Big Toe: nails, hair, saliva, skin | Leena Riethmuller
Dates: 6 October - 2 November 2013
From: Current Projects
Writer: Nicola Scott
Leena Riethmuller is a Brisbane based artist whose performance and video investigates contextual and subjective experiences of the body by critiquing dominant social constructs. Leena recently graduated from Bachelor Fine Art with Honours (1st Class) at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. She has exhibited nationally including shows with Level, InBetweenSpaces, Exist, FELTspace (Adelaide) and Screenspace (Melbourne). This year, Leena was a finalist in the Churchie National Emerging Art Prize and is currently taking part in Level’s 2013 residency program. Leena is Gallery Manager at Boxcopy ARI, a co-founder of Addition ARI and has worked in various coordinator positions at Brisbane Festival, Serial Space’s Time Machine Festival (Sydney) and Backbone’s 2high Festival.
Nicola completed a Bachelor of Fine Art with Honours (1st Class) Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in 2012. She currently works at the Griffith University Art Gallery and co-announces the No Brow Art Show. Airing locally on 4ZZZ and nationally via the Community Radio Network, this is a weekly programme examining the contemporary arts landscape, investigating ideas and speaking with artists from around Australia and beyond. She has written previously for various catalogues and publications, and has undertaken an internship with Griffith Artworks in areas of Arts Administration and Collections Management. Nicola’s research has a focus on representations of the body in contemporary art, particularly as a site for the transgression of cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality.
by Nicola Scott
In 2008 Charlotte Roche’s debut novel, Wetlands, became an international bestseller. Wetlands (the literal translation of the title from Roche’s native German is actually “moist areas”) describes things the 18 year old narrator, Helen, does with her body, things that land her in need of anal surgery, and continues these exploratory descriptions over her time confined to a hospital ward. These actions revel in the copious “slime” and “smegma” produced by her body, and involve pleasurable transgressions, of her own permeable bodily boundaries as well as social and cultural codes of propriety and hygiene. Anal sex, genital shaving, masturbation with avocado pits and boiled eggs, tasting her bodily fluids, and inspecting her surgical wound are described in detail, as is the anointing of public or shared spaces and objects – toilet seats, elevators, hand rails, barbecue tongs - with menstrual blood, urine, and vaginal secretions. Helen Roche was a little older than the narrator when it was published, and her debut novel created controversy as reviewers and publishers alternately celebrated her semi-autobiographical work for its frankness or criticised its ‘shock tactics’.
When I read Wetlands I made a mental connection with Leena Riethmuller’s practice. A few years on and this link has become more pronounced. Riethmuller’s visual arts practice, like Roche’s literary work, has a preoccupation with the body and it’s radical potential as a physical and cultural material. In the past she has created sculptural works, installations, videos and staged performances that use her own body and body parts harvested from volunteers. In Saliva (self grooming) (2010), Riethmuller, dressed simply but meticulously in black dress and pearls with manicured nails, bathes herself methodically with her own saliva against a white, fluorescent lighted room, drooling into her hands and preening herself until she is thoroughly soaked. To make Big Toes (saliva melting) (2012) she filled a refrigerator with rows of big toes moulded from her own body, cast in frozen saliva that took weeks to collect. A magnifying light atop the fridge let viewers observe up close a fresh toe as it melted into a viscous, bubbly pool each day over the course of exhibition. More recently, in All Over It (2013) she painted the white steps at the entrance of the Hold Artspace in Brisbane with saliva prior to the opening of you & I: thoughts on intimacy. During the show, viewers could see what had taken place by looking at video camera focused on the steps they had to tread to enter the gallery. Her solo show at Metro Arts this year (the conclusion of a residency with Level Artist Run Initiative), More Human, involved conducting ‘somatic experience’ workshops with a group of people: bodily experiments were suggested, carried out (or not) by individuals, and then these decisions and experiences discussed in a group.
The work created for the Dispatch window exchange project, Big Toe (2013), demonstrates the collaborative and interactive processes that are becoming increasingly significant to Riethmuller’s practice. A white window with a fluorescent light box at its centre presents a small dark object that from a distance resembles a lump of coal or dirt. Text adhered to the glass on either side of the box presents two lists: on the left, bodily materials; on the right, several names that correspond with these materials. On closer inspection, the small dark object is revealed as a fragile, detailed cast of a big toe, made from a black, hard-packed ash that glitters in the light. The toe has been created from the various donations of skin, hair, nails and saliva from the individuals listed, burning the dry components, grinding these with mortar and pestle, and mixing the resulting fine particles with saliva for a suitable sculptural consistency. This is not the first time Riethmuller has implored acquaintances and strangers for body parts, with all the legal ringmarole and conceptual explanation such a project requires in a contemporary exhibiting context (volunteers were required to sign a release explaining what there donations would and would not be used for).
This work draws a line between the content of Wetlands and George Bataille. For Bataille, the big toe is an ambivalent symbol, simultaneously the most human, and the most debased, part of the body.
Human life entails, in fact, the rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse to the ideal, from the ideal to refuse — a rage that is easily directed against an organ as base as the foot.
The foot allows the body to stand and walk upright, and is therefore a symbol of ideal humanity – purity, sentience, spiritual transcendence, morality – disassociated from the chaos and filth of embodiment. Conversely, it is also the part of the body closest to the ground and therefore connotes all the horrors of corporeality - mud, dirt, abasement, death. A synecdoche for the foot, the big toe is an ambiguous and fetishistic form, at once ideal and filthy, phallic and weak. Bataille’s big toe points towards the boundary-defying space created in Roche’s novel, where Helen’s body and its by-products upset social codes of behaviour regarding the self-containment and suppression of the body. The space of the hospital, the setting for the book, is in particular a realm where embodiment, abjection and death are suppressed from view in the Western world, one ambivalently symbolic of hygiene and healing as well as disease and death. Helen’s character, in her descriptions of what she does with her body in this space, how this feels, and why she does it, further destabilises the boundaries between private and public, dirty and clean, normal and abnormal that the hospital both enforces and highlights as tenuous.
Like Roche’s novel, Riethmuller’s work explores and creates this kind of categorical confusion. Hair, skin, saliva, and nails are the very stuff of abjection, at once of the body and no longer the body. The transformative process of taking corporeal materials and turning these into an identifiable, somewhat beautiful representation of an identifiable body part perhaps enables us to look at them initially from a comfortable distance. This position is made uneasy by her text however, which confronts the still living origins of these materials, whose bodies now exist as separate, sentient entities around the country, while they also sit in a strange new state before the viewer, now amorphous, un-alive and intermingling. Her choice to use donations from the individuals involved in co-ordinating and curating the Dispatch project, located around the country (originally the work was intended to be made from the bodily materials of each of these individuals and Riethmuller herself, however several declined to participate) furthermore places this study of the contingency of all bodies on other bodies to make meaning and form subjectivity in the realm of art making, viewing and exhibiting. Through this process it gives form to the invisible web of symbolic structures and interactions that connect bodies in the art world, as well as the world in general.
Certain reviews of Wetlands suggested, with a figurative yawn, that Roche’s literary explorations were less shocking than she obviously thought they were. I would argue that this misses the point of Roche’s work, which is also what is significant about Riethmuller’s practice. There is no definitive measure of normality regarding bodily sensations, actions and experiences, whether in private or in public. It is not shocking to point this out, at least not in contemporary discourse, and the specific bodily exploits described in the novel are not necessarily provocative in a culture saturated with bodies, sex and violence. Similarly, Big Toe is not confrontational just because it engages with the body as a concept and material, which is hardly novel artistic territory.
What is challenging about these creative works is that they put the body and its materials to unexpected use, towards an ethics of embodiment. Where Roche uses literature, Riethmuller employs performance, video and in this work, sculpture, to disturb definitions of purity, filth, gender, propriety, and normality, that routinely suppress, inhibit, or shame the bodies of contemporary subjects through social policing and internalisation. In ‘speaking’ the potentiality of bodies – their possibilities outside these standardised, acceptable representations – both suggest the variety and validity of all embodied subjectivities, creating an interactive space in which to generate empathy. In these ways, Riethmuller’s practice is its own kind of wetlands, a fluid space in which bodies meet and renegotiate their boundaries, where the traces of this encounter are made tangible.
 Roche H 2008, Wetlands, trans. Tim Mohr 2009, Fourth Estate, London.
 Bataille G 1983, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 20–21.