a black painted table in front of the canvas is intense causing the viewer to see spots on looking away. This optical effect highlights a sense of mysticism, but also delays a closer inspection of the work. This altar, in addition to the three similar altars in the “side chapel” are each painted a different colour then scored by a variety of rather violent tools. Instead of an image of a saint as would be painted on a traditional icon, Zipp uses a serrated saw blade, mushroom shaped grinder, stiletto heels, and a whip to create subtle texture on the surface of the foil.
Further expanding on the themes of violence and sexuality, the side gallery is crowded with C print photographs of mannaquins or rubber dolls in grimy disrepair. The pictures feature details of distorted appendages and close-up portraits. The poses of dolls are highly sexualized, but what is most disturbing is the clear sense that another individual, a real person, has positioned the mannequins in this way, moving beyond eroticism into sexual deviance and voyeurism. The eeriness of the photographs is heightened by the dimness of the smaller side gallery where the only lighting comes from the three tables of electric votive candles. The placement of these altars implies the necessity of devotion to the surrounding images thereby increasing the discomfort.
Sex and religion have been contrasting though frequently overlapping themes throughout history. Thomas Zipp creates an interesting juxtaposition of cheapening religion or elevating deviant sex in this new exhibition. Just as Freud’s interpretations of sexual desire have been highly contested in recent scholarship, Zipp’s provocative work is likely to incite controversy or at least stimulate conversation and debate.
Thomas Zipp: 3 Contributions to the Theory of Mass-Aberrations in Modern Religions, 24/02/2012 – 31/03/2012, Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners Street, London, W1T 3LN. www.alisonjacquesgallery.com
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