Body Memory at the Princeton University Art Museum
October 11, 2008-January 4, 2009

"Body Memory" gathers together contemporary works-most of them from the museum's permanent collection-that deploy the human body as either subject or material. As one might expect, many of the pieces in the exhibition examine issues of power and desire as they relate to the objectified or idealized human form. Kenyan-born, New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu's Chorus Line, 2008, comprises eight contorted, or violently deformed, female figures created with watercolor and collaged elements. Their exaggeratedly large rear ends and breasts, as well as, in one instance, multiple drooping labia, recall in equal measure the Hottentot Venus and the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic sculpture generally considered to represent a fertility goddess. Like Mutu, the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta inverts the hypersexualization of the "other" female form through exaggeration and satire in Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints-Face), 1972, thirteen gelatin-silver prints in which she distorts and smears her face by pressing it against glass. Elsewhere, Andy Warhol's two Polaroids-both Untitled, 1977-offer a discomfiting, though succinct, commentary on the ambiguity and flexibility of gender: The first photograph depicts a naked man's genitals, and the second presents what is presumably the same man with his genitals tucked out of sight between his legs.

In a large room in the middle of the exhibition, Yinka Shonibare's video Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), 2004, likewise plays with the conventions of gender and its attendant connotations of power. The work reimagines the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball, with a female actress playing the part of the king. Instead of historically accurate costumes, the dancing cast wears period-specific styles made from what most consider to be indigenous African cloth (though it is actually Dutch wax-printed cotton fabric), which has been exported to West Africa since the late eighteenth century. For Shonibare, these costumes represent the radical shifts that accompanied Europe's colonization of Africa in search of new markets. As such, subtextual parallels to today's neocolonialist free-trade practices are difficult to ignore.

Artforum.com, October 2008