The press release for Basic Instinct, running at London’s Seventeen Gallery from September 4 to October 2, doesn’t give much away. It’s a juxtaposition of two quotes, extracted from two quite different contexts. The first is from Eros The Bittersweet by Anne Carson, a passage which interrogates the concept of eros, its basis in the psyche of an infant, and the identification of desire as implicitly involved in lack. The second is the short section of dialogue from arguably the most famous scene in the film Basic Instinct (1992) in which Sharon Stone’s character Catherine Tramell uncrosses her legs and seductively quips, “I have a degree in psychology”.
The choice of these two quotes introduces us to the historically difficult to categorise concept of eros. On one hand, it points towards a set of concerns in philosophy and psychiatry which, as seems to be customary in academia, use the Greek god Eros as exemplar from which to build a theoretical position on love and desire. On the other hand eros is often used as shorthand for a sort-of classy sexual instinct. Indeed these two divergent approaches to eros can be found in Basic Instinct the exhibition, mainly intersecting with the tactility of materials as a form of eroticism. Curator Attilia Fattori Franchini has brought together ten artists, each of whose works contain some inclination towards the sensual.
Beatrice Marchi‘s framed pencil drawings point perhaps most directly to the concept of eros as the contemporary erotic –a purely sexual force –while attempting to undermine its seriousness. In ‘Oh, Summer!’ (2015) a spread-eagle woman lies on the floor, an electric fan blowing aside her pubic hair. In diptych ‘Signorina Culinski cresce’ (2015), one panel depicts a woman bending over in front of a mirror looking at her own ass. In the other she is drawing eyes onto her buttocks to reflect a crude face back.
The time-based works included seem to double the imagery of contemporary advertising techniques. Jala Wahid‘s single-channel video ‘I am a charm’ (2015) feels somewhat like an extended perfume advert, matching seductive high-resolution shots of peeled citrus fruit segments with similarly poetic text. Reija Meriläinen‘s ‘Stabbing’ (2014), depicts the penetration and probing of what seems to be a block of gelatin with instruments including a metal pipe and a knife, conducted on a pastel-coloured set and shot in slow motion. These two works approach the hyper-sensual –too clean to feel perverse. On the spectrum of the erotic, they are sex with a Real Doll.
Megan Rooney‘s ‘Doggy breath, finger deaf, mute, winking. A wink she could only do with the right eye’ (2015) is a pale, fleshy, and almost ten-meter long mural. It’s frantic while retaining its balance –gauged abstract marks, smoothly applied layers of paint, and pseudo-childlike scrawls play both off and with each other. At the opposite end of the painting spectrum, Zoe Barcza‘s deeply considered grids look ripped away from the cotton by even more considered trompe l’oeil techniques.
“Sex Sells”, as advertising executives know well. And while on one hand empowerment is meant to arise from claiming autonomy over our own deeply-held erotic inclinations, this power is simultaneously withdrawn from us as these desires are sublimated into advertising campaigns, designed to turn the production of eros into a marketing technique. In Basic Instinct, Franchini approaches this reality with varying degrees of critical distance. She places emphasis on the tactility of making or observing artwork as a sensual act, and one which is necessary to highlight the importance of art in turning away from the often banal mainstream idea of what can be considered erotic. Although some works in Basic Instinct feel like they are straining to prove their sincerity, those works which shine do so effortlessly and with confidence. Our basic instincts are obfuscated by the pallid eroticism of advertising culture. Perhaps in recognising this, and trying to articulate our own grammar, we can begin to engage in honest, maybe even radical, sensual encounters with the world. **