Pure Exploitation

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Merlin Carpenter, installation view, 2011, courtesy Overduin & Kite.

That cybernetics are no longer wholly imaginary doesn’t make them any more believable. In fact, it may just add to the surreality. Lukas Zpira, whose goes by a Surrealist-inspired anagram of his given name, is a self-described body hactivist; he has implants in his torso and cobalt teeth. “My modifications began in my mind,” Zpira said, speaking to Parisian writer Camille de Toledo in a hotel near the Bastille. “I went through a really self-destructive period. .  .  And if I was going to survive I needed something to live for.”  Self-revision became that something. He started with tattoos, then moved on to the  implants. He wanted “to apply technologies to [his] body in order to no longer be a slave to the machine.” In other words: to become a machine in order to subvert  machines, or become more of a body by removing all that is bodily. “Pure delusion!” exclaims de Toledo, recounting his encounter. Delusional, yes, but maybe not in the extreme.

In an information-as-power era, wanting to tie yourself to something intimately, grittily physical while still embracing that net-specific fluidity of authorship and data seems natural (though “natural” has undergone its own series of mutations). Zpira’s body hactivism makes those have-your-cake-and-eat-it urges possible—or at least makes a valiant attempt:

“Body hacktivists can only refute the validity of any patent, license or copyright relative to the body and its transformation.”

“Body hacktivism doesn’t include the need to be modified.”

“All modified persons are not necessarily considered as body hacktivists.”

“Body hacktivism is not a group and should foremost be perceived as a state of mind. . .”

Zpira’s state of mind has led to modifications, of course, and lots. But funnily, he doesn’t look radical. In fact, he looks sort of dated, like a grown up punk who didn’t change his appearance as what appeared around him changed considerably.

Merlin Carpenter, installation view, 2011, courtesy Overduin & Kite.

A similarly old, punkish and yet still weirdly “of its time” energy characterizes an exhibition I saw this week: Merlin Carpenter’s self-titled show at Overduin & Kite in Hollywood. It includes twenty iterations of the same rainbow colored, banally-sized neo-expressionist abstraction and four precisely placed, mint-condition treadmills—commodified expressionism paired with high-tech equipment in a way that at first seems cheap but, if you spend enough time, begins to feel inspired.

Carpenter, a London-based artist who has exhibited widely over the past two decades, made a bright gestural painting in 1990 (“it was meant to be a generic abstraction”). According to the press release—an essential and, thankfully, far from annoying resource for this particular show—Ed Lehan, a DJ and, I assume, friend, asked for the painting and Merlin agreed to give it, but only if Lehan made him 20 identical copies. “OK this happened and here they are,” reads the press release, “ they are about not being an assistant and not having one, ethical pure exploitation.”

The hand-made copies are all slightly different, but not remarkably so, and each has Merlin’s name and the date painted in bright blue at bottom right, with Peter Max enthusiasm. The first gallery has one treadmill in it, while the second has three (it was impossible not to think of that dazzlingly competent OK Go video—treadmills as quintessential props for 21st century self-making).

Merlin Carpenter, installation view, 2011, courtesy Overduin & Kite.

There’s no denying that the paintings are bad, and the treadmills non-sequiturs that don’t directly speak to what’s on the walls. But somehow the interaction between repetitive, painterly cluelessness and home-gym conceit speaks to revisionism and the push and pull between wanting to be tangibly grounded and yet longing to be endlessly replicable, and un-owned.

Lukas Zpira’s name may be surrealist-inspired; but Merlin shares his with an Arthurian legend. This (purely fantastical trait) makes them the perfect duo to bridge information, techiness and bodiliness and try to demystify the desire to self-revise , framing it as part of personhood.