2014.12.04 Thu, by
Speaking in Tongues: a note on Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine

Simon Lee Gallery (The Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong) Nov 23, 2014–Jan 3, 2015

One of the most influential artists of the 1990s was the American Sherrie Levine, appraised as such by the leading critical debates of the day, including in Hal Foster’s seminal meditation on post-war art trends in The Return of the Real: The Avant Garde at the End of the Century (1996), which focused particularly on post-modern appropriation.

Levine’s work is not merely another index of adoption and reframing of “found products”—real and conceptual, which by itself would soon become tiresome, even for Duchamp. Nor is it simply another meditation on mass production copies, Walter Benjamin and Warhol. For Levine, the practice which has come to be denoted by the shorthand of “appropriation” was only ever a particular critical register to be employed with others for her own creative purposes. Her works are not statements but questions, not end-points but ongoing investigations, including into philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminism, politics as well as art history. What keeps these investigations compelling is the way apparently simple objects slip between categories, taking advantage of shifting relations between their meanings and physicality—whether they are manifestations from Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” or the bronze crocodile heads in her new exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery in Hong Kong.

Sherrie Levine (installation view), 2014
(image courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery and Kitmin Lee Photo)

One of the most demanding and exhilarating chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses involves a walk through centuries of English literature via ventriloquism—the great and dead authors critique themselves in their own voices (it was a true Irish revolution). Luce Irigaray did the same with psychoanalysis, her Speculum of the Other Woman (1985) critiquing phallocentric history, again using ventriloquism to vanquish philosophers from ancient Greece up to Lacan. Levine used the same strategy in her works meditating on Duchamp, who in the 1990s had assumed a preeminent position of artistic influence. Fortunately, unlike Lacan, Duchamp’s work was not prescriptive. Levine made “fetishized” versions of the objects depicted in Duchamp’s “Large Glass”, the great paean to frustrated desire. It was an appropriation of a depiction of fetishisation. These were not just copies—more simulacra as Baudrillard would argue, copies without original that would give us a vertiginous, oblique sense of the Real—but chameleons, face-changers, dead-ringers that upset the balance of what is, or was said to be, art and original and male (see also her versions of Walker Evan’s Depression-era photographs). A female artist had opened Duchamp’s glass door and let his representations run out into the street.

The uncertain, risky, castrated objects in her new exhibition—decapitated crocodile heads, mouths grinning and gaping—echo subtly but surely Levine’s earlier work. These Jurassic animals with pea brains and sharp teeth are the antithesis of order and predictability. The leftover dinosaurs stand for other anachronisms in society, often male and political. Their polished heavy heads invite you to stroke them, to stare into their throats. Yet they are just bronze things, put on a pedestal. It is our gaze and presence that invests them with their magic, which lies truly in our own sexual, prehistoric heads.

Sherrie Levine (installation view), 2012
(image courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery)

Sherrie Levine, 2014
(image courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery and Kitmin Lee Photo)

Sherrie Levine, 2014
(image courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery and Kitmin Lee Photo)

Note: For more reptilian ruminations see Joel Morrison’s stapler-like maws, such as “Big Romeo I” (2010) and Cai Guo Qiang’s “move along, nothing to see here” (2006) sculpture of a giant crocodile speared by bamboo poles and knifed hundreds of times in the back