Missive from Manhattan

Aline Bouvy in 3D at Someday Gallery
Photo: Daniel Terna
d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 26.04.2024

One of American sociologist Erving Goffman’s most well-known works is his 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman presents a dramaturgical analysis of human interaction. Famous for his study of the quotidian, Goffman embraces the Shakespearean ethos that “all the world’s a stage,” and suggests a dualism with which we navigate life. On the front stage, we are in the presence of others, self-aware, controlled, respectable; we emit social cues, and flag our role and place within a hierarchy. The front stage is where we appear in costume, sharing strategic information through dress, verbal and non-verbal language, and other modalities, desiring to be perceived by others as appropriate and acceptable. The backstage, Goffman theorizes, is the metaphorical space where we retreat to, where we are our innermost, private selves, no longer on view, no longer in costume. Our front stage and backstage rarely overlap, but occasionally, there’s a theatrical mix-up, and our private desires infringe on our public facade, causing embarrassment. In this moment, the front stage self is undermined, and the truth is, even for a split-second, made known.

Aline Bouvy’s current show at Someday Gallery in New York, Servant, clown or enemy brings forth the idea of backstage characters (a servant, from the worker’s quarters, a clown, from the side show, and an enemy, from the dark side) and frames them in the front, in the light of a formal gallery space. Engineering space specifically for the embarrassing reconnaissance between front stage and back, Bouvy’s works merge the pristine with the punk, inviting the viewer into an intentionally uncomfortable dynamic, where destabilizing self-awareness is exactly the point.

A short elevator rides up from the bustle of Manhattan’s Chinatown, Someday Gallery sits on the third floor at 120 Walker Street. Opened in summer 2021 by Rosie Motley, the gallery is Bouvy’s first in-situ show in the US. (In 2020, under her alter ego Végétamère, Bouvy worked with the Luxembourg Institute for Artistic Research, New York for their inaugural show, Cauliflower with white sauce and boiled eggs.)

Stepping out of the elevator directly into the gallery, the exhibition begins. A large, shiny stainless-steel septum ring pierces the wall (Wall Piercing III, 2024) next to the reception desk. On the right, a dog, emerging from the wall, relief-like, bends over to lick its crotch (Strategy of Non-Cooperation, 2024). An eerily petite doorframe leads into the main exhibition space. The threshold seems large enough for a child to spaciously pass through, but for me, at 169 cm tall and self-conscious about the fact that I am anything but graceful, feels off. “It’s intentionally like that,” Motley tells me on a walk through of the exhibition. “We reduced it to approximately 63% of its original height.” A sense of awkwardness, that feeling of embarrassment when your front stage self has forgotten their lines and its time for your solo, bubbles up as I enter the gallery space. I hope my body doesn’t fumble. But my thoughts are exactly what Bouvy intends for, to create a heightened consciousness of self, or a hyper-physicality that probes, quietly: do you know your body’s place? Its role? Your social status?

All throughout Servant, clown or enemy, Bouvy plays subtly with scale. Blazing white jesmonite sculptures lie on the floor of the gallery’s main room, smooth rounds that vary in shape, appearing to me as oversized pills, medications, vitamin tablets, and gummies (Oh, won’t you lay down with me, 2024). Their lack of pigmentation is striking; without colour to help with interpretation, it’s not clear if they are indeed pills, or instead a mixed collection of candies, mints, and communion wafers.

I look at a figure on the floor, one leg up against the wall: a woman, also skewed in scale, in a pose of defiance, her arm on her knee, but also a kind of exhaustion, her leg raised, as if to recirculate her blood flow (Servant, clown or enemy, 2024). The figure’s pose is an embodiment of Roque Dalton’s writing on creative exploitation and class struggle, the same writing from which the exhibition title is taken, “Whatever his quality, his stature, his finesse, his creative capacity, his success, the poet can only be to the bourgeoisie: SERVANT, CLOWN or ENEMY.” The figure, a foam-milled sculpture, is Bouvy herself; made from 3D scans of her body and reduced to 63% of her actual size, she wears a tutu, but is otherwise naked.

I wonder if these capsules are her SSRIs, or maybe her amphetamines, so she can manage the overwhelm that is life on the front stage. Maybe they’re THC edibles, so she can float away into the backstage and tune out the noise with something a little more natural. The figure’s face grimaces, as if she is trying to swallow one. They seem awfully big for this tiny person. But who am I to judge?

A large, monochrome white burger is mounted sideways on another wall (Work hard, pray harder, 2024), the top bun facing out toward the gallery. In it, among the sesame seeds, is an inner world: a vaulted ceiling of a gothic-style chapel and a room is cut into the bun, a tiny diorama of a space that’s under construction. There are doll-sized garbage bags full of debris, scaffolding holding things up, and a half-eaten pizza in its box. Is this Bouvy’s backstage? I want to crawl inside.

Within the exhibition, the works became a stage of their own, blending front and back to create a tension that is both uncomfortable and generative. The lack of pigmentation in the works becomes a kind of dilemma: without colour to establish social cues, how is the intent, or value, of each piece determined? This indiscernibility around meaning becomes increasingly uncomfortable, as the whiteness of the work puts the onus on viewers to navigate personal biases in deciding what is indeed neutral, if anything at all. 

It’s almost as if Bouvy, over and over again, is working through the tensions of everyday life by refusing to cease participation in it. Bouvy embraces the grotesque, the odd, and the uncomfortable, sharing her backstage world through the front stage that is her work. Her sculptures are serene white objects that emit a certain elegance in their form, the front stage of her opus. The suggested function (fast food, the pharmaceutical industrial complex, a naked woman’s body) the backstage underbelly of her world. Bouvy’s material language is rife with the anxieties of what is considered high and low culture: what is acceptable, and what is abhorrent. Throughout her work, though, I also sense a deep care for, and reverence toward, the outcasts, the freaks, the oddballs (the servants, the clowns, the enemies). Bouvy’s works build an environment wherein the clear delineations between front stage and backstage are blurred; we’re somewhere else, off in the wings of the theatre, sharing a dirty joke between actor, stage hand, and usher. Maybe we’re in that vaulted ceiling room, sharing a pizza.

Leaving the exhibition, I enter the elevator to go back down to street level, back into the clamour and noise of Chinatown. A final glance at the wall piercing feels as though Aline is in the space, giving me a wink; her architectural intervention destabilizes what a gallery is or should be, and thus invites in a non-normative, or queer, or punk sensibility. In this, I detect kindness, and encouragement: be weird, do whatever you want. Front or back, all the world’s a stage. It doesn’t matter if you forget your lines, or show up naked, in nothing but a tutu — just be sure you enjoy the show.

Servant, clown or enemy is on view through May 11, 2024 at Someday Gallery in New York
Casey Detrow
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