Correction to This Article
The Galleries column incorrectly described two works in the "Trans8human Conditions" exhibition at the Arlington Arts Center. Video projections, rather than monitors, are used in Phillip Warnell's "Sensors on the Abdominal Wall" and a work by CarianaCarianne.

At Arlington Arts Center, where is the passion?

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 26, 2010

Yes, measuring the Arlington Arts Center's latest group show against a landmark of Western oratory -- Giovanni Pico della Mirandorla's scandalous "Oration on the Dignity of Man" from the 15th century -- is unfair, I know. But the show's curator -- and all of us, really -- can learn something from Pico, a man who sold his ideas so forcefully that we're still reading them more than 500 years later.

"Transhuman Conditions," Arlington's survey, collects 10 artists whose recent work pictures the human body perfectible through science. Theirs is a wish for superhuman bodies impermeable to disease and decay. Each follows in the (relatively) recent footsteps of Laurie Anderson in the 1980s and Matthew Barney in the '90s, and each belongs to the long line of creatives who trace their motives back to Pico.

Pico envisioned humans as clay for the sculpting -- metaphorically, that is. His impassioned call for man to achieve greatness informs every line of "Oration on the Dignity of Man." And his excitement is contagious.

"Who does not wonder at this chameleon which we are?" Pico asked. "Or who at all feels more wonder at anything else whatsoever?"

Dear Pico couldn't think of anything else whatsoever worthy of our attention -- other than man and man alone. And it's just this surfeit of conviction that curator Jeffry Cudlin might want to tap into.

Because where is the passion of "Transhuman Conditions"? Where is the advocacy, the willingness to be heretical? At Arlington, 10 artists -- a few very interesting -- are pulled together yet somehow not truly argued for. It's as if the troops had been rallied without a battle plan.

Here's the first line of Cudlin's exhibition essay (in a catalogue featuring essays by former Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau) : " 'Transhuman Conditions' features ten artists thinking about the future of the human body."

Hardly the stuff of oration. And, to be fair, not intended as such. But if the Washington art scene wants to matter beyond the Beltway, our local curators must jump in and grab us -- from the moment we walk into a show and in the first line of an exhibition essay.

Why these artists? Why these projects? What future do these artists envision that other artists don't?

Cudlin's exhibition title refers to a movement called Transhumanism, which came up in the 1950s and reached its height in the '80s and '90s. Transhumanists consider the aged, disabled and diseased body a nuisance that science can tackle; their ideas are utopian and technofestishistic. Yet most of the artists in "Transhuman Conditions" don't actually identify as Transhumanists -- instead the label serves as an umbrella term for the desire to transcend bodily limitations in a utopian future.

What do Cudlin's artists envision? Saya Woolfalk's 1970s-looking video and gouaches offer a children's TV show vision of a utopian neverland. Shana Moulton experiments in self-improvement; her exercises with stability balls and Ab Rollers are decidedly low-tech and contemporary. Phillip Warnell presents a pillar of video monitors screening his own endoscopy. (Could sharing your esophagus with the world be the ultimate act of narcissism?) As we walk through this exhibition, these disparate messages never quite cohere.

Even the show's most interesting artists don't always register as such. I'm intrigued and mystified by CarianaCarianne's project, in which she aims to transform herself, through legal and other acts, into two separate people living in one body. (As part of her work, she legally changed her name to CarianaCarianne, one word. She also received two MFA degrees under two different names simultaneously.)

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