Iiu Susiraja: Women’s Work
Nino mier gallery, los angeles
Through march 19, 2022
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…Hamlet, Act1, Scene 2
The human body is the best picture of the human soul.Ludwig Wittgenstein
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Iiu Susiraja’s small but mighty exhibition entitled “Women’s Work,” at Nino Mier’s Gallery Four, consists of 5 very short videos and 8 large-scale color self-portraits that draw attention to and skewer ideas about body image, sex, food, selfies, TikTok influencers with spot on deadpan humor worthy of Buster Keaton. Wildly inventive, these terse video tidbits star Susiraja herself, clad in a bathing suit, underwear, a loose dress or a dressy shirt and skirt engaged in subversive activities with toys, tools, and ceramic objects that one would find in an average home. The seeming simplicity of these brief snippets of action hide layers of profound psychological meaning, intense pain, and simmering anger while simultaneously commenting saucily on many cultural values, taboos and prejudices.
In John Wayne (2020) Digital Color video with sound, 27 seconds, Susiraja stands, still as a statue, brandishing two portable drills with an uncooked hot dog attached to it. When she turns the drills on the hotdogs gyrate comically until they each fly off and land with a thump. It takes 21 seconds. Her casual demeanor, hair piled on her head, clad in a stylish bathing suit, makes this surrealistic “Western” even funnier. Slyly blending the myth of the macho Western hero, with the everyday unsung actions of ordinary “women’s work’ in the kitchen is brilliant. In (Coffee Moment) 2020 Digital color video with sound, 1 min 35 seconds. Susiraja is more formally dressed in a white shirt and long flowered skirt, seated in a tidy living room. On the table in front of her is a cup of coffee in a ceramic cup and a fancy cupcake on a plate. With her trademark stoical expression, she sips the coffee daintily before stuffing the cupcake in the breast pocket of her pristine blouse then grabbing the plate assertively to mash the cupcake and her breast with the back of the saucer, presumably smashing the pretty pastry to smithereens. This startling dichotomy between her expressionless face and the fury of her actions makes the head seem separated from the body. It’s as if the body wants what the body wants without interference from the brain. This action perfectly mimics addictive personalities where reason cannot change the actions of the addict because the reward wiring in the brain is awry.
Her hallmark impassive countenance allows the viewer to project their own feelings, attitudes and emotions onto her face as if it’s a tabula rasa or a blank silver screen. Susiraja says, “I try to reach as blank a state as possible. I try to not have any facial expression…For me, being blank is the same as being real.” Ideas, attitudes and expectations about women are fiercely and ruthlessly parodied throughout her works. In the succinct video entitled Humble Omlette Digital Color Video 39 seconds, Susiraja walks to the refrigerator, takes out an egg which she holds up for the viewer to see before putting it under her chin. She then crushes it, letting the egg drip off her clothes before shutting off the camera. The egg, a potent symbol of fertility is also fragile. Are the artist’s hopes of procreating crushed by her physical limitations? Does her appearance limit options for sexual encounters. One can only imagine the answers.
My favorite video is entitled Baguette, 2020 Digital color video with sound, 3 min. 17 sec. The artist walks in, grabs a long definitely phallic baguette and sticks it between her legs. She grabs some butter and slathers it vigorously onto the tip of the baguette, which she then breaks off (okay Lorena Bobbitt comes to mind here). Susiraja then munches it straight faced while staring into the camera. The crunchy sound of her eating and cars going by is the ambient soundtrack. After she is finished chomping dispassionately on the baguette she walks over to shut the camera, baguette waggling in between her legs. Freud would have a field day. Food and sex are so intertwined. But here Susiraja denies herself the pleasure, eating rather listlessly. The food is neither tasted nor enjoyed; rather it is merely ingested. It is noteworthy that these videos were completed during the first stage of the worldwide pandemic, when everyone was in enforced isolation and many were packing on the pounds in fear and frustration.
The large-scale photographs in the exhibition continue the theme of alienation from one’s body but are even more disturbing with scenes that allude to the trauma of binging and other compulsive behaviors. In thinking of antecedents to Susiraja’s work with her partly clad body and food, I thought of course of Sarah Lucas who uses food to comment on sex and women’s bodies in a sassy way by embracing her naughty even brazen persona. Cindy Sherman uses props but mostly to camouflage her own identity and become like Woody Allen’s Zelig protagonist – someone totally different, totally alien. While Susiraja’s use of her own body and props are exaggerated debasements filled with mixed emotions, they are suggested but never evident on her own imperturbable mask-like face. The body here is an abject object to be derided. Devoid of the inherent humor of the videos these become difficult to view and even more unsettling than the videos.
In Zoo, 2021, 26 x 38in., edition of 3 plus 1 artist’s proof, the artist is sprawled on her bare, sad looking Ikea bed, legs spread with the giant head of a ginormous child’s teddy bear between her legs as if she has birthed this monster. One breast is partially exposed but covered with a lollipop. The title suggests that she is one of the animals in the zoo to be gawked at, laughed at and humiliated. The disembodied head reinforces the psyche/soma split apparent in the chasm between the strange “birth” and her neutral expression. The tiny room is too small for the extra large stuffed animal and Susiraja herself.
Four of the images take place in this same stark cage-like setting – a bare bed and nothing on the walls. No creature comforts. In Good Morning, 2021, 26 x 38, edition of 3 plus 1 artist’s proof, the artist is laying on the bed at an uncomfortable diagonal angle, a loaf or two of white bread is dumped helter-skelter on her prone body. She holds a knife and Nutella aloft ready to dig in. Her blue underpants are pulled down around her knees, making the pose even more unbearable. Breakfast in bed has never seemed so abhorrent. Is this, she seems to be asking, what “normal” sized people think obese people have for breakfast?
In a world where we are taught that you can never be too rich or too thin (attributed to both Truman Capote and Wallis Simpson), where the diet industry is a billion dollar business, Susiraja represents someone who is our worst nightmare. And yet, she has created this poignant, wickedly funny, outrageously inventive series of self-portraits that once seen, cannot be unseen. Susan Sontag said, “all great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.” Susiraja forces us to contemplate her very self, her body and soul. This alone in a world saturated with videos, influencers, reels, and a tsunami of images is a testament to the fearlessness, the humanity and the worth of her work.