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There’s only one nightmare more frightening than the one where you’re naked in a room full of clothed people. It’s the one where you’re fully clothed in a room full of naked people. So get ready to have all your bad dreams come true, because American artist Donna Huanca’s show features models wearing body-length nylon stockings and a whole mess of paint. Nothing else. It’s terrifying.
They move around this old chapel in ultra slow-mo, smooshing their bodies into panes of glass, leaving smears of paint behind. At one end of the room there’s a three-storey glass structure, which the models clamber through and lie in. At the other end, there’s a wooden platform covered with speakers, throbbing with an endless drone. In the centre there’s a big white sandpit covered in footsteps. Thick incense fills the air, sound shakes the windows.
You can watch from the safety of the mezzanine above, but you’d be missing the point. Stay downstairs, be confronted by the nudity, the achingly slow movements, the stillness in the air, the scent, the noise. It’s heart-racingly weird to stand there as the performers walk past you, lost in their dazes. It’s so removed from a normal everyday experience that it’s almost transcendental for you too.
Let’s not beat about the totally euphemistic bush here, this show has the capacity for being hilariously ludicrous, like a TV sketch show skit about how stupid modern art is, with naked idiots pressing themselves into glass. It requires that you suspend the bit of your brain that wants to mock this and head straight for the bit that can look at a naked human without giggling. That’s where you’ll find the part of you that’s open to Huanca’s art, the part that can see the beauty, the elegance and the courage of what’s happening here. It will also help you to stop laughing at her last name.
But the reason it works is because Huanca’s aesthetic is so strong. The back room is full of paintings and photos of paint-smeared skin and body-like sculptures made of latex and hair. They’re well-composed, thoroughly thought-out and genuinely pretty, perfectly complementing the models’ painted bodies.
The longer you stay, the less it works. Gallery staff chat, people check their phones, it normalises the installation, makes it too real. Real is overrated, it’s the magic of it all that makes it so good: it’s being confronted with strangers’ bodies, it’s the visceral thrill of becoming aware of your own, it’s the ridiculousness of watching people move around like hippies left dazed and alive because they didn’t drink enough of the Kool-Aid . It’s not a dream, but it’s not a nightmare either.