The solo show Fatal Attraction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features the works of Polish multimedia artist Piotr Uklański. The show functions partially as an exhibition of Uklański’s prolific series of images, The Joy of Photography (1997-2007), from which over half of the works in the exhibition are derived; this self-reference serve as a precedent to the irony and aesthetic of the artist’s shown works.
To me, the enigmatic appeal of Uklanski’s work is its deliberate yet restrained humor—which, in its restraint, becomes a vessel for subversion of the conventions of aestheticization in our popular visual culture. The viewing experience of Uklanski’s work is an experience of vertigo; he utilizes the tropes of photographic imaging and visual storyboarding such that viewers cannot help but fall into the “uncanny valley” of the image’s common knowability.
In the accompanying artist-curated exhibition Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection, this uncanniness is taken a step further yet in a more obvious direction. The theme of the show, which featured works from the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection selected for exhibition by Uklański himself, focused on “complicating Freud’s dichotomy of life force (Eros) and death drive (Thanatos) by locating deathliness in the beautiful; and the perverse pull of the repellent.” In laymen’s terms, Uklański is referring to the paradox of human instincts embedded in the psychoanalytical model of the “self” that seem to conflict internally and thus manifest as an endemic in the human psyche of Western civilization.
In a perfectly relevant and thoughtful effort, Uklański’s multimedia choices of pieces to thematically illustrate this were aesthetically and referentially provocative. Featuring an array of works that approach the interweaving of life and death forces—from artists ranging from Sally Mann to Weegee to Salvador Dalí to pieces by Uklański himself—the exhibition itself presented an aestheticization of violent, masochistic, or generally destructive images made paranormal by their visual sumptuousness or blatantly sexual seduction.
However, the artist-curated show did not present like an exhibition, but rather a scrapbooked collection of works that Uklański found intriguing as narrative landmarks or indicators of the problematic theme itself. One wall in particular was completely crowded in a salon-style display with dozens of photographic masters’ works, whose vastness trumped the accessibility of individual works’ careful inspection and reflection. Perhaps this display was simply a curatorial decision to effectively illustrate the pervasiveness of Eros/Thanatos representations in Western visualization; or perhaps this “scrapbooking” style of curation is simply a product of the practicing artist’s (versus curator’s) organizational reflection.