CULTURE

Isabelle Albuquerque’s Art of Desire

The artist’s Jeffrey Deitch exhibition, Orgy for Ten People in One Body, does more than just reclaim the female nude.

by Kate Dwyer

the artist isabelle albuquerque sitting at a table, bathed in soft golden light
Isabelle Albuquerque photographed by Drew Escriva

The artist Isabelle Albuquerque is standing in the middle of Jeffrey Deitch gallery on Wooster Street, surrounded by headless nude sculptures in her own likeness. It’s installation day for her solo show Orgy for 10 People in One Body, and nearby, her partner, Jon Ray, and the gallery’s director of research, Viola Angiolini, are overseeing the construction of a cinder block platform for Number 7, a wooden nude with teddy bears latched onto her right breast and pubic area. “I told the team,” Albuquerque says, “‘This is going to get really intimate, really fast. We're all going to be blushing. We're going to be laughing and feel really embarrassed. It's okay.’” She adds: “I sometimes think my job as an artist is to always be blushing.”

Over the course of the next hour, Albuquerque doesn’t blush once. Instead, she describes the series of nudes matter-of-factly. (“We use the same hair products,” she says of the only sculpture with a head. “Her nipples are colored with blood and my lipstick.”) Today, she tries not to show shame, because she wants the series “to be contagious with ecstasy.” But in 2019, when she first wrote the phrase “orgy for 10 people in one body in pencil on the wall of her studio, she was terrified. In fact, she felt “walls and walls of shame” during the process of discovering the nudes’ poses through dance and creating life casts of her own body. As a society, she says, “we don't have a lot of comfort around these areas.”

Installation view, Isabelle Albuquerque: Orgy for Ten People in One Body, Jeffrey Deitch, New York, 2022-2023. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, New York.

It would be convenient to call the series a reclamation of the female nude, but the sculptures are more complicated than that. Unlike most nudes in the art historical canon, which are depicted as objects of desire, these are unabashedly desirous. “I always want the bodies to feel empowered. But there's ambiguity about the power,” Albuquerque tells me. Each sculpture’s materials are coded with meaning; for example, a bronze witch, Number 9, had to be stripped and burned four times to achieve its patina. The series has an undercurrent of violence, and I wonder aloud whether Number 6 — who lays flat on a shag rug, hands pressed together in prayer — is healing from trauma. To Albuquerque, this an interesting possibility, since she has always believed Number 6 to be the most unknowable. There are questions of consent, too: Number 10 — composed of beeswax and walnut, both materials that come from “complex social systems” — has wrists tied in bondage. (She might be in captivity, actually.) And they all wear wedding rings.

“I'm almost a little shaky,” Albuquerque says. “It’s my first time seeing all ten together. And I hope that the different materials will sing.”

The phrase “Orgy for 10 People in One Body” — whose structure evokes a musical composition, like “Octet for Strings in E-flat Major” — is a reference to the late artist David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 mixed-media work I Feel a Vague Nausea, in which a passage of text details a secret wish to split into 10 people in order to give each of his loved ones a part of himself forever. “This was what I thought appropriate for all my desires and I never figured out how to rearrange it all,” Wojnarowicz wrote two years before he died of AIDS in 1992.

Installation view, Isabelle Albuquerque: Orgy for Ten People in One Body, Jeffrey Deitch, New York, 2022-2023. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, New York.

The nudes are both metaphors and not. As opposed to the narrow definitions of desire and eroticism proposed by pornography, Albuquerque’s definition of the erotic veers closer to that of psychotherapist Esther Perel or philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who understand it as a galvanizing life force: “It’s the sublime in the everyday,” the artist says. “I think of eroticism as how much feeling you bring to everything you’re doing. You could very erotically be doing the dishes.”

Even for viewers who see the nudes as strictly sexual, the artist says, sex is “never just sexual.” During the early stages of the project, Albuquerque imagined she would make these three-dimensional self-portraits throughout her life, to document aging but also as commemoration of moments in time. But the intensity of the past four years — when many of us felt like brains in jars, to borrow a phrase from Jess Zimmerman — heightened the urgency of the project, which is about becoming fully embodied, Albuquerque says. It’s not about the collective experience of the past four years, but rather: “What has this felt like through this one body?”

That one body, of course, is Albuquerque’s body. As a teenager, the artist developed only one breast, and struggled with questions of identity related to gender and sexuality, since she felt “half-male, half-female, but just on my chest.” (She underwent surgery in her 20s “to make it more, like, female-female.”) During those years, she yearned “for a kind of feminine power,” she says. “We're always interested in the thing we're not, right?”

Albuquerque is the fourth in a matrilineal family of artists descended from Smarda the Jewel, a Tunisian singer who performed Malouf, a classical Andalusian genre. Since the 1970s, her mother, Lita Albuquerque, has figured prominently in the Light and Space movement in Los Angeles. “She doesn’t do erotic work, but the one erotic work she did is where she met my dad,” Albuquerque says. “I don’t know if it would be able to happen today.”

I ask why.

“I’ll show you,” she says, unlocking her phone to search for a photograph. In 1980, her mother dug trenches — ”they’re basically vaginas” — around the Washington Monument and filled them with red pigment. At various times of the day, the obelisk’s shadow would line up with a trench, looking exactly how you think. Her father — a scientist at the National Institute of Health — had answered Lita’s ad asking for help pouring pigment. “I was born a year later,” Albuquerque says.

Installation view, Isabelle Albuquerque: Orgy for Ten People in One Body, Jeffrey Deitch, New York, 2022-2023. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, New York.

For most of her career, Albuquerque focused on performance art. She and her partner, Jon Ray, performed “transgressive incantations” as the musical duo Hecuba. From 2008 to 2012, they “lived and made music as one person,” she explains. “We had no hair, we dressed the same. We tried to merge identities.” (Today, her dark hair falls in Pre-Raphaelite waves, which she offsets with bleached eyebrows.)

But after the 2018 Woolsey fire destroyed Albuquerque’s mother’s compound in the Santa Monica mountains — and four generations’ worth of art — Albuquerque became obsessed with the idea of “objects as carriers of information.” All her family had left was “what we could remember, and our bodies.” Around the same time, she and Ray individuated: Albuquerque started thinking about physicality, while Ray started collaborating with an artificial intelligence developed through Osk Studio, the A.I. design practice they co-founded. The next year, in 2019, she started working on the Orgy.

She applied her performance background to the generative process, setting up a mirror, a backdrop, and a camera to explore the meaning of the “orgy” phrase through dance. “I’d work through until I hit a metaphor,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ray was training an A.I. to generate a nude painting, so Albuquerque fed it thousands of images of art-historical nudes in various global traditions, including the ancient marble sculpture “Sleeping Hermaphroditus” (to which Bernini added a mattress in 1620), and several medieval images depicting Mary Magdalene covered with body hair to hide her shame.

“Jon started collaborating with an intelligence that didn't have a body,” she says, while she started exploring the question of “how do we remember what it's like to be a body right now?”

As artificial intelligence and assisted intelligence creep into the mainstream — and as algorithms condition human behavior through social media and recommendation models — our relationships to embodied existence are changing. Albuquerque notes that she has a different relationship to her body than her mother does to hers, while any hypothetical children will have an entirely unprecedented relationship to their own.

“There’s a lot of loss with the move to AI,” she says. “There are a lot of exciting things, too, but I think we're all experiencing a pretty big loss.” Her metaphysical orgy documents her corporeality over the last four years. “It’s one reason I always wanted to be really precise,” she says. “so you can remember what it was like to feel this way.”

Orgy for Ten People in One Body is on view at Jeffrey Deitch in New York City through January 14, 2023.