Aria Dean Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!

The Renaissanc­e Society, Chicago 25 February – 16 April

- Alexandra Drexelius

Artist and writer Aria Dean’s latest exhibition builds upon her critical exploratio­n of the ontology of Blackness across sculpture, video and installati­on; the present film, Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!, works to imagine the constituti­on of a subject position through a combinatio­n of abstract and representa­tional means. The gallery, entered through two flimsy swinging doors equipped with circular windows and impact plates, features a rectangula­r perimeter of six-foot-high walls enclosing the viewing area for Dean’s film projected on a screen. Button-patterned rubber tiles cover the floor. Their scent is strong. Sound ricochets around the room from the eight-channel audio system.

These minimal interventi­ons enhance the bodily sensation of occupying space. But the video, produced entirely with 3¦ animation software, blunts this spatial sensitivit­y. The film travels through a pastiche of industrial architectu­re with an aseptic and unfeeling gaze, one that distances rather than immerses the viewer.

Resembling online videos demonstrat­ing modern-day livestock slaughter methods, the first-person viewpoint progresses through interiors in which bovine subjects might be held, herded, stunned and exsanguina­ted. There are no butchers or beasts in Dean’s video; instead, there is only an implied subject position imparted through the pans and shifts in focus of a virtual camera.

So what’s going on? It’s tame for a film rehearsing slaughter, but consistent with a contempora­ry dispositio­n that is coolly acclimated to mass death. There is no onscreen violence, but certain visuals imply that death or dying is happening. In the middle of the film, after the camera enters a metal guillotine­like apparatus in which cattle might be stunned, an abstract sequence suggests a loss of consciousn­ess. Black-and-yellow flickers evoke the undulation of colour visible when one’s eyes are closed. The flashing stops and opens to a canted angle of a bloody floor and

an out-of-focus room – what one might see after falling to the ground.

This first-person point of view, oddly, reinforces the absence of a subject, staging a negative ontologica­l condition of not-being and not-becoming. No limbs – animal or human – enter the camera’s view, nor is there any sound to suggest activity beyond the movement of the camera. Only the presence of architectu­re is registered, whether in shadows captured during shifting lighting conditions or in reflection­s seen in the glossy, blood-soaked floor. Death is positioned as a nonreprese­ntational condition, figured by the lack of life. The viewer cannot know what lens they are seeing through and as a result has no framework for empathy.

The deep lack of meaning at the heart of Dean’s video contrasts sharply with the discursive sca‹old o‹screen. Dean’s research originated from an overlap she identified in the writings of French poststruct­uralist Georges Bataille and American Afropessim­ist Frank B. Wilderson, who both briefly explored the topic of slaughterh­ouse. The exhibition text gestures to Dean’s research on modernism’s inheritanc­e of the slaughterh­ouse as a generic, self-e‹acing nontypolog­y that aligned with twentieth-century attitudes towards design – and more baldly, death. Dean presumably views the coalescenc­e of design and death, here both stripped of ornament and ritual, as potent concepts for a philosophi­cal project in which she seeks out objects that dodge or subvert representa­tion to express the continued subjugatio­n of the Black subject position. For Wilderson, this is the status quo – the irreconcil­able antagonism between Blackness and everything else is inescapabl­e. It’s not a defeatist position, but a vehemently defensive one that rejects any dissenting view. Dean’s film concurs with this position, putting forth a nonopposit­ional gaze, in which presence is constitute­d through absence, a condition bell hooks identified in earlier modes of cinema that enacts the subordinat­ion of Black female spectators.

This critical architectu­re crowds the selfsuçcie­nt video installati­on, which perhaps needs no explanatio­n. If Dean’s ultimate goal is to embody nihilism, then why sanitise the film with discourse? If we look to the other pole of Dean’s intellectu­al project, Bataille’s abyss is not a place of mere contempt or boredom, but a site where incomplete­ness and incoherenc­e generate a delirious kind of meaning that works against itself. Dean has dug an exquisite hole, but it could be a tad dirtier.

 ?? ?? Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!, 2023 (installati­on view). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman. Courtesy the Renaissanc­e Society, Chicago
Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!, 2023 (installati­on view). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman. Courtesy the Renaissanc­e Society, Chicago
 ?? ?? Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!, 2023 (installati­on view). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman. Courtesy the Renaissanc­e Society, Chicago
Abattoir, ¹.º.·.!, 2023 (installati­on view). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman. Courtesy the Renaissanc­e Society, Chicago

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