Experiments in Eden

Anna Cahn on Wynnie Mynerva's The Original Riot at the New Museum, New York

November 4, 2023

Wynnie Mynerva, The Original Riot, 2023, installation view

Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in 1977 as a nonhierarchical institution that would “show new and radical art in a new and radical way.” Few museums at the time exhibited art of the present, much of which was characterized by ephemerality and experimentation, and this unconventional museum set out to provide a forum appropriate for it. In the decades since, the New Museum has become a permanent and prominent fixture in New York’s museum landscape. It has also, perhaps inevitably, strayed from its founding spirit and submitted to the corporate logic of the late-capitalist museum, evidenced most vividly by the museum’s response to its staff’s unionization in 2019 and its handling of contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the museum’s recent programming has reflected a commitment to young and under-appreciated artists who are often on the outskirts, if not entirely outside of, New York’s blue-chip, market-minded scene. Wynnie Mynerva’s recent presentation is one such example of the New Museum giving space to a new and radical practice. Art historian and curator Anna Cahn reviews it here. 

Wynnie Mynerva, The Original Riot, New Museum, New York, June 29, 2023–September 17, 2023.

The Garden of Eden is one of the first narratives to inscribe and justify the social differences of gender. Here, dominant female archetypes were given form in both the familiar story of Eve’s temptation and banishment from Eden, as well as in the lesser-known myth of Lillith, who was exiled from Eden as a warning to disobedient women. The story of Lilith hails from Jewish and Mesopotamian folklore in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife and is created as his equal. After refusing to be subservient to Adam, Lilith is banned from the Garden of Eden and cursed as a demon. Although Lilith doesn’t appear in the Bible, she has become a feminist symbol of resistance against sexual violence and repression. Wynnie Mynerva’s recent debut US exhibition at the New Museum, The Original Riot, takes up this alternative creation story and explores the ways it engages gender roles, the body, and sexuality in painting, sculpture, and performance. 

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are immediately immersed in Mynerva’s very own Garden of Eden. A sweeping seventy-foot-long canvas mural stretches the length of the New Museum Lobby Gallery, described as the largest painting the museum has exhibited. Across this epic frieze thick with gestural brushstrokes, the artist reimagines the story of Genesis to have Eve and Lilith join forces. Unfurling from right to left, Mynerva’s composition tells a somewhat linear narrative: After refusing to submit to Adam and enduring his rape, Lilith is banished from paradise and is transformed into a demon. In Mynerva’s version of the story, Lilith and Eve unite after this trauma, banding together in resistance when, in a gesture of feminine unity against patriarchy, Eve removes her Adam’s rib as an offering to Lilith.

The figures that appear in The Original Riot are both visceral and fleshy and, while the painting includes traces of narrative figuration recognizable to this story, the work teeters on the edge of abstraction. The painting’s figurative iconography and monumental scale seems to reference Catholic imagery typical of Mynerva’s hometown in Peru while also positioning abstraction as a dissolution of such dominant colonial narratives. In some areas, bodies are swallowed by swirling brushstrokes of dark paint. Genitalia transmute into seas of flames and limbs into atmospheric waves of blues and browns. The repeated bodies of Lilith and Eve emerge from and recede back into colorful abstract landscapes; in some scenes, demonic talons grow out of Lilith’s body and flames engulf her flesh. Upon closer look, animals, insects, and plants also surface throughout the painting. This tangle of bodies and abstract forms appears to be between moments of materialization and liquidation—implying that the body is always in a state of becoming.

Wynnie Mynerva, The Original Riot, 2023, installation view

Wynnie Mynerva, The Original Riot, 2023, detail

Just as the painting reaches its crescendo—at the moment Lilith transforms into her demonic state—Mynerva inserts a decisive visual and temporal break. The artist has left an empty space between the final two canvases of the painting, cutting out a void for visitors to walk through while acting as an entryway to the sculptural component of the exhibition. Here, behind the canvas, is a thin bronze pillar with an engraved base that holds up what looks like an ancient relic made of bone, like the reliquary of a saint one might find in a cathedral. This object, Remnant of the first cut (2023), is part of a related performance in which the artist had a rib surgically removed, symbolically but also literally enacting Eve’s own gesture. The presentation of the artist’s rib is viscerally shocking, but also strangely beautiful, and its genesis recalls the ecstasy and exquisite pain described by saints’ encounters with the divine.

Mynerva’s performative, surgical intervention references the use of body modification in artistic practices, a central aspect of the work’s resonance: it equates physical transformation with emotional and creative freedom. In body modification practices, the human body becomes an artistic medium like any other, a vessel that can be cut and then sutured back together to create something new. Engaging in this practice, Mynerva references a long art historical tradition of body art in feminist practices emerging in the 1960s and early 1970s. Gesturing to performances like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), and Ana Mendieta’s Untitled: Silueta series (1973–78), Mynerva uses the feminist vocabulary of the body as a means of rupture—a moment in which the personal pain of sexual violence becomes expressed in a public forum.

It’s difficult to imagine just how radical these feminist works were when they were first performed, since the body has become a common and institutionalized topic in contemporary art. Yet Ono and Mendieta were two early practitioners who demonstrated how physical endurance could be seen as a form of feminist resistance. Interestingly, the two abovementioned works also incorporate acts of cutting and digging as representations of the body’s resilience and malleability, and they also revolve around topics of sexual violence and the displacement of war. Mynerva’s work speaks to a new generation of feminist Latinx artists who, taking inspiration from their artistic predecessors, are interested in using the body to communicate transnational and queer feminist politics. Drawing on their own experience as a queer Latinx endurance artist, Mynerva challenges the imposing forces of colonialism, globalization, and heteronormativity on queer and indigenous communities.

Wynnie Mynerva, The Original Riot, 2023, installation view

Remnant of the first cut, as a literal cut both in the painting’s continuity and in the artist’s body, suggests that individuals have the power to disrupt dominant narratives and transform them through their own queer, radical, and transgressive experimentations. In The Original Riot, meanwhile, Mynerva pushes the gendered bodies from the story of Genesis beyond their conventional bounds. By inserting this decisive break into the painted mural, Mynerva marks a moment of transformation in the piece: the body is refigured from abstraction to flesh and is transformed from an object into an event. 

As the exhibition title suggests, the performative intervention is perhaps the true riot rumbling beneath the surface. The performance remnant, the bone, conjures the artist grappling with trauma through a moment of self-inflicted pain and personal pause. Similarly, a riot generates physical and temporal disruption. Through Mynerva’s artistic lens, one may begin to see a wound as a kind of riot—a fissure created for the purpose of healing. Referencing their experience growing up in Villa El Salvador, Peru, Mynerva explains that they often witnessed acts of sexual, racial, and gender-based violence. In this context, starting a riot can be an extremely dangerous endeavor, as activist resistance can be perceived as a threat—especially for femme and queer people. Considering this risk, Mynerva’s installation seems to question the very core of what a riot can be. A riot disrupts, halting the activities of daily life. However, riots are usually associated with large gatherings; is it possible for a riot to consist of an individual act? Say, the removal of one’s own rib?

Wynnie Mynerva, Remnant of the first cut, 2023 

Wynnie Mynerva, Remnant of the first cut, 2023, detail

Such questions become apparent in Mynerva’s project, especially as they come into dialogue with theories of the body. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “Body without Organs” explores the use of the body as a method of political experimentation. They describe this as “[…] an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t […]. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit.”1 The common understanding of this theory is to live without the imposing organizational structures that define and construct bodies—for example, the ways in which gender, capitalism, and colonialism may shape our bodies and desires. To become a Body without Organs is to reach for the impossible repeatedly and relentlessly. 

Deleuze and Guattari’s defiant body is one that pushes itself to its limits by means of radical experimentation. Mynerva’s masochistic practice—illustrated by surgically removing their rib and, in a previous work, sewing their genitals closed (Closing to Open, 2021)—reaches toward such impasses of the body. Investigating the experiences of pain and deprivation, these performances frame the abject body as a channel for free expression. Mynerva’s practice of masochism is a form of rebellion that is intentionally ambiguous, highlighting the ways in which a one-person riot may not look like a riot at all. 

In their return to the story of Genesis, Mynerva seems to entangle feminine identity with practices of masochism. In the version of the story told in The Original Riot, both Lilith and Eve transgress the limits of their feminine bodies: first, in Lilith’s refusal of Adam, leading to her corporeal annihilation and expulsion from paradise, then in Eve’s bodily sacrifice offered to Lilith. Through this retelling, Lilith and Eve are arguably reimagined as the very first body artists, ultimately expanding the confines of feminine bodies and how they desire. 

However, what exactly the riot of the exhibition title might be is left for viewers to decipher. As I walked through the installation, it appeared to me as a series of cuts—places where I got caught in the void—a motif that recurs throughout the work. Here, a riot may be visualized as a body between abstraction and figuration, between violence and liberation, and between desirability and abjection. Within these spaces of ambiguity, Mynerva invites viewers to fall through these cracks alongside them. The potency of their work derives not only from its level of extremity, but from their treatment of the body as a threshold rather than a limit. 

1 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Schizophrenia and Capitalism, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 149-150.

All images © Wynnie Mynerva. Courtesy New Museum. Photos: Dario Lasagni

Anna Cahn is a curator and writer based in New York City particularly interested in the intersection of performance and interdisciplinary media in contemporary artistic practices. Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic and the Brooklyn Rail. She is currently a PhD candidate in Art History & Criticism at Stony Brook University.

This text was supported by a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities NY