Sometimes, sure, a hot dog is just a hot dog—but not, you must admit, when it emerges erect and glistening from an open can of baked beans. There in the lobby of Deitch Projects, on a pedestal, the puerile gag advertises the main exhibit: Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s menagerie of salacious automata, an homage to childhood’s snickering sex play. First shown at London’s Freud Museum, the installation (titled Scarlett and assembled on a table) portrays a child’s naïve anything-goes urges toward the obscene and sadistic—what Sigmund labeled the “polymorphously perverse,” and what, the British duo is suggesting, we never really leave behind.
Circle the cluttered table, designed as a madman’s workplace, and you’ll rediscover those repressed desires, as motion sensors set off a mechanical orgy. Two mangled dolls frantically demonstrate the missionary position. A chopped-up face rides on train tracks to thrust its tongue at a contraption of severed limbs. Beneath dirty plastic sheets, hot dogs reappear, this time rubbed and stroked. On the floor, an ass tries to squeeze out a turd. And for a little violence, two birds (real, from the taxidermist) are tortured and dismembered, the blood of one (fake, from the tube) sucked away by a whirring machine. The mechanics of it all are quite clever: The artists have fashioned rickety assemblies of gears, belts, string, and wire to give the impression of youthful experimentation in carnal constructions.
Still, for all its efforts, the thing disappoints. The perversity is pretty tame—children can delve into horrors far worse than these. It’s as if the artists were unable to break through their own repression. Though the work touches on Freud’s theories about sexual development (erogenous zones, voyeurism, the vibrational pleasures of train travel, etc.), the psychology lies on the surface, never rising above the simple humor of libidinous dolls. As signaled by the lobby’s device, we’re mostly in the realm of the joke shop.
But like the Young British Artists from the early ’90s, those purveyors of shock and awe, Noble and Webster aren’t exactly going for intellectualism. The king and queen of oversized kitsch (check out their Las Vegas light fountain at Rockefeller Center), they’re perhaps best known for their self-portrait shadow sculptures—piles of trash carefully arranged so that their shadows, cast by a spotlight, create silhouettes of the two artists on the back wall. This exhibit includes a variation, a sculpture titled Black Narcissus: dark rubber moldings, all bundled together, of Webster’s fingers and Noble’s penis in various states of tumescence. The shadow forms the heads of a man and woman, vaguely Neanderthal. The technique, again, is clever, but the art is just banal—the sculptures are the sort of novelties you might encounter at Spencer Gifts. Maybe that’s the point, but 16 years after Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, the YBAs have decidedly lost their edge.
For somewhat more adventurous sexual themes, you can hike on over to Priska C. Juschka Fine Art and witness, courtesy of videographer Almagul Menlibayeva, mysterious lesbianism in a Soviet-era factory and the aphrodisiacal effects of eating mutton. Born and raised in Kazakhstan, Menlibayeva often depicts the cultural and spiritual traditions of her native country as erotic and brashly feminine dream sequences.
In her video Headcharge, three well-dressed women assemble at a chic restaurant, devour the Kazakh treat of boiled sheep’s head (feeding each other with their hands), regurgitate it back on the skull, and then get transported, naked, to a pasture full of sheep, where they dance with teenage boys before eventually writhing in a room crowded with ewes and rams. The 12-minute work refers to creatures from Persian legend known as peris, female spirits who shift between evil and benevolence. But their capriciousness seems to have lent uncertainty to the work itself; it’s hard to tell how seriously the artist is presenting all this. With coarse editing, amateurish effects (upside-down frames, slow motion), and an electronic soundtrack incorporating Baa‘s, the piece can feel like something that Leno et al. put together after a few beers.
Menlibayeva is more sure-footed with Kissing Totems, a surrealistic, sepia-toned journey inspired by her childhood memory of walking past Soviet factories as she sought the help of a shaman to cure her mother’s severe illness. Clearly influenced by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic style (particularly the bleak interiors of Stalker), the split-screen video follows a girl, accompanied by her mother, entering an abandoned industrial complex filled with birds, where she encounters various sexualized women—peris again—locked in a cage, wrapped in white cloth, kissing each other, and parading around naked wearing fried-egg masks. Nothing adds up, but the artist has confidently conjured the fragmented nature of distant memory with brisk cuts, pans, and fades, all smartly linked between the two halves. Avoiding the prevalent tedium of video art, and with an eye for cinema, Menlibayeva seems destined for longer work. It may only be a matter of time before her Kazakh beauties and their mythological eroticism appear on the big screen.