Unsettle at Paper Mountain: Kate Power, Liam Colgan, Derek Sargent.
by Graham Mathwin
by Graham Mathwin
It is not the representation of sexuality so much as the particular functions of his films that enable Bruce La Bruce to call Jean Luc Godard a ‘queer’ filmmaker. There is something to be taken from this suggestion that operates, I think, along the non-figurative logic of the work and this show, here. The idea that queer can be an operation is, I think, at the heart of this work (as opposed to an identity, or a specification). There is no obvious representation of gender or sexuality in the work – and for good reason. It is rather more suggestive, far more playful, than that. The show’s premise, to remove representations of queerness and to work in obliquely sculptural manners, is to suggest at the idea that queer is not limited to the sexual, or the figural, but that it is about something not based in certainty, and that there is the possibility to enact the queer, a political and everyday queering of life. For queerness is less about sexuality, less about sex-desire, or any other rigid definition. And it is contrary to rigid definitions that Foucault, the principle touchstone of this exhibition, argues his points. He also argues that we focus the attack on sexuality through the realms of bodies and pleasures, not sex and desire – which capitulate into the regimes of sexuality, and the definition that they create. I feel that ‘queer’ as a term that is somewhat duplicitous and uncertain, and thus provides us with a word that can be used as well, not to imply any identification or subjectivity, so much as an oblique space of infinite potential. There are many attempts to define what queer is, and put it into certain relations with that shadow of ‘sexuality’ that casts its pall over our bodies and pleasures, yet I am convinced that it can overcome them, and induce a radical uncertainty in our lives.
A contextual digression: There is a strange thing, in these days where marriage equality is in the air. Do the societal functions we are witnessing now disempower queerness and make it normal? Or do they make the normal, queer - and does this at last defeat it? And is the norm still there or worth talking about? (Although, as Anna Dunnil points out at the end of the catalogue essay the binary of queer/normal is moved beyond here (what could be less queer than a binary?), I must argue that normativity requires subversion. For normativity is the force that converts everything into opposition, and normativity, so long as it exists, is none-the-less precisely what aligns itself against the queer, whether the queer is contrarily, acutely or obliquely related to it. In other words, I think it still pays to investigate what is occurring at the level of these functions) There is, to be sure, a great potential to be had from an opening of the sexual identity borders that seem to be so important in defining us – for everyone. The Queer movement concerns all because there is no definition so scientific, so ‘natural’ (as those that seem to be presented to us today) to be had in what we like, and what moves us, and what we love.
Felix Gonzalez Torres appears to me as a relevant comparison to draw, whose synchronised clocks and billboard images of beds is wholly political, but also subtle and subversive, and refined into a form that plays with normality, but that is, at heart, an alteration of it too – and one that is undertaken, importantly, without the lens of representation. I think that this is also the operation of these works, an attempt to address gender politically, but not directly, not overtly, not on the surface, but beneath it.
The Sisyphean action of Liam Colgan’s work straight on from here repeats the success of his Hatched work caught in reflection, and the two seem to operate on similar levels – repeated actions performed in private, yet recorded, explicating an absurdity in the construction of gender, and toying with the superficial (and universal) gendering of the masculine. The implication of the private through both setting and sculptural arrangement embraces an everyday context. The nature of the props – both Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in Hatched, and the exit sign in Unsettle are also suggestive of a highly pragmatic and involved enacting of something altered/misappropriated within the domain of the everyday. There are several things that come to mind in viewing the work. The universal figure of the ‘man’ on the exit sign clearly sits, invisible for his ubiquity, everywhere in our world – implying a kind of normativity through simplistic depiction. Yet this is not at the heart of the work. What it attempts to do, in yo-yoing the sign above his head, appears as some kind of metaphor for the situation I have been attempting to explicate, but in much more concise way. The sign is kept in constant, perpetual motion from the hands of the artist. There is a kind of suspicion of this object formed through this operation. It is not a destruction of the universal man, it is not an attempt to deface or destroy it - it is rather a misappropriation, an alteration of its function. The sign becomes destabilized from its formalism – and the gesture operates like a pushing away of the constant gendering of things, an attempt to reclaim a space of uncertainty, toying with the distance between things. There are several things going on within this, but perhaps most importantly, the act is something exhausting in its endlessness. There is a kind of unclear dance going on, wherein the artist is not attempting to define what space exactly the sign sits within, rather, he is attempting to deny it its power, to keep it at bay from himself. It is the difficult work of un-defining, of constructing a space of the unknown, with the implications of the infinite that follow.
Kate Power’s work is the most clear, in the small video work that is mounted on the wall (Covert Curtain), but is also particularly subtle, in the soft-sculpture and lace trim (all that effort and desire). And the leather-and-lace finger gloves that stroke and press on a variety of similarly material objects (Soft Shock). All three are effectively evocative, even covert curtain’s juiciness remains thoroughly within the bounds of the non-figural. Yet it possesses a certain visceral and bodily association within it, much more so than the other work in the show – even those that contain actual figures. The soft sculpture sits awkwardly (to its benefit) in the near middle of the space, a very strange, uncertain cone, a long tentacle-like extrusion, trimmed with lace and sagging in the middle, suspended in the air between two hoops, it invites interpretation, yet the thing that is most important about the work, like all the work here, is its defiance about any particularly exclusive definition. The non-representative nature of the work leaves the field open, and somewhat humorously so. The materiality is also suggestive, of the very sensation of fabrics, and the associations of lace and the crushed-velvet-like fabric with seduction, the lace with femininity. But it is these very codes that are made queer through the sculpture.
I think it is interesting to read Colgan and Power’s large video works together, as they focus on what I think is the dual function of the exhibition. They, at opposite ends of the room, present us with two related but distinct ideas: Colgan’s attempt to reject identification, and Power’s focus on the body and a materiality that is suggestive of an unidentifiable pleasure. Both works are not explicitly about an absence of images, as they are both video works, but their removal from any sexually identifiable discourse is crucial to their success. Power’s work is particular resonant with the ideas that Foucault poses to contend with sex-desire and any ‘fundamental’ identification – that is to say, it reciprocates with the ideas of ‘bodies’ and ‘pleasures’ that he brings up. While Colgan’s work functions like the theoretical elaboration of removing identification, Power’s work seems to delve into the very material basis of Foucault’s suggestion. The personal as opposed to public image, which provides the idea that our being is not reliant on any definition, any specification, but on those rather more fluid domains of the body and our behaviours. Foucault does mention that it is pleasures that can teach us to re-learn desire. That, if we come to know the potential of bodies, desire may follow - that an image may create itself, as opposed to being prescribed by any normative functions. Power’s work is the most affirmative of the show in this sense, the most evocative, of these bodies and their pleasures.
This is not to say that Sargent’s work (Squeeze me) is not materially invested, yet the materiality is refined, and delicate – even contained – as opposed to being expansive. It presents itself as the clearest appeal to formalism in the show. Yet the very combination and use of materiality, like the combination of soft and hard, of fabric and metal, in Power’s work, destabilizes these things. It is formalism, yet with permutations that belie its austerity. The materiality seems to defy itself, the thread becoming taut and strong, the aluminium curved and softened. Yet perhaps the power of this work is that it is so difficult for me to place it as well. Without its colouration it would not be out of place in almost any other artistic context as a work of post-minimal material investigation. The colouration is a simple gesture as well – something on the edge of a representative gesture in this show that plays on the borders of the figurative. The pink seems to be a simplified version of the images that feature in Sergeant’s other work – functioning more like a sign, a symbol - yet its simplicity as a sign is undermined through the complexities of the materiality, and their combination and arrangement.
This work in particular led me on a rather oblique digression, that, in the spirit of the show, I will follow: It caused me to ask myself as to whether Richard Serra could be considered a queer artist? Those serpentine panels of steel, curving around each other – they are non-objective, and they don’t seem to be anything normative – except perhaps through their vast size, their monumental cohesion, and rusted materiality… but even then I am not sure. Perhaps Serra’s work actually is like those tough-guy images of the bear and clone? Although this is something of a non sequitur, it does provide a consideration of the post-minimal practice that squeeze me seems to move through. There is something in the playful fragility and combinatory nature of the works that defies the difficulty I have in thinking Serra’s work in any queer sense. Yet post-minimal art has a strange history of sexualisation, I am brought to think of Robert Morris’ S&M photo-shoot (apparently taken by Rosalind Krauss), and its accompaniment in Lynda Benglis’ infamous dildo photograph (which Kruass riled against). Benglis’ work also provides me with a kind of exit from this strange detour – her poured works exhibit the same fundamental dynamics as Serra’s corner pieces, yet they are made of a material with none of the mechanical and industrial undertones of Serra’s work – and most particularly its association with base material. This reconsideration of Serra’s work is, I think, unfortunately disqualified and limited by its materiality: this lead and steel paradigm, the materials of monuments, of the earth and the ground, and the kinds of essentialism it presents. Benglis, rather, presents an understanding of the materiality of our more everyday lives, as does Morris: mirrors and plastics and those glorious colours. We can see Serra in perhaps his most subverted form through the eyes of Matthew Barney in the Cremaster cycle, where he throws molten Vaseline instead of lead. The alchemy of Barney can perhaps be beneficially contrasted to Serra’s, yet we can contrast, all the more beneficially, the process of Benglis to that of Serra, to see the fine line that divides even the most simple non-figurative process based gestures, and can lead to an understanding of how the queer can operate on a level beyond simple identification – rather, the processes are not undertaken so much as played out and revealed to have a depth not imagined by their prior enactment.
Perhaps there is still the possibility of our everyday action of the queer, and the possibilities it exhibits.