Liam Colgan: From Looking to Feeling: Cool Change Contemporary


By Graham Mathwin

Liam Colgan

From Looking to Feeling
@Cool Change Contemporary

It may not be the primary concern of the show, but seeing Liam Colgan’s From Looking to Feeling, I was struck by the impression that there is something of the witchy about this show. The chain-become-charm-bracelet-become-lace-curtain, the strange fungus or mildew of denim that has accreted over the mirror, the half-visible face in a vaseline-lathered mirror, the backwards text written on the wall, in combination with the emotional, nineties playlist that permeates the space make me think of the obsession of that era with the magical, and particularly the pop-cultural representation of the magic of witches. The witch as a figure has undergone a transformation over the last half-century, and come out the other side as a figure of empowerment and politics for women, with a dash of wyrd. The transformation of the witch is ironic, given the reputation of witches in regularly transforming people into animals and making potions to transform feeling.

serendipitously, as I wrote this text, I encountered Paul B Preciado’s writing, in Testo-Junkie, on the witch, that seems prescient to bring up in this context. Preciardo’s gender transition from female to male, and the testosterone gel he applied, led him to draw on the history of the witch as a figure that utilised the chemical (re)construction of the body. Preciado argues that “Contemporary historians of medieval pharmacological traditions and the inquisition hypothesise that most of the visions and acts of magic condemned as satanic by the tribunals of the inquisition were the result of the accidental of intentional ingestion of psychoactive substances.” (p.146) Preciado then argues, following feminist and pagan witch Starhawk, that “the persecution of witches in Europe (and eventually in the American colonies) from 1430 to 1740 was part of a larger process of eradicating knowledge and lower-class power while simultaneously working to reinforce the hegemonic knowledge of the expert, something indispensable to the gradual insertion of capitalism on a global scale” (p.149). As well as this, the Inquisition “condemn[ed] female sexuality, nonproductive sexuality (anal practices and masturbation), and all experimentation with psychoactive substances”. While Colgan’s show is mostly invested in a material culture rather than an invisible, chemical regime, I read it as approaching a similar performance of witchcraft, in the backwards text that is written on the wall and that can be read in the mirror – that talks of a sensibility of the interior and its fluctuations – and the denim that has been remade through operations not only mechanical, but also involving water, one of the most simple of those chemicals of transformation. Indeed, the vaseline that covers the mirror in a photo on the wall is not only material, but also chemical, just denim is not only cloth, but also dye. However both these things are manipulated, changed in some way that alters their nature, and it is in this respect that I perceive Colgan to also be performing a sort of ‘practical magic’. The show also reciprocates with Preciado and Starhawk’s attempts to reclaim, or perhaps establish, a space, a body, from those forces that have manipulated and shaped it. The show is implicated in a relationship to the corporate and industrial structures that to some extent formulated the contemporary witch. It is clearly implicit in the choice of pop-music as the playlist that flows through the space, but also in the industrially produced garment fabric of denim. Gender has always had a relationship to the corporate, the economic, and this intersection is clear in the realms of clothing and accessorising. While not explicit concerns to Colgan’s practice, the very material basis of their practice seems to call attention to these material relationships – that endless subject of industry and capital. The question I perceive in much of Colgan’s experimentation is how to reclaim this space of corporate interests and nostalgia: How do you do anything with a space so thoroughly compromised, with a self that has been unavoidably somewhat constructed by this order? The answer, for Colgan, seems to be to digest fully and then reconstitute the material of this capitalist order. These products that people in rooms and then on factory floors have made en masse. While it is difficult not to be pessimistic when inevitably embroiled in a system of gender and material, here there is some feeling that not everything is hopeless.

There is, however, more to this narrative of transformation. In the accompanying interview/essay Colgan or Madden’s description of the process of making the show provides an analogy to the burning of a dress to its ashes and then making a pigment with it – but I think there is noticeably a very different process embodied in the pulped denim and linked chain. It is not a substantive change in the manner of alchemy, rather it is a reconstitution. In painting it seems, there is the figure of the alchemist, in the studio, making lead into gold, but I believe there is some negative gendering in this mythic figure. The witch, I would argue, offers another mythic figure, a forbidden alchemy, historically marginalised, a knowledge of the self and the processes that form it that has been destroyed, but perhaps now is making a return. Now, the fabric of the denim, laden with significations, histories, and nostalgia is turned. It is made felt-like, soft and furry, but sticky. The durability of this heavy garment has been undone. Now it is recognised by the teeth of its zipper, the clasps and pins of its construction floating around like so many nipples and molars displaced, turning what was rigid into something else. Now the chain, like a charm-bracelet – has become a ball gown, (perhaps more of a fairy godmother gesture? – but magic none-the-less) now draped over the mirror like a curtain – a transmutation, from within as opposed to without, of restriction into exuberance.


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