Ass You Like It: Jonathan Monaghan’s Playful Videos Go Deep


Jonathan Monaghan likes assholes. He likes them a whole lot. His assholes appear out of nowhere and to comic effect, as puckered flesh-colored
reliefs from the sanitized, militarized, and luxury-saturated environments the Washington, D.C.–based artist creates in two new videos on view in his New York debut at Bitforms Gallery. Using commercially available 3-D modeling software, Monaghan makes seamlessly looping videos that depict futuristic worlds with no humans in sight, though plenty of body parts are on display: Spaceships are mash-ups of Fabergé eggs, drones, and testicles; a phallus-like satellite floats in gravity-free space. And of course there are the assholes.

For Monaghan, sphincters are portals of entry as well as expulsion. A fleshy anus stands in for the oculus ceiling above a house-size walk-in closet or a Calvin Klein boutique (maybe it’s both) in a three-minute gem of a video called The Pavilion. Here we follow the Fabergé egg–cum-drone as it traces a life cycle through the boutique: Birthed through a sofa, it heads upward to be sucked into the ceiling’s fleshy orifice and out into the world — only to reappear moments later at the bottom of the screen. We get the sense that this egg is working through some issues of sin and redemption — forgive me, Father, for I desire expensive clothing and, if I’m honest with myself, this sleek, modernist building, too — even as its trajectory suggests a love-hate relationship with luxury. Once we get out, we want back in.

Done in long seamless takes, the 28-year-old Monaghan’s videos are filmic in scope and their aspirations have grown in recent years. Back in 2010, he screened a short but impressive video called Life Tastes Good in a Washington gallery. Its title stolen from a Coke ad slogan, the piece features a massive white polar bear, the kind the brand uses to market itself, who dies a Shakespearean death over three minutes. Though the bear had a creepy red eye that was half Pepsi roundel and half Coke emblem, we still felt for him. The piece proved Monaghan was one of that city’s savviest artists.

Monaghan’s most ambitious work to date is this show’s titular, twenty-minute Escape Pod. The artist drops us into a futuristic dystopian fairytale, where we follow a golden calf that travels in an egg drone. After coming into the world via the cushions of a BoConcept sofa, he alights in a duty-free store that sells liquor and riot gear. Soon he encounters a strange floating creature in a room that’s part airport concourse gates, part immigration checkpoint. When the camera eventually pans out (and through another sphincter), we realize the action we just witnessed took place in a golden stag’s lower colon.

If this all sounds very Matthew Barney, then that’s Monaghan’s bugaboo. Björk’s ex comes to mind so often that Monaghan will need to refine his visual vocabulary, turn down the psychosexual and mythic, and tune himself to a new frequency. But he is on to something, the universes he creates are compelling, and he has the pacing right. His vision of a life looped and collapsing back onto itself is like the image of a snake eating its tail: a metaphor for a world of terminal narcissism where assholes rule.