Playful Frictions

The Uncomfortable and Fascinating work of Jessica Gomula

These days we seem to confront sex and sexual issues everywhere, even as we have many reasons to be uncomfortable with our bodies and with actually enjoying sex ourselves. This push-pull of arousal and resistance parallels our experience of technology, and the intersection of sex with technology wraps these tensions and frictions into a disturbing yet irresistible web in which we may long to be entrapped. In 2007 critic Josephine Bosma pointed out that “The ‘body’ can [also] be perceived as a collection of systems and fragments of systems. It is at the same time dispersed and whole (Bosma 2007).” In the post-human world we now inhabit, technology allows the transgression of boundaries between genres and media, between the cerebral and the sensual, while at the same time allowing us to escape from the flesh into personae; avatars; virtual selves that keep us insulated from the messy physicality of sex and of bodies generally.

Jessica Gomula frolics on these boundaries in work that is not easily boxed into categories like new media or conceptual art. Her projects have ranged from websites to interactive installations, to videos to digital prints, all challenging our notions of how each genre is bounded, as well as challenging our ideas about sex on every level. Not only have her projects taken on sexual myths and stereotypes explicitly, but they also question the way we represent sexual subjects. Instead of accepting the sacred/profane dualism still so prevalent in our culture, Gomula shows us sexuality and our bodies in ways that are playful and even silly. Looking at some of her pieces, we experience the awkward feelings that can often be aroused by sexuality itself. In this sense, her work exemplifies conceptual art in that the concepts operate across media, in a sense independent of the manner in which they are executed. And, while influences can be traced to other conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt or to other artists working across digital media, like Jennifer Steinkamp, Jessica Gomula has developed a unique style of her own.

Gomula presents us with works that not only are made up of concepts and processes, but also leave traces that are so aesthetically powerful that we are tempted to fall into the error that may afflict views of conceptual art; confusing the work with its execution. As noted by Florian Cramer, this risk is even more acute with works that depend on computer code or are “installed” online (Cramer 2006). For example, in Gomula’s “Knockers” we can “explore” many areas of a breast shown in cross section. By clicking on various areas of the image, we are taken to further details about anatomy, sexual stimulation, breastfeeding, breast enlargement, etc. On the one hand, the flash animation allows a great density of material to be “contained” in an apparently small space, but on the other, the flatness of the space is reinforced while the serious of the content is undermined through the style of illustration and the text printed over the image, numerous slang terms for breasts. This piece is skillfully executed and it would be easy to focus entirely on that but more interesting is contemplation of the how Gomula has synthesized input from so very many cultural sources with a highly interactive piece, so that the possible paths through the content seem limitless. This bounty of possibilities suggests that the meaning of breasts in our culture and the people who have them or like them is similarly infinite.

Other works deliberately focuses our attention on these traces and put aesthetic concerns at the forefront, as with some of Gomula’s recent prints. The images taken from “Life Games” are visually interesting in their own right, reminding viewers of those pictures that look at first like a young maiden, then like a crone. In purely formal terms they are pleasingly active, and even decorative. Looked at more closely we see naked women, DNA strands, and possibly stylized vulvas drifting through the prints. “Orange Haze with Toile” Plays a similar trick though the visual style is quite different. The title suggests innocent scraps of fabric, yet the picture looked at again also could be sperm swimming along over a background that is far from innocent. These images poke fun at traditional notions of art not in their sexual content, but in their humor which sometimes might seem sly or clever, but in some cases silly, in the way sex itself can feel silly. This irreverence can be found in other artists working today such as Nanette Wylde, or the artist duo Übermorgen and reflects a contemporary skepticism about artistic theories and movements as such; a resistance to taking any of this system of artistic production and criticism too seriously.

Like these contemporaries, Gomula explores how viewers can become integral to a piece. Many of her works incorporate user-generated content such as the many comments about breasts found in “knockers” or the contributions of breast-feeding mothers in “B.O.O.B.”. This is a new spin on generative art that instead of relying only on algorithms and code to generate the specific manifestation of a piece as seen in Jared Tarbell’s work, also draws on the unpredictable contributions of netizens or of visitors to an installation. This hybrid form of generation yields far less predictable and thus far more interesting results, mimicking the genetically recombinant processes of sex.

Most recently in the interactive installations of “Lifegames” and “Tantric GMO,” we encounter visually beautiful combinations of color and form; combinations that also tease us by combining couples making love in silhouette with birds, bees, and butterflies. These images are projected onto maze-like hanging cloths through which viewers wander, only to find themselves “covered” in a projection of large swarming sperm, or rows of floating condoms. Again, the aesthetic, even sacred experience wars with a feeling of embarrassment and self-consciousness, and the generated images recombine with the input of viewer participation. We lose the safety of our voyeuristic critical distance, and instead become part of the peep-show as our own shadows join those of the silhouetted lovers.

-Kim De Vries

Essay for Catalog published for the solo exhibition: Infinite Transformations of Desire, 2008, University Art Gallery. California State University Stanislaus. Turlock, California.