Erogenous Zone: Aida Ruilova’s Erotic “Palace”
Aida Ruilova: The Pink Palace at Marlborough Chelsea
February 11 to March 12, 2016
545 West 25th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 463 8634
Immediately upon entering the “Pink Palace,” Aida Ruilova’s exhibition held at the Chelsea Marlborough Gallery, one is presented with is an enormous, black, vinyl blow-up thought-bubble form, humming with pressure caused by a machine perpetually filling it with more air. The sculpture seems to transmit a sort of warning for what the viewer is about to experience upon entering the main space of the gallery; it’s foreboding presence imbued with an even deeper omen suggested by it’s title, Rocky (2016). Discovering that we’re not looking at a thought-bubble, but a pair of boxing gloves (perhaps even specifically Sylvester Stallone’s gloves from his iconic movie series) violence, sweat and heavy breathing come to mind.
Moving past Rocky, The observer is then overwhelmed by Immoral Tales (2014), a 25-foot-long video projection of a woman’s plump lips being caressed by an anonymous index finger. The action isn’t merely contained by the rectangular projection; it truly feels as though it is emerging into our reality. Ruilova sucks us into a David Cronenberg-like space by supplementing the film with eerie, eroticized breathing to make the entire exhibition a fully immersive freak fest. Being a voyeur is not merely allowed but inescapable. And there’s a comfort to be found in being told what to do (especially if it’s in a dark room where no one can judge you). But this comfortableness is met with a subdued evil. We have no way of knowing whether the woman being invaded or caressed.
The tension created by this scenario is closely related to the smaller works in this exhibition: vintage film posters of 1960–70s erotic horror. These works are a continuum of the ideas and emotions explored in the films, which is an exhilarating mixture of sex, cruely, and evil. Ruilova has decorated the posters with floral motifs that were cut out of them, revealing black velvet backing. The floral designs read somewhat like the tacky flowers schoolgirls illegally emboss their textbooks with. It’s bad — like really garish and second-rate. And it’s great! One cannot help but wonder if the artist herself was once one of those bookish, misunderstood youths who listened to strange music and engaged in even stranger behaviors. Another trait Ruilova shares with those mysterious young women is a heavy, intellectual side, revealed in the titles of her work. Beyond Love and Evil (2015), for instance, is a direct reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886): a dense, existential breakdown of the problems regarding freedom and morality. The image is of a beautiful woman lying on her back, ass-forward, with her knees pulled to her chest. A human skull rests on what would have otherwise been revealed as a vagina, accompanied by two cutout flowers adorning the sides of the skull. It’s a curious combination of sex, death, humor, poise, and awkwardness that points out toward the breadth of human experience. Yellow Flowers. Grave. Procession (2015) holds onto a similar energy. Here, the side profile of a woman with little yellow flowers sprouting out of her face reminds one of Shakespeare’s Juliet or Ophelia — there’s a theatricality that clashes with the flower-cutout hovering over her face.
While some of the posters unpack a more complicated meaning, others are just plain silly and pornographic. Pleasure Seeking Nurses (2015), sports a pair of lubricated breasts with a prodigious flower-cutout right between them. I don’t think we’re expected to think too hard about the significance of this piece — and that’s OK too. Erotic horror is a form of art, similar to Surrealism or metal music, which gets at the banal, animalistic side of human nature. It can be a deep, healthy, and even cathartic experience to engage with. It can also be used to say “fuck you” to groups of people who wish to homogenize society with their ideals (i.e. mega church pastors). Pleasure Seeking Nurses, while possibly fitting into the cathartic category, is a fantastically base “fuck you.”
There is a particular, homegrown brand of strange present in this exhibition that we don’t often experience in other varieties of deranged erotica. And one major reason why “The Pink Palace” is successful is that Ruilova doesn’t objectify female sexuality — even though much of the source material does, the intent sublimates through the source. The femme fatale trope and other, similar depictions so often work against women’s liberation because it turns sexuality into a weapon — an object. This exhibition however is about experience as a whole. It’s the observer and his/her response to he heavy breathing, naked bodies, black velvet, flowers, etc. which completes the work. Because this show depends more on the public to piece together a narrative, she was free to be less explicit than in some of her previous, more comprehensive works, which can even be claustrophobic at times, as in life like (2005).
While weird and intense, the works present are clearly not intended to put anyone down or in a box, but to assert sexuality simply as such; a fun, sometimes strange, sometimes fearsome or complicated extension of humanity.