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Wandering through the Spanish-style courtyard of Shirley Temple’s Santa Monica childhood home, now occupied by Del Vaz Projects, is like stepping into a time capsule. The domestic space is fitting for the group exhibition, Nightmare Bathroom, which attempts a speculative understanding of history and its occlusions. Curated by the gallery’s director, Jay Ezra Nayssan, the exhibition has a highly-researched and ambitious thesis, arguing that while 18th- and 19th-century imperial trade routes shaped cotemporal European plumbing design (take the sourcing of porcelain, for instance), the bodies behind these colonial origin stories have historically been erased from the bathroom space. Nayssan posits that Western hygienic anxieties came to parallel the larger fear-driven marginalization of subjects who were/are not male, white, able-bodied, or cisgender.1
The exhibition’s press release—which reads like a ludic dissertation chapter—details the historical lens through which Nayssan views the work of the five women and nonbinary artists in the exhibition: Sula Bermúdez-Silverman, Nicki Green, Candice Lin, Roksana Pirouzmand, and Bri Williams. Inevitably, the installation in the physical gallery takes on a life beyond the text. These artists utilize materials commonly found in the bathroom, like porcelain, soap, and water, that contribute to an illusion of cleanliness in a space designed to dispose of human waste. Enriched by their commentary on fraught histories (from which marginalized bodies have, like clay, been eroded), the works form a sensual materialist tableau.
Bermúdez-Silverman’s resin sculpture, English Flies (2022), hangs suspended in the courtyard like a cipher awaiting decoding. An arched window whose red frame is filled with dead honeybees, the work references the reintroduction of honeybees to the Americas (inaccurately described by colonial settlers as “English flies”). It shares the courtyard with one component of Lin’s installation, On Being Human (The slow erosion of a hard white body) (2018). The wooden structure resembles a 19th century “Chinese” water torture device (a racialized term for a European device, the press release points out), slowly dripping clear liquid onto a 120-pound mound of loosely shaped unfired porcelain, the weight of the mound reflective of Lin’s weight. This porcelain is the “hard white body” of the work’s title, with all its indissociable racial and material connotations.
The artworks inside the main gallery come together as a fantastical, dysfunctional bathroom. In the continuation of Lin’s On Being Human, a table holds inscribed clay tablets, an open copy of Chinese Emigration: The Cuba Commission (1876), and a hot plate. The piece boils a mixture of dried poppies, tobacco, and sugarcane—all products of colonial and slave labor—distilling the dark (“dirty”) material into a clear (“pure”) liquid. The resulting liquid circulates through a PVC tube that connects a series of objects, including turkey mushrooms grown with Lin’s students’ urine, and ultimately leads back to the dripping “torture device.”
Mirroring the liquid’s mechanical circulation, Pirouzmand’s A wave, a word (2022), is sporadically animated by a motor that tilts a photograph (transferred to clay) of the artist’s aunt as a child back and forth in a water-filled bathtub. The galvanized steel tub holds both this clay photograph and a headless, bisque-fired clay cast of Pirouzmand’s body performing the Muslim prayer salat. The rippling motion of the motorized photograph releases the clay’s reddish pigment into the water, which muddies as the day goes on.
Alongside works like Williams’ Biting skin off lips (2020), a slowly-degrading handmirror encased in soap and resin, and Green’s Splitting/Unifying (toilet tanks, slip spigots and medical sink laver with faucets) (2019), an intricate purple and white porcelain sink equipped with its own plumbing and decorated with sprouts of dried lavender, the ensemble of this “nightmare bathroom” delivers a speculative vision of a less pristine, but much more inclusive and imaginative lavatory. As such, the exhibition reveals the historical omission of certain bodies, rewriting them back into the space of the bathroom and leaving us with a sensual materiality in which the body is revealed in all its dirt.
Nightmare Bathroom runs from September 24–December 10, 2022 at Del Vaz Projects (259 19th St., Santa Monica, CA 90402).