“Rum, sodomy, and the lash” is an aggressive exhibition, as suggested by its title, which was taken from a quote often (mistakenly?) attributed to Winston Churchill as a characterization of the naval tradition. In the mid-1980s, the Pogues would adapt it as the title of their second album. That curators Ed Atkins and James Richards hijacked the name for this group show in Isabella Bortolozzi’s second space, Eden Eden, seems apt given the presentation’s (dis)content: a compact but noisy barrage of freak formalism, runaway narratives and piratical punkery.
The show commences with three glass panels resembling doors suspended from the ceiling with metal supports, untitled works from 2014 by Tony Conrad. Each “door” has a tiny hole drilled into it. Too small to be glory holes, they are better sized for peepholes—unneeded, since the surfaces are already transparent. Yet amid the noise of the techno-mediated voidosphere— referenced in the same room in Ed Atkins and Simon Thompson’s News, consisting of a television playing broadcast news nonstop (on my last visit, it was live CNN coverage of protests in Taipei against the Taiwanese prime minister’s meeting with his mainland Chinese counterpart)—it helps to have our eyes directed.
The most sonically domineering work is Morag Keil’s Civil War (2012), with tiny speakers encased in Tupperware containers blaring a collage of screams and video game violence. The point gets across very clearly, making it hard to concentrate on the wall texts positioned throughout the exhibition, the work of a collective entity calling itself Contemporary Art Writing Daily. Their idea is to interrogate the norms of art writing and exhibition-making from within; so one text is a poetic response to Conrad’s glass panels, while another ironically posits the wall text as an assaultive, dictatorial presence.
The fun continues in the dank, carpeted basement, which is probably the most bizarre exhibition space in all of Berlin. Here are Catharine Ahearn’s homemade lava lamps resembling psychedelic fetuses floating in Mason jars, and Steve Reinke’s video The Natural Look (2014), narrated by a placenta-loving, post-Lacanian self-described “faggot” who states, “Reproduction has no future.” Indeed.
Does anyone really still believe in the dream of progress as a utopian ideal? An argument could be made that we are living in as politically conservative an era as ever, despite the meaty delusions broadcast on our daily world-wide-waking reality. Language is patrolled so thoroughly and rigidly, on both the Internet and IRL, that Orwell’s Thought Police would truly envy us; and the task is generally undertaken by those who align themselves with the Left. Gays and lesbians are accepted by society at large: so long as they get married, have children, join the military—in short, behave as good heterosexuals. Hey, even trans people are accepted nowadays, assuming they model themselves on a Christian right-wing millionaire Vanity Fair cover girl.
And yet: true deviance continues to roil beneath the surface, a sticky-sweet sludge that is mostly unwanted. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash” is one affirmation that such virulent modes of ecstasy-with-built-in-critique might have true potential for change.