In Maria Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother (1988) Don Rigoberto performs his ritualistic, nocturnal ablutions on a different body part every midnight. Scrupulously stroked and cleansed, his protruding ears and bulbous toes are transformed into instruments of erotic play. In keeping with Freud's observations that narcissists treat their own bodies as sexual objects for self-preservation, in caressing himself, he both gives himself a nightly hard-on and imagines his imperfections washed away, the obsessive baptismal rites serving 'not to make him better-looking' but making him believe he can collapse time - 'delaying the fateful deterioration decreed for everything'.
The clutter of videos, photographs, installations, paintings and sculptures in this group show also explored 'Hygiene' as a psychological as well as a physical concept. Diller and Scofidio's image of a 'his & hers' towel rack, Orlan's photo of her preparatory seance before plastic surgery, Robert Hammersteil's snapshots wrapped in sterile plastic - in addition to the more obvious literal references to the idea of cleanliness - in turn examined obsessions with corporeal beauty as a conduit to spiritual purity, or as a desire for bodily transformation.
Others commented on the cold artificiality and deadness of an increasingly antiseptic world: Aziz + Cucher's Zoe (1995), depicts a woman perched on the edge of a tub whose eyes, nose, and mouth have been digitally erased, leaving an expressionless hybrid stripped of her senses and individuality. Adrien Sina's photos of syringes, blood specimens and hair attached to screens with surgical tape displayed the identifying characteristics of an increasingly techno-logical, supervised society.
Also playing on the overlapping of natural and artificial was Sandy Skoglund's photograph Walking on Eggshells (1997) with its pair of Rubenesque women posing precariously on a bathroom floor covered with eggs. Although the scene suggests potential fertility, predatory-looking pink rabbits and blue-eyed serpents slithering along the floor transform it into a primordial, Edenic setting, injecting a sense of danger that increases the anxiety and vulnerability suggested by the title. Decorated with images ranging from a Minoan snake goddess to a kitsch Easter bunny seated on a throne, taken from a contemporary mail-order catalogue, the tiled walls in Skoglund's bathroom also comment on 'purification' as the diminishing of potent images through commercialisation.
A more openly provocative exploration of that idea, Alberto Sorbelli's autobiographical video Silver Mist (1998) came off like a weird TV commercial, in which images of the artist are periodically interrupted to show his phone number flashing on the screen. A former dancer, the Roman-born, Paris-based artist comes straight out of Baudelaire: he prostitutes himself in order to penetrate the connection between art, love, and the love of art. In his 1997 CD recording of Schubert's Symphony for Four Hands (Opus posthume 140, D 812), he emulates the rhythm of the music in thrusting motions of anal coitus. At other times, he cruises smoke-filled, dimly-lit art openings in drag or struts around the Louvre dressed in a get-up that is half Emma Peel, half dominatrix: lacy garter belts, elbow-length leather gloves, lurid high heels, fishnet stockings, a skin-tight, latex mini-jupe.
Dressed up like a cheap whore, Sorbelli seems to toy with Arthur C. Danto's description of performance art as 'disturbation', where 'mere fantasies culminate in real spasms... and the performer herself is the means of inducing aesthetic climax'. To ask how much artists expose themselves and explore the limits of the artistically permissible often ends in ugly confrontation. At chic openings on the Champs Elysées or posh museums, Sorbelli is often battered by bouncers or the French cops. The performances are almost political, pointing out the hypocrisy of a society that legalises prostitution but judges it harshly and responds violently, insisting it remain predictable and controllable.
That hypocrisy is underscored during openings for which Sorbelli hires actors to impersonate thugs who knock him around. Though it sounds perverse, the artist gently explains that the two experiences are very different. Attacked unawares, he is fragile and vulnerable, emerging bloody, half-undressed, clothing torn. When the violence is on command, however, he talks of the planned chaos like an athlete trained to fall without injury; he feels protected, stronger, intact, even cleansed. The performances seem like a cry for help but they also put Sorbelli in a position of power. Without make-up or miniskirt, he looks like a blond angel, but it's when he plays the 'pute' - fighting back, to inject the art scene with some vulgar vitality - that he is at his purest, revealing his sexuality as innocent, natural and warmly human.