Video Work | Photo/Installations | Documentary Projects

Sculpture, April 2000
DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park

By Marty Carlock
Marty Carlock 2000

Few women who step into Denise Marika's video installation Recoil can bear to watch for more than a few seconds. Projected into a shallow bowl four feet in diameter is the artist's own body, coiled into a protective fetal position, being pelted with stone or plaster objects. Those who watch for as long as 10 seconds may realize that the objects (some of which break on impact) are also Marika in a slightly more extended posture with sharp knees and elbows projecting.
Each time a projectile strikes, the figure flinches and shudders and moves her hands to the spot of the blow as if to protect herself - a gesture of futility, because the next object strikes somewhere else. The most chilling part of the 14-minute cycle occurs when there is a lull; the victim does not relax but remains tense and cowed, anticipating a resumption of the abuse - which comes.
On what level do we interpret such a work? The most innocuous is to marvel at the process. The DeCordova's labels touch upon the technology without quite explaining it. Marika scanned her body into the computer. A printer developed by Z Corp. in Somerville, Massachusetts, then turned out -"printed" - identical three-dimensional sculptures produced from cornstarch-cellulose granules and a binding solution. The user has to break off a bit of excess similar to the feathers that sometimes result in bronze casting. The artist ended up with 40 clones of herself, available to be hurled at her body in the making of the video.
We'd like to think that cornstarch-cellulose sculptures don't hurt as much as Marika's reaction implies. Yet she flinches so realistically that one quickly ceases to concentrate on the process and begins flinching with her. Do we see this as a bleak commentary on life, the slings and arrows of fortune, etc.? But the missiles are figures of herself, and we could read the piece as a neurotic event, a failure to forgive oneself, a dwelling on and belaboring of one's failures, a literal "beating up on yourself." Yet the figure's palpable terror implies much more than that. This figure is tortured and helpless. She is most readily seen as the epitome of a battered woman, too fearful and bruised, both physically and psychologically, to lift a hand to defend herself, to move out of the situation.
The museum's text attempts an upbeat thought: the figure endures. It's a faint and frail and Pollyannaish idea. She represents the worst response a woman can make to abuse, to lie there and take it. Watching, we are sickened by the fact that she does nothing, that we can do nothing. We recoil; she recoils. The situation repeats itself. And repeats. And repeats. It is tempting to conjecture that the piece is autobiographical, that the artist herself has experienced abuse. Yet Marika's performance appears too strong, too full of certainty to validate that assumption. This is an artist who has exploited a new technology with her own skill at primal body language to produce a powerful and profoundly unsettling work. There is no sound on this tape except the kind of frightened, belabored breathing you might hear from a desperate, hunted human animal. Or perhaps it is not on the tape; perhaps it is the viewer herself.