Just before the pandemic, I had a prophetic studio visit to a sculptor who was hosting a sale from his workplace. I left with a fog machine, a flashlight, rainbow colored lightbulbs and some artist text books, one titled ‘Failure’ and the other ‘Appropriation’. I asked what was the reason for the sale and he shrugged and replied, “I’m dematerializing my practice,” which I took to be shorthand for the move to video — something many online magazines tried to do in 2015, and why they did most of us were forced to do in 2020.
New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist Tita Cicognani had worked primarily in the fields of sculpture and assemblage, a hauntingly material practice with fun invitations to the body, such as a spiked-seat chair titled Bad Student (2019) or a pink lighted installation of BDSM furniture all covered in soft white lambskin (“Fuzz Dungeon,” 2019). She didn’t want to dematerialize. Her 2020 video I Am So Full of Longing and Desire It Gushes Out of My Knees as They Scrape the Ground Upon which I Crawl Toward You is almost a protest against the conditions of her own creation. The title might give you a sense of the tone – CGI animations of a squirming figure with gray skin and a black bikini are complemented with chaotically short clips from The Notebook, Titanic, Taylor Swift and Christina Aguilera videos and miscellaneous Internet videos cut memes – a greatest hits montage of pop culture romance and top 40 seduction. She also began making large installations, combining her videos with sculptural elements and soundscapes around a central element: inflatable whirlpools. “There are three versions of the tubs,” she says, “all very different.”
We are seated in her current installation, Sturdy, Non-Inflatable, currently installed at the Hammer Museum, where she has agreed to an interview with me outside normal museum hours when visitors can sign up for a 45-minute time slot to soak in Heart Tub ‘ (2022), which is just that: the cheesy sucker of the low-budget love nests that popped up in places like the Poconos in the early 1970s and ushered America’s obsession with hysterical love into the Decade of Flavor.
Oddly enough about the heart-shaped tub, what started out as an over-determined catalyst for romance has now become a symbol of stickiness (see: “Failure”). But loving is nothing if not awkward, his expressions always a little infra digging. Cicognani’s Heart Tub installation doubles the stickiness to religious frenzy, a trance at the secular altar of desire. The tub isn’t just red, it’s made from red croc-skin vinyl (there are no red crocs! Who would think of that!) dotted on all sides with embedded video screens and levitating holograms of flying saucers and bubbling hearts sits plucked straight from a Lisa Frank trapper keeper.
“The first tub I made during the first phase of the COVID lockdown was in our temporary graduate school studios in Chinatown,” she says. “It certainly had to do with what I was feeling at the time – very isolated and very alienated. I craved that kind of physical interaction and sharing, that kind of’ – she splashes a bit of water on me – ‘real physical space’. My notebook is wet.
While wrestling with those rainbow lights and smoke machines to spice up the many livestream performances I was performing around my apartment in the fall of 2020, Cicognani used party store special effects in combination with video projections and the aforementioned tub resulting in “Mothership” ( 2021), a small inflatable pool rimmed with mirrors and LED lights and topped with a disco ball, like a tiny wet pleasure house. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Gravitron – a staple at a carnival where I’ve spent many summers standing on my head and being pinned to the vinyl pages by centrifugal force. Physics is one of the few energetic thrills for bored suburban kids who love Jesus too much to touch drugs or alcohol (but, it turns out, not with each other).
Cicognani’s work operates on a similar affective horseshoe, in which religious and physical ecstasy come strangely close. Her previous projects include “Prayer Cards” (2019) and takes the look and feel of the small devotional images usually reserved for holy images and replaces them with an image of the artist herself in a state of stigmata or sexy submission, or both. The cards come in a Smarties palette of pink, purple and teal and are printed with the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. The prayer doesn’t sound all that different from the kind of soft-core self-help infographics circulating on Instagram. “Oh, I’m not on social media,” says Cicognani. I am not suprised. Her aesthetic often draws from a cross-generational pool of pop references and the newly hip Catholicism and UFO culture, but her work never degrades into pure aesthetics. Cicognani always tries to draw the body out the screen. Like a benevolent Cronenberg.
Her second tub, Grotto Tub (2022), was even more sensual. Installed in the artist-run space of Leroy’s, a gallery in the former restaurant Thanh Vi in Chinatown that bears the architectural features of its former life very well. “It was really wonderful because the space is also a bar. Many people came with their friends late at night and drank in the tub. On opening night the room got flooded because there would be about six, seven, eight people in there at a time. It was really wild and kind of gross in a really nice way.” Looking more like a Madonna Inn rock shower, “Grotto Tub” delighted in its down-to-earthness. PVC pipes protruding from the walls pumped a steady stream of unidentified brown goo. Accompanying videos included footage of Cicognani and her friends mud wrestling. “There were fewer protocols there,” admits Cicognani. During their initial discussions about getting the project into the Hammer, Aram Moshayedi, Robert Soros’ senior curator at the museum, affectionately referred to “Grotto Tub” as “art student soup.”
The current installation at Hammer is an exercise in scaling certain forms of intimacy associated with the tubs into their more secret forms. Achieving this here required navigating new logistics such as scheduled time slots, release forms, and building codes. “Even that,” says Cicognani, pointing to the chrome heart-shaped handrail that makes the installation ADA-compliant. “It’s something I hadn’t thought of before, but it’s nice, it works.”
We sit back and watch the 40 minute video “I Still Believe”. (2022) on a large screen on a wall. It’s like a drive-in, or rather, a soak-in. The video follows a green-skinned CGI avatar of the artist with augmented hands stroking through a cheap motel with his own heart-shaped bathtub. The low-resolution wallpaper comes directly from Booking.com (see: “Appropriation”). The character falls through the water into an infinite underwater void, freaks out, emerges, encounters UFOs and immaculately fathers alien offspring. Alternating between astral highs and dark lows, the shape is never quite able to sit still here on the surface of the earth, where Cicognani and I sit together and watch it all unfold. “My ideas about desire, beauty and love were all based on pop music and shiny things,” she says. “It’s something I’ve definitely rejected for a really, really long time, and somehow I’ve revived and embraced it in the last few years.”
The contemporary art school is a strange institution – it’s like a religion, although its orthodoxy is cerebral rather than physical. “I felt like it was all very cheesy and I am not so. I am very serious! That was my first year and a half in graduate school: I told myself that I had to do work that I could always relate to theory and focus on things that were interesting to me, but only on an intellectual level.
There are also intellectual levels here. Heart Tub knows its place among other bodies of water in museums, most notably a work from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2010 exhibition Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space, which also included a pool installation by the Brazilian artist 1973’s Hélio was owned by Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida entitled “CC4 Nocagions”. I was fortunate enough to immerse myself in this work as well. My memory of it felt smoother and more abstract, in contrast to the cascade of images floating in and around Heart Tub.
There’s a strong class dimension to exploring biblots of desire marketed to an underclass in a constant search for a vanishing middle. We talk about the economic subtext of a word like “sticky,” and whether the 2010 film “Hot Tub Time Machine” is as valid a reference as the late theorist Lauren Berlant’s writings on desire. “When I started building the first one, I kept thinking about the voice of Craig Robinson saying, ‘This must be some kind of… whirlpool time machine,'” she says. “It just made me laugh and was a reminder of the absurdity of the whole project.” We laugh.
As we dried off with the custom towels Cicognani designed for the show, I looked at my own body. The pea green towels are embroidered with an image of the alien baby from her video below the words “I still believe.” “Please keep it!” Cicognani insisted. A representative from the museum offered to send me a new one. I declined, absolutely. I feel like it’s part of the work, I said, knowing a lot of people were using this one. They assured me that the towels are washed after each use.
Christina Catherine Martinez is a writer, actress, comedian and daughter from Los Angeles. She received the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and was named Comedian You Should Know by both Time Out LA and New York Magazine. Her collection of essays, Aesthetic Relationships, is available from Hesse Press. She was born and raised in Southern California.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-10-05/hot-tub-installation-hammer-museum Taking a dip in the Hammer Museum’s hot tub art installation