Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300-Now)
21 March - 22 July, 2018
Review by Torey Akers
As the Met Breuer continues to tease out its overarching curatorial mission, commitment to populist spectacle remains a consistent theme, one that enjoys virtuosic execution in ‘Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300-Now)’, a collection of 120 objects that box with material embodiment across 700 years of Western civilization. ‘Like Life’ is a sweeping paean to historical contemporaneity, but where crowded chaos or a pandering sense of prurience could easily reign, co-curators Sheena Wagstaff and Luke Syson manage to imbue the eerie magic of mimesis with an academic bent that won’t intimidate fair-weather tourists. The show’s coherence sits squarely in its ahistorical meta-narration; pieces are organized by concept, not era or discipline, so the Breuer’s two-floor sprawl replete with every manner of humanoid feels far less like a museological slog than a distinctly modern immersive installation. By planting religious relics amidst crowd-pleasing creepiness and the ickiest ilk of artistic exegesis, ‘Like Life’ harnesses universal appeal without sacrificing rigor as it grapples with identity, mortality, and the myriad cultural prisms we’ve employed to better capture the human condition.Thematic friction is achieved through near-literal dialog between selections—take Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ (1991), a three-dimensional self-portrait frozen from the artist’s own blood, which stands feet away from Thomas Southwood Smith’s ‘Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham’ (1832), the famously macabre wax cast containing the philosopher’s skeletal remains. (The import of a loan like ‘Auto-Icon’ cannot be overstated, as this is the first time it has left its cabinet at University College London since 1850). Enthralling pairings emerge organically throughout the exhibition; Jeff Koons’s saccharine ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ (1998) sculpture brims with new beauty in proximity to an 18th century Meissen, and a charmingly dated Kusama mannequin crackles conspiratorially next to a Victorian medical dummy. Some visual conversations hedge predictability, like the stand-off between Edgar Degas’ ‘The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer’ (1922) and Yinka Shonibare’s pistol-wielding ‘Girl Ballerina’ (2007), a headless, tributary annotation to Degas’ iconic cast. Still, even an occasional lapse in poignancy finds the means to delight. A specially commissioned cyborg from Polish artist Goshka Macuga goes so far as to speak directly to us, remixing monologues from Martin Luther King Jr. and Harrison Ford’s character in ‘Blade Runner’.
‘Like Life’ boasts seven separate chapters, entitled ‘The Presumption of White’, ‘Likeness’, ‘Proxy Figures’, ‘Desire for Life’, ‘Layered Realities’, ‘Figuring Flesh’, and ‘Between Life and Art’, respectively. This taxonomy is most useful in the case of the first example, which assumes the monumental task of addressing color in the Western sculptural canon, both in terms of pigment and, of course, race. Retroactively fictive blankness in classical sculpture has long snaked its way towards popular knowledge, but the extent to which color’s vulgar reputation in Eurocentric art consciousness has influenced racist attitudes proves a more ambitious project; impressively, the accompanying text for ‘Like Life’ doesn’t shy away from its circumstantial responsibilities, choosing to both exhibit and condemn inexcusable artefacts from its collection, like a revoltingly stereotypical automaton from 19th century France, a medieval wooden dummy of a dark-skinned Muslim soldier designed to be impaled at jousting fairs, and a lush but reductive bust of a ‘Pan-African’ woman by marble master Charles Cordier. Given the heated debate on the validity of Confederate sculptures in stations of public esteem, this choice exemplifies a thoughtful approach to the discourse by doing what museums are designed to do – contextualize the transgressions of the past in an explicitly educative environment.
The other sections don’t deliver quite the same sense of categorical urgency, although one low-lit room of reclining figures reproduces the gruesome enchantment of a mausoleum. Deliciously Gothic melodrama abounds; a 1989 Madame Tussauds remake of Phillipe Curtis’ exquisite ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1795) breathes mechanically beneath her beaded chartreuse corset, and a twinkling anatomical Venus from Fontana’s workshop languorously bares her jewel-like viscera. One room over, the monolithic ‘Male Figure’ (Nancy Grossman, 1971), an artfully swollen figure bound in the trappings of BDSM, creates a memorable shadow. Some usual suspects also make their requisite appearances – there’s the deeply voyeuristic Elmgreen & Dragset sculpture of a young boy wearing his mother’s high heels as he gazes in a mirror, two excellent Duane Hanson works, a disquieting Kiki Smith, and a surprisingly though not ineffectively modest Bourgeois. The latter two are sequestered in the only gallery that feels at all congested, largely due to the proliferation of smaller-scale works in every available cranny. It isn’t difficult to grow overwhelmed as a ‘Like Life’ viewer; while the floor-plan is expertly paced, it’s still a jam-packed collection of demanding, often awe-inspiring work– that, and the distinct sensation of being, well, watched. This wryly sensationalist collection populates the viewer’s world with witnesses, visitors, ghosts, experiments, and memories made tactile, eliciting simultaneous pangs of empathy and primeval revulsion from even the most discerning ticket-holder. Such a brimming romp through the uncanny valley inevitably yields grander questions of personhood, taste, and value, but more salacious fascinations, borne out in objects like a bowl allegedly moulded from Marie Antoinette’s breast or the French jewellery-store mannequin head so needlessly realistic she was given a first name in the 18th century press, pique far stranger desires. We’re all only human, after all.