Weekly Update – Elizabeth Leister at PAFA

[This week’s Weekly has my piece about Elizabeth Leister’s body-themed video installation at Pennsylvania Academy. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the copy with some pictures.]

If a “Body” Catch a Body
Elizabeth Leister uses video projections to capture flesh and spirit.

Leister’s Every Body is Everywhere and Nowhere, a multi-channel projection at the Morris Gallery

How human is the human experience these days? We “meet” people on MySpace and we share all-pictures, thoughts, words, anger, music, hurt, secrets, funny stories-via cell phones, blogs, Flickr, email, chat rooms and Craigslist. So where’s your body in all of this? And what does it mean to have skin, orifices, a sex drive and a mind, and to feel the pleasure, pain, loneliness and disconnection of being human in a world where you can get everything you want without having to leave home and have a human encounter?

These are questions Elizabeth Leister asks in her new Morris Gallery video installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “Every Body Is Everywhere and Nowhere” deals with corporeality and insubstantiality in a way that’s itself highly insubstantial (with several video projections, mirrors and a live webcast from Los Angeles). But Leister’s not attacking the cyber- or techno-driven spheres-she’s just studying it. Her approach is more like that of the poet who uses the world, serving up snippets of beautiful or sometimes horrible imagery to deliver thoughts about existence. The journey, like many things poetic, ventures into a land of ambiguity and reverie.

The Patch You never Gave Me for the Hole You Left Behind, detail. Here the artist is squeezing a baloon until it pops. Elsewhere are scenes of her stitching up the palm of her hand. Holding it together is an audio of the artist speaking poetic phrases like “This is a psychic invasion.”

Body artists usually tie their exploration of flesh to thoughts about existence-the mind-body problem. The ancients made fertility figures out of clay. Figure painters-no matter what else they’re about-are always about the body and the mind. In our day Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm and videotaped it as part of his transgressive art, and Matthew Barney created the Cremaster saga focusing on the muscle that controls the descent of the testicles in baby boys. Eric Fischl, the Chapman brothers, Damien Hirst even — with his sharks in formaldehyde and rotting carcasses in vitrines — all these artists would probably agree with Walt Whitman, who said, “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”

Crystal Ball, detail, in which the artist makes a big spit ball in which is reflected the architecture of her studio.

Leister, a former Philadelphian living in Los Angeles since 2003, has been making body-focused art since her college days in the 1980s. In her slide and video lecture at PAFA last week she demonstrated her visceral and psychedelic approach to the issues of flesh and spirit. In works like The Patch You Never Gave Me for the Hole You Left Behind — a video projection (middle image) shown at the 2002 Fringe Festival that’s by turns pretty, abstract, bloody and shocking — the artist uses violence to her own body to reflect psychic hurt. It’s a rollercoaster ride.

Art focused on the body also engages the brain in poetic ways. Nobody but the poet (or the poetic artist or the philosopher) can take a steady diet of such intense engagement with the subject. But artists like Leister — by digging deep and using inner reflections and sometimes shocking imagery — communicate truth about what it is to be human. And that’s a generous gift for viewers willing to get off MySpace and immerse themselves in real space with real ideas. (See the artist’s website for more.)

Elizabeth Leister: “Every Body Is Everywhere and Nowhere”
Through Aug. 20. Free. Morris Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600.