Barf art

Projectile vomiting at the Goatsilk Gallery

| March 20, 2003

Nothing is worse than the chunk of time that passes between realizing you need to vomit and actually vomiting. The task before you clears your mind of all thoughts. You wait for the tell-tale signs: the flood of saliva; the long minutes of paralysis; the surge of energy that transports you to the nearest receptacle; the body-crouch; the pungent odor and taste; the sense of complete physical exhaustion. A few dribbles of spit and then it’s all over, and you feel so relieved. You wonder why you ever dreaded it in the first place. Later, the pain and discomfort are hard to recall. The episode seems like something that happened to somebody else.

At least that’s been my experience, albeit limited, with vomiting. Ordinarily, I’m not prone to reflection on the subject, but the current show at the Goatsilk Gallery, Fill:Full, has got me thinking about puke and puking. Fill:Full is a mixed-media show, a collaborative effort between Goatsilk’s owners, Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters, and two friends, Tylan Martin and John DeRuyter. The show’s title is an inversion of the word fulfill. That inversion (and the digestive inversions in the show itself) might bring to mind a quote by the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Eat to vomit and vomit to eat.”

The most spectacular visual component of Fill:Full is a heavily-choreographed video, by DeRuyter, Bloch, and Peters, of a man lying on his back, spewing two brilliant yellow bursts of high-powered, low-viscosity vomit. He’s supine on a bare bed frame. White shirt, face painted purple, hair in cornrows. The room’s walls are black. The minutes leading up to the propulsion are tense, even though, or perhaps because, you’re not sure what’s coming.

When Bloch and Peters showed me the video, Bloch pointed out the similarities between the creative processes of a vomiting man and those of an artist, particularly of a painter. Something builds inside the man in the video, but he remains painfully static. He squirms a little. Then, with a violent spasm that surprises him as much as it surprises the viewer, he produces his work. It coats his face and eyes, and paints his chest a thorough monochrome. It’s a stunning image and, despite itself, very beautiful.

When the video was over, it was nearly impossible for me to feel empathy for the man, even though I knew I should. Why is that? Probably because public spectacles of vomiting are usually self-induced. Fill-Full takes a further look at peristaltic self-abuse with a collection of photographs taken by Tylan Martin. The photos depict various beefy, college-aged guys (and one attractive young woman), hurling streams of vomit. The opportunity to see a stop-time portrayal of the vomiting act is worthwhile in itself: Frozen, the emerging streams look almost like shafts of wood emerging from the subjects’ mouths. The stylistic qualities of the photographs are peculiar, too. The photographs are documentary in scope. Since vomiting is a momentary act, it’s difficult to capture in its full splendor. Hence, the photos are charged with a great sense of motion, energy, and activity. They scream, Hey! Check this out.

Primarily, I was struck by how the images in the photographs are simultaneously bizarre yet almost familiar; the perversity of puking-as-spectacle is undeniable, but then it’s not surprising that a group of young guys would get off on doing it. The collection’s genesis was an informal club of folks who volunteered to be photographed in a humiliating state. Visual artists sometimes take the lowly and grotesque and discuss them, often necessarily, in theoretical terms that might not be readily apparent. The photographs in Fill-Full revel in base animalism, but they suggest something metaphorical, too. Throwing up as a bonding ritual is an interesting commentary about the lowest common denominators of man and animal. Bloch explained his take on the photographs: “It is an act which is at once humiliating and impressive. The more humiliating the act, the more heroic one seems when daring to perform it. It’s as though one cannot fail. Still the irony exists that nothing is really being accomplished.”

The third aspect of Fill:Full is a sampling of quotes by literary and philosophical heavy-hitters: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett, who said “Habit is the ballast that chains a dog to his vomit.” Bloch and Peters have also incorporated a strange confessional tale from a man with a vomit fetish. Quite predictably, the man has difficulty in finding women who will indulge his fetish. The quotes and anecdotes, presented on the walls of the gallery, allow the viewer to feel as though he’s learning something artsy and useful while he oohs and aahs over the disturbing ways in which our excesses vacate the body. Fill:Full might be dismissed by squeamish viewers who are interested only in traditional notions of beauty. But it also has a message about college-aged consumerism and over-indulgence. If you’re willing to look for it, that is.

Fill:Full shows at Goatsilk Gallery, 1909 Wyoming St. #5. Call 728-9251 for information.

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