A necessary exhibition isn’t always a pleasant exhibition. Darja Bajagić’s Nobody Knows I’m Funny, running at London’s Carlos/Ishikawa from September 21 to October 20, is about as far from a pleasant experience as is possible in an art gallery. The show consists of pieces involving various media, but the viewer is immediately confronted by three works on canvas of women’s heads, one being the severed one of Bianca Brust, apparently strangled to death by a black metal band member and, if the accompanying publication included as part of the exhibition is to be relied upon, beheaded and photographed for the delectation of some of the sicker sectors of the internet. The other works are less horrific, but they hardly make edifying viewing. Titled ‘Maddy O’Reilly’ and ‘Kali Michaels’, they are the faces of young women caked in mascara and semen, and, no doubt, representing the kinds of images that introduce young men to sex every day. The faces stare over reflections in plexiglass puddles, that cannot help but evoke the myth of Narcissus, and, inevitably, the causal usage of the diagnosis of the DSM condition, “narcissistic personality disorder” that is frequently tossed about in relation to millennials in general and young women more specifically.
It hardly requires stating that Bajagić’s work is controversial. Reading the exhibition’s accompanying publication, composed in part of writings from school shooters and comments from a gore-adoring website, there were many, many times I wanted to stop reading and to look away. Professionalism, however, required that I push through the text’s various psychotically misogynistic postings and semi-literate come-ons that barely amounted to single entendres amid references to necrophilia and an appallingly casual racism that felt like a conference call in hell had somehow been tapped by a supernatural WikiLeaks.
Pressing on was necessary though, and not merely for the sake of a review. Bajagić’s work resists assimilability in the way countless purportedly ‘transgressive’ artists could never approach. Revulsion is hard in art, but the words of the webfucks Bajagić quotes is beyond repulsive, not least in that it is representative of the culture of hate, misogyny, violence and self-loathing that produced it. To want to turn away from Bajagić’s work makes the work all the more necessary. In an age of sanitised warfare and the endless commodification of the body, particularly the young female body, and its capacity for anguish and humiliation, to be forcibly confronted not only with the images, but the psychology of the audience who seek out and consume such images, as Bajagić uses as support for her work, is a furious riposte to the rhetoric of inclusion and exaltation contemporary art assigns to itself. The term ‘safe space’ probably doesn’t feature prominently in Darja Bajagić’s vocabulary, and for her, abjection is not a joke — or at least not ‘just’ a joke — it is a matter of life and death.
The mixed media frames also included in Nobody Knows I’m Funny bring together the same kinds of pornographic images and depraved alt-right rhetoric, included in the publication, and, in a sense, they are also a frame for the show as a whole: a flattening of the experience of hatred, rejection, fear and nihilism in a literal sense. This flattening, however, is also a metaphor; the mediation of screens, of anonymous handles, and — as some of the comments quoted in the publication suggest — various forms of intoxication and numbing, neutralise violence, its fetishisation and its infinite reproducibility.**