|THINGS WE DO
Arthouse, Temple Bar, Dublin
Towards an Art of the Ordinary
If we accept Jeanette Winterson's contention that the 'queer world has colluded in the misreading of art as sexuality',1 then to consider the primacy of the artwork, rather than that of the sexual orientation of the artist, is surely the most rewarding receptive strategy to apply to the work in this year's OutArt exhibition, particularly in view of the stated brief to widen potential discussion and inquiry in relation to queer culture interwoven by the strands of ordinary, daily life? To privilege the work as space of contradiction, as disordered, multi-faceted, often improper in relation to classical aesthetic values, is to enter the more inclusive, resistive and imaginatively dynamic realm of paraesthetics, where all representative norms are called into question in the name of 'difficult beauties', which in turn, challenge modernist notions of aesthetic autonomy and artistic purity.2
Paraesthetics implies a challege to traditional power structures, handing the possibility of imaginatively powerful and creative interpretive strategies to those concerned to look beyond the decriptive parameters of the artwork to its functioning as partial, contingent and non-universal bearer of meaning. The powerful integrity of much of the work in this exhibition reminds us of the wider and socially pertinent agendas implicit in the commodification and cultural oppression of art. The work confronts issues such as the aesthetic legitimacy of popular culture, the stylisation of conduct and the aesthetic construction of the self.
Fiona Mulholland, in her 'Artist's Statement', speaks of the hyper-instability of the contradictory modern word, at once threatening and joyous, which provides the inspiration for her work. The resultant themes of insecurity and stylisation of conduct in relation to a lived, image-conscious, life, culminate in powerful images of rupture and dislocation. Rather than exploring 'representation as sexual',3 Mulholland's work addresses the presence of the sexual in representation, exposing the insecurity of the image as well as the fantastical nature of fixed sexual identities. Her 'grenade-heeled shoes' seem to comment, cryptically, on the explosive potential of gendered as well as transgendered warfare - the cost, in spiritual terms, of projecting a particular image - as well as identifying a desire towards 'other', partially present within self.
Her 'flowers' appear to expose the arbitrary nature of the human condition, the unusual coupling of cast metal and baby dummies/soothers casting a curiously threatening shadow across easy comfortabilities. Her 'life-buoys' appear to function almost as postscripts, thrown to the wanderer busy constructing/deconstructing an often spurious image of self. There is nothing 'average' about this work, as Narin Scott's pink neon sign underlines, nothing mundane or mediocre in Mulholland's precise and complex images of shared ordinary secrets and small human dreams.
Similarly, Deirdre Power's explorations of a commodified language of desire in her 'sile na gig shopping bags', the motifs cleverly rendered in dry pigment, engage with a necessary decoding and rupturing of a visual field, where fixed desires, material, emotional or sexual, are exposed as fantasies. In a compelling transgfiguration of the commonplace shopping bag, Power's sile na gig images, historically utilised to repel invaders, seem to function here as symbols of uncontained sexuality, the opening at once beckoning and forbidding entry to the womb or birth sac/bag, locus of the future as well as repository of the past. It is almost as if the very memory of desire has been erased by consumerist definitions of desirous self-image.
Interestingly, in his 'Artist's Statement', the Portugese artist, Numo, uses the word 'saudade', which denotes a trace memory of loss or destiny, a word that cannot be satisfactorily translated into known languages. In Kristevan terms, such a constituted loss of desire is the price paid for entry into the narrativity of historical discourse, where enunciative positions on identity are fixed and creativitity is contextually bound. In 'Disappearing Act', Numo's absorption with an endlessly recreated series of photographic self-images seems to reflect a desire to move beyond context, to move back to the self as locus for dynamic change, back to an empowerment of self through a visual exploration of lost memories of desire for self. In pursuit of a 'ghost of something real',4 the works of Numo and Power suggest the possibility of lives lived beyond context, of ordinary lives fighting to be free of the anxiety and atrophy of influence.
The atrophying effect of commodified desire is illuminated in Kaye Shumack's three colour photographs, depicting a typical 'christmas lunch' and its aftermath. The poignancy of shared human histories is beautifully captured by the baby birdlike head in the final image, the exposed scalp representing an almost unbearable sleeping and defenceless vulnerability. Again, the work emphasises shared human experiences, from the formal expectancy of the set lunch-table, to the utilitarian task of washing up and the final collapse into oblivion. The wry, reflective, tonal humour of these powerfully restrained images of the festive season, is transposed, in Pierre Yves Clouin's video, into something more overt and uncontrollable, a perhaps necessary negation of the artist's fears concerning the sexual stasis effected by sterile, consumerist definitions of desire?
Disruptions of cliched, conventional presentations of desire, sex and love, feature in the work of Garrett Barry, whose subversive images invoke the possibilty of new languages of desire. Janice Radway, in her study of romance fiction,5 cautions that readers continue to read the conventional romance at the expense of revolution, referring to the deadening effect of a diet of fixed sexual stereotypes such as the handsome macho male and the frail, beautiful and powerless heroine, as well as improbable plot sequences. Barry's works go much further, his two foot square canvas panels representing imagined 'book covers', bearing subverted romance titles in shiny gold lettering. 'Fuck me Forever', proclaims one. 'Roses are red, bruises are blue', screams a second. The shock factor perfectly suits the subversive purpose. The underside of 'romance' is here convincingly portraited, illuminating unforgivingly the dark blue shadow at the red heart of sugar-scented valentines, the thin line between sex and violence, love and abuse, desire and dislocation. Alice Munro, in her anything but romantic short stories, stresses the possibilities for dynamic change inherent in tellings and retellings of shared, human, emotional histories. Like Toni Morrison, she places diverse narratives together in an attempt to examine, among other things, the effects of a denial of subjectivity on subjectivity itself. 6 That strand of intent, to affect states of mind cross-culturally, seems also to be present in Barry's images, suggesting that there is much to fight for yet, in terms of banishing shared emotions of fear, guilt, shame and regret, much to celebrate in diverse tellings of human love stories.
Andrew Fox's paintings and drawings also address the human need for emotional fulfillment. His intimate portraits move beyond their own descriptive parameters, hinting at hidden desires and image-unconsciousness. 'Gary' and 'Slaphead', suggest discomfort with stereotype as well as contained, potentially explosive, sexual energies. 'Bear' perfectly balances the possibility of gentleness with repressed force, adding to the subtlety and power of the combined images. Moniza Alvi's poem, 'A Bowl of Warm Air', speaks of the lover sighting his/her love object from afar, 'falling towards you, as an apple from a branch', seeing 'you close up, like the underside of a mushroom'. 7Self-image, in these works, is a construct, masking the jolie-laide nature of the fiercely delicate human heart.
Why, queries Winterson, do we 'hound those who come to us with hands full of difficult beauty. Why can we not imagine ourselves out of despair, out of helplessness, into authentic desire'?8 Phil Collin's work comes to us in this exhibition, in the form of photographs of a body traced by absence, yet wholly present to itself, human and free. A momentary confusion, a surface ambivalence - the mass-produced synthetic jumper, angled against the warm living skin - intensifies the sense of radical openess and optimum dissensus contained in these photographs of remembered healing. Rejecting as they do, the hystericisation of 'broken' or 'sick' human bodies, the photographs challenge on a number of levels, rupturing fixed notions of aesthetic beauty and serving as reminders that the 'human spirit free' 9 is a powerful locus for creativity.
Collin's photographs, like all the works in this exhibition, are the result of acts of courage, are in a sense, framed everyday histories of the extraordinarily diverse, multi-desirious human heart. The choice to courageously move beyond assumptions of identity, sexual or otherwise, into the unchartered territory of the transfinite, 10 is one strand in the continuing discourse of others, of which this exhibition is a powerful and empowering instance.
Having completed her doctorate at the University of Ulster Belfast, Suzanne O Shea lectures, writes and researches in the field of art and aesthetics
Copyright Dr. Suzanne O Shea, May 2000
1 Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery London: Vintage, 1995, p. 104.
Winterson later suggests that ' if queer culture is now actively working against assumptions of identity as sexuality, art gets there first, by implicitly or explicity creating emotion around the forbidden'. p. 106.
2 The phrase 'difficult beauty' is Winterson's ( Ibid, p. 116) For a fuller discussion of pragmatist aesthetics, Richard Shusterman' Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, rethinks the traditionally central topics of aesthetics, aesthetic experience and value, form and unity, interpretation and intentionality and the moral worth of art.
3 The phrase is Jacqueline Rose's, from 'Sexuality in the Field of Vision', essay written for the catalogue of the exhibition, Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, December-February, 1984-5 and ICA London, September-October, 1985, pp. 31-33.
4 Phrase from his 'Artist Statement'.
5 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Culture. London: Verso, 1986.
6 See in particular, Alice Munro's two collections of short stories, The Love Good Woman, London: Vintage, 1998, and the earlier Progress of Love, London: Vintage, 1985/86. See Toni Morrison's Beloved, London: Picador, 1988.
7 Moniza Alvi, A Bowl of Warm Air. Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 39.
8 Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects,London: Verso, 1995, p. 116.
9 Ibid, Winterson, p. 117.
10 Used here in the Kristevan sense of 'an open infinity of meaning in the expanse beyond the limits of language'. From, Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981 p. 173
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