Art Review Archives:
Chang Jia: Omerta
The central focus of Omerta, a solo show for Seoul-based artist Chang Jia, is a set of six large-scale digital prints of female nudes entitled Standing Up Peeing. These are black-and-white photographs in the classic style, the nudes sculptural against a deep black background, their heads cropped or otherwise bent to hide the face. The upright stance and the ribbon of liquid trickling down don't immediately connect themselves with bodily fluids: too pale, too clean, too pure in the formal setting. We can follow the stream of liquid down the model's leg with all the casual ease of a voyeur. But the focal point of the images is less the peeing itself than the tense grace of the poses taken by each of the women at the photographer's direction. This is an exhibition to see, not because it is shocking, but precisely because it is not.
The photography itself is in earnest. Standing Up Peeing #6 (digital print: 47.2 x 56 in.: 2006) is representative of the photo series. In it, larger than life size, an immaculately clean, smooth-bodied young woman stands with legs slightly apart. Her upper torso is bent sharply forward, giving a view of the top of her head with its sleek black hair drawn back into a neat bun, thereby rendering her anonymous. The curve of her forehead echoes the curve of her breast; her arms and the placement of her hands find complementary positions that set up interest and tension. And from her nether parts, yes, liquid is captured in an abundant flow, a bifurcated stream that spatters into a trickle toward the lower edge of the photo. She seems to be performing in private, her excretory act removed from the coarse functions of the body. The formal presentation, isolation of the studio, and cleanliness of the subject minimizes any sociological commentary. In other photos, the faces or heads are cropped out of the frame, withholding the identities of the women. Their stances vary, from the woman with torso tautly reared back, fists clenched at her sides, to the one whose arms cross protectively across her belly. A video presentation shows outtakes from the actual photo shoot and reveals that these poses were selected by the photographer.
But if the photography is sincere, the artist's idea for the project is marked by self-consciousness. Its presentation echoes the strain required to evoke transgression in the jaded 21st century. Omerta tries hard to sell itself as disturbing and gender-relevant. "The subject matter may initially shock the viewer," warns the accompanying text, though none of the numerous gallery visitors seemed particularly shocked by anything they encountered during the opening. "Chang's works break the boundaries of the expected roles of women and gives (sic) them expanded possibilities in the realms usually reserved for men." But if so, how, exactly? The work is not about liberation in society, for the women are isolated within the frame, contained within their own private worlds; and the bare act of peeing is only a taboo issue with us uptight Yankees, as can be seen in the celebrated statue of the Manneken Pis in Brussels, and his female counterpart, the Jeanneke Pis, or the two urinating statues (male) outside the Kafka museum in Prague, who will drolly write messages and famous names with their respective flows in the fountain in which they stand. It is not about practicality, for there is nothing practical about the mere fact of a woman standing posed and peeing, which here presents its logical conclusion of liquid ribboning every which way; and as a further note, in some cultures, women do urinate while standing, with legs planted more widely, something quite possible, if done with care. It may be about gender, but only in the most peripheral way. There is something real in these photos, and that's what makes them attract and sustain attention. The act of peeing is real -- a genuine bodily need. But the stance in which one does so has little to do with gender politics; and 'penis envy', to which this hearkens in distant strain, is a hoary old feminist topic. To truly "reclaim territory", as the exhibition maintains, there must be some end toward which the means is directed.
Included as part of Omerta are a series of ten smaller photographs continuing the artist's exploration of all matters urine, which she finds, among other things, to be symbolic of public and private issues. The photos depict individual selections from a number of small items the artist had placed in a terrarium, on which she repeatedly poured urine and allowed it to air-dry. The salts contained as a natural part of the bodily fluid are seen to have dried on each item in a halo of delicate crystalline structures. In a further revelation the artist eventually experimented with developing the photographs using urine in place of some of the developing chemicals, thus further manipulating the body's effluvia. The presentation is deliberately provocative toward our modern distaste for anything involving bodily waste. But that aversion is a mere present-day idiosyncrasy. Urine has a long history of use as an artisanal substance. In the long centuries before our sanitized era, urine with its salts was practically employed in a variety of applications: as a mordant in fixing dye on cloth, as an agent of patinating in finishing metals, and used as a source of saltpeter in manufacturing gunpowder. To employ it in the development of photographic negatives may thus be unusual, but is certainly not outré. The title of the exhibition, Omerta (more correctly, omertà) is the term for the "code of silence" attributed to Sicilian vendettas and the mafia; here, appearing to be a reference to the taboo nature of bodily fluids and their emission.
The arguments raised by Omerta are not objections to its content -- formal studio photos featuring nude, anonymous female subjects posed while peeing in a standing position -- but rather, to its attempt to frame such material as surprising, disturbing, and most of all, something of import. One can hardly imagine an army of women rushing forth from this exhibition all afire with the idea of 'going' while standing, and for good reason. What is of deepest import to women, to men, and to women and men as human beings with gender characteristics and concerns, has nothing to do with this stuff. In the end, the standing-peeing is peripheral to the composition of the photograph. The attempted focus on the urine distracts from the women themselves, whose grace is balanced by a particular wiry tautness, the tension of which is expressive of physical mechanics and emotion, and even physical presentation as related to women if one stubbornly wishes to maintain the gender content. These are no mere graceful sylphs, but wiry young women whose poses, taut, often purposefully strained, compel with their very aspects of physical expressiveness and the qualities of likeness and dissimilarity among the deliberately anonymous group. Chang Jia's photographs illustrate not so much the "shocking" act of standing and peeing as the sculptural contours of her subjects. The liquid itself is incidental.
--Katherine R. Lieber