Cultured Magazine

Fall 2014

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"Digital technology has replaced intimacy in our world," says Rachel Hovnanian from the cool of her airy Chelsea studio on a sweltering late-June afternoon. She's standing beside her installation Perfect Baby Showroom, a dystopian nursery where infants can be ordered from a McDonald's-style light- box menu on the wall. Reborn babies—ready-mades tucked into newborn medical bassinets—populate the ward, their heads resting on clear, sealed bags of sugary cereal, which Hovnanian quickly points out is laden with genetically modified ingredients. "It's a concern for me," she adds. "Are we headed this way?" As early as the 1930s, Walter Benjamin linked then-nascent mass media and consumption with detachment. The renowned German thinker identified technology as a force capable of altering human perception and connection and eroding an individual's unique existence or aura. Almost 100 years and at least as many technological devices later, Hovnanian is taking up these concerns in two gallery shows. The first, "Plastic Perfect" at the Leila Heller Gallery in New York, is on view through October 18. Another version of the exhibition will be at Pechersky Gallery in Moscow beginning October 8. Hovnanian says she's "extending themes of obsession, narcissism and intimacy" in these shows, with situations like Foreplay, where she turns the sanctum sanctorum of intimacy—the domestic bedroom—into the locus of cold production. A skirted mattress hangs on the wall. A looped video is projected onto its white-sheeted surface showing people abed immersed not in each other, but in gadgets. Couples lay in the dark absorbed by their devices. "Maybe they're ordering their perfect babies online," Hovnanian suggests. A black rotary phone sits on a low stool nearby. Visitors who pick it up hear the 1932 standard "Isn't it Romantic" sung by Maurice Chevalier. "I try to use a little bit of humor and satire," says Hovnanian. The show's final installation, In Loco Parentis, plays on the well-known Spanish meaning of the word "loco" along with the Latin phrase's legal meaning: "in the place of a parent." Here, there is no parent to pick up an uneven ankle-high carpet of Cheerios strewn around a highchair that holds a video monitor rather than a child. It shows an emotionless toddler consumed by a tablet that periodically gives off gaming noises and cartoonish laughter. She never looks up. A gigantic mouse stands close by, facing an open refrigerator eating cheese. "For me, the mouse represents technology," says Hovnanian. "It's eating away and no one is paying attention." "Like many people, I'm addicted to my iPhone," says Hovnanian. "It's such a great, amazing thing! But you've got to unplug a bit." An organic clay wall sculpture, White Narcissus Panel with Mice, displays delicate narcissus flowers being overtaken by mice. "It signifies our obsession with devices," Hovnanian sums up. "I'm really playing with what's real and unreal and the idea that even if you think you can get away from technology, you can't. This is a warning— don't get sucked in!" 184 CULTURED BABY MAMA Artist Rachel Hovnanian takes on genetic engineering, technology addiction and intimacy in her new show at the Leila Heller Gallery. BY TRACY ZWICK PORTRAIT BY MARGARET GIBBONS From left, Rachel Hovnanian's Perfect Baby Showroom, 2014 and Poor Teddy, 2014 are both part of "Plastic Perfect," on view at the Leila Heller Gallery, through October 18.

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