Bathe in the Hammer Museum hot tub art installation

Shortly before the pandemic, I had a prophetic studio visit with a sculptor who was having a sale outside of his workspace. I left with a fog machine, a strobe light, rainbow-colored light bulbs, and a few books of artists’ writings, one titled “Failure,” the other, “Appropriation.” . I asked what the occasion of the sale was and he shrugged and replied, “I’m dematerializing my practice”, which I took as a shortcut to video – something that many magazines online tried in 2015 and what most of us were forced to do. in 2020.

New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist Tita Cicognani had worked primarily in sculpture and assemblage, an insistently material practice with odd invitations to the body, like a chair with a spiked seat titled “Bad Student” (2019) or a pink-lit installation of BDSM furniture, all upholstered in soft white sheepskin (“Fuzz Dungeon”, 2019). She didn’t want to dematerialize. Her 2020 video “I’m so full of lust and desire it shoots out of my knees as they scrape the ground I crawl to you” is almost a protest against the conditions of her own making. The title might give you an idea of ​​the tone – CGI animations of a writhing figure with gray skin and a black bikini are cut with chaotically short clips from “The Notebook”, “Titanic”, Taylor Swift and Christina Aguilera videos , and various Internet meme videos – a montage of pop culture’s greatest romance hits and seduction Top 40. She also started making large installations combining her videos with sculptural elements and soundscapes around a central element: inflatable spas. “There are three versions of the tubs,” she says, “all very different.”

We are seated in her current, sturdy, non-inflatable installation, currently housed at the Hammer Museum, where she has agreed to interview me outside of normal museum hours, when visitors can sign up for a 45-minute slot to s imbue in “Heart Tub” (2022), which is exactly that: the schmaltzy mainstay of low-budget love nests that started popping up in places like the Poconos in the early 1970s, propelling the obsession with ‘America for hysterical love in the decade that taste forgot.

A woman stands against a hot tub.

Artist Tita Cicognani stands against the hot tub that is part of her new multimedia installation at the UCLA Hammer Museum.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Funny thing about the heart-shaped bathtub: what started out as an overdetermined catalyst for romance has since morphed into a symbol of naughtiness (see: “Failure”). But loving is nothing if not embarrassing, his expressions always a little hollow. 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 red crocodile skin vinyl (red crocodiles don’t even exist! Who’s making this thing up!) filled on all sides with built-in video screens and sitting beneath holograms floating saucers and sparkling hearts ripped straight from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper.

“The first bathtub I made during stage one of the COVID lockdown and it was at our temporary graduate studios in Chinatown,” she says. “It was definitely related to how I felt at the time – very isolated and very alienated. water -” a real physical space. My notebook is wet.

Two women in a hot tub.

Artist Tita Cicognani, right, built a hot tub for a show at the Hammer Museum. Christina Catherine Martinez takes notes.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

In the fall of 2020, while I was vying for those rainbow lights and fog machines to try and liven up the many live performances I was doing out of my apartment, Cicognani was using party store special effects in combination with video projections and the aforementioned bathtub to create what became “Mothership” (2021), a small inflatable pool lined with mirrors and LED lights, and topped with a disco ball, like a tiny wet fun house . It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Gravitron – a county fair staple where I spent many summers rolling upside down, pinned to its vinyl sides by centrifugal force. Physics is one of the few energetic thrills available to bored suburban kids who love Jesus too much to touch drugs or alcohol (but not, ultimately, each other).

Cicognani’s work operates on a similar horseshoe where religious and bodily ecstasy come eerily close. His past projects include “Prayer Cards” (2019), taking the look and feel of small devotional images usually reserved for images of saints, and replacing them with an image of the artist herself in a state of stigma, or sexy submission, or both . The cards are done in a Smarties palette of pink and purple and teal, printed with the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. Prayer doesn’t look all that different from the kind of softcore self-help infographics circulating on Instagram. “Oh, I’m not on social media,” Cicognani says. I’m not surprised. His aesthetic often draws from a generational pool of pop references and trendy new Catholicism and UFO culture, but his work is never reduced to mere aesthetics. Cicognani always tries to pull the body out of the screen. Like a benevolent Cronenberg.

A woman is sitting in a hot tub.

Artist Tita Cicognani sits in the hot tub she created.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

His second hit, “Grotto Tub” (2022), was even more carnal. Housed in Leroy’s artist space, a gallery in the former Thanh Vi restaurant in Chinatown that bears many architectural features of its previous life. “It was really wonderful because the space is also a bar. Lots of people came late at night with their friends and drank in the tub. Opening night, the space was flooded because there were six, seven, eight people at a time. It was really wild and kinda gross, in a really nice way. “Grotto Tub” was more like a Madonna Inn rock shower and rejoiced in its earthiness. PVC pipes sticking out of its walls pumped out a steady stream of unidentified brown sludge. The accompanying videos featured footage of Cicognani and his friends wrestling in the mud. “There were fewer protocols in place there,” admits Cicognani. During his early discussions about pitching the project to the Hammer, Aram Moshayedi, the museum’s senior curator Robert Soros, fondly referred to “Grotto Tub” as “art student soup.”

The current installation at Hammer is an exercise in scaling certain forms of intimacy attached to the vats in their most clandestine forms. Realizing that here involved navigating new logistics like scheduled time slots, release forms, and building codes. “Even that,” Cicognani says, pointing to the heart-shaped chrome handrail that makes the installation ADA compliant. “It’s not something I thought about before, but it’s beautiful, it works.”

We sit down and watch the 40 minute “I Still Believe” video (2022) looped on a large screen against a wall. It’s like being in a drive-in, or rather, soaking in it. The video follows a green-skinned CGI avatar of the artist with enlarged hands, patting around a cheap motel with its own heart-shaped bathtub. The low-res background image comes directly from Booking.com (see: “Appropriation”). The figure falls through water into an infinite underwater void, panics, emerges, encounters UFOs, and perfectly conceives alien offspring. The character oscillates between the astral heights and the incandescent depths, never quite able to sit still here, on the surface of the Earth, where Cicognani and I sit together, watching everything unfold. “My notions of desire and beauty and love were all kind of built on pop music and shiny things,” she says. “It’s something I’ve definitely rejected for a very long time and somehow over the past two years I’ve revisited and embraced it.”

Two women watch a multimedia installation from a hot tub.

Writer Christina Catherine Martinez, left, and artist Tita Cicognani watch Cicognani’s multimedia video from a hot tub.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

The school of contemporary art is a curious institution — it’s a bit like a religion, even if its orthodoxy is more cerebral than bodily. “I got the feeling that this is all very corny and I am not like this. I am very serious! It was my first year and a half of graduate school: telling myself that I needed to do work that I could still relate to theory, focusing on things that interested me, but only on an intellectual level. .

There are intellectual levels here too. “Heart Tub” knows its place among other water features in museums, including a work from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2010 exhibition “Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space,” which included a 1973 swimming pool installation by Brazilian artists Hélio. Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida titled “CC4 Nocagions”. I had the chance to immerse myself in this work as well. My memory of it was smoother and more abstract, unlike the cascade of images that float in and around “Heart Tub.”

There is a powerful class dimension to exploring trinkets of desire marketed to an underclass in constant search of a disappearing milieu. We talk about the economic subtext of a word like “tacky” and whether the 2010 movie “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, the voice of Craig Robinson saying, ‘this must be some kind of…time machine,’ kept coming to mind,” she says. . “It just made me laugh and reminded me of the absurdity of the whole project.” We laugh.

As we dried off with the custom towels Cicognani designed for the show, I looked down at my own body. The polka dot green towels are embroidered with an image of the alien baby from her video under the words “I still believe”. “Please keep it!” Cicognani insisted. A museum representative offered to send me a new one. I absolutely refused. I feel like it’s part of the job, I said, knowing that a lot of people have used it. They assured me that the towels are washed after each use.

Christina Catherine Martinez is a writer, actress, comedian, and girl from Los Angeles. She is a recipient of the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and was named a Comedian You Should Know by Time Out LA and New York magazine. His collection of essays, “Aesthetical Relations,” is available from Hesse Press. She was born and raised in Southern California.

Two women at an art exhibition.

Visitors can make an appointment to sit in the hot tub created by Tita Cicognani.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

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