Nathan Beard: White Gilt: Cool Change Contemporary
There is already something ironic in writing about this show from my perspective, my own ‘guilt’ is implicit (and no doubt explicit) in every word that I put down. I am no expert on Thai culture, the allusions and references that Beard makes in this body of work. I did not even know of the Wai before I saw this show. As such this text is undoubtedly riddled with error. I decided to charge forth because a) I am a fool, and b) like everything actually good in Perth, it deserves more attention than it gets. This isn’t to suggest that the work is directly antagonistic to the viewer, the ‘gilt/guilt’ is not necessarily to do with how white any member of the audience is, but perhaps almost specifically to do with cultural knowledge, and a sense that one does not belong. In reading the catalogue, I consider it may be similar to a sense of the discomfort Beard himself feels, being part of a Thai diaspora, returning to Thailand and enacting cultural forms he typically would not. The only thing I feel I can add as far as words go, comes from my own perspective, and is therefore quite limited. But the show is not alienating nor does it speak in a way that we cannot approach and understand, and I believe it is still important to respond, in however limited a way, to things seen and admired.
The first thing I noticed about the show is the focus on hands. I had to google the Wai, the traditional greeting that in Thailand that was traditionally to demonstrate you were unarmed: hands clasped, in front of the body; the gesture that inspired the show. Most of the hands, though, are posed in acts of contorted delicacy. I had thought the nails might be a reference to the Manora (or is it the Nora?) another Thai ritual, a dance, with its elegant and extremely lengthy nails and coded hand gestures, telling the story of a heavenly princess, yet performed entirely by men until the modern age, like theatre in so many places. Then there are also these photos of statues and the subtraction of hands through wear or destruction, and the subsequent additions and graphic repair work enacted by the artist. The hands in these statues are formalised and coded. These speak several languages themselves. The stance of the buddha, is indicative of the ordered stance of culture and manners. In another context, but maybe performing a parallel operation, ballet grew out the manners of courtesans: “Formal Ballet had begun in the late sixteenth century as a courtly demonstration of grand manners, which proceeded from one straight-spined elegant posture to the next through, soon enough, the five standard positions of the feet” (Hillel Schwartz, “Torque: The new kinaesthetic of the Twentieth century”. In Incorporations. Zone 6. Page 74). The necessary motions to pay respect become the movements of dance. Become reality. These gestures and these motions, the intricacies of these activities and of these statues are the demonstration of an ordering of the world, according to manner and mannerism.
Then there are those invariable associations: The plants that typify the “exotic” that make up the principle content of the sculptural nails, attached to plaster hands that pose, emerging from the walls; the orchids [bound up with the history and industry of Thailand], “Sansevieria trifasciata” seen like palm trees, exported to Australia and trying to make it like some resort city or cruise ship destination, the chillies and pickles and baby corns hanging from the nails of a hand just inside the door, the ingredients of Thai cooking. I think of orientalist stories I was told about women who grow their nails seven inches long to demonstrate that they do not work. To demonstrate that every one of their whims is met by the services of another. Preciado can outline a further association with work and labour better than me, when he talking about going to get a manicure for the first time: “I come to a rapid conclusion about the functioning of the pharmacopornographic order. In heterosexual [and often white] culture, well-to-do women can treat themselves to sensual services lavished on them by other women, whereas working class women, immigrants, or ordinary contract workers are paid to take care of the bodies and erotic well-being of other women.” (325) There is therefore, bound up in the nails here, an entire industry happy to abuse the labour of immigrants, often from asian countries, but bound up in ideas of demonstrating labour lavished on the body, and therefore its implicit and relative cultural worth.
However, this is not what is most explicit. I think principally these artificial nails are the tools of a restructuring and reconsideration of cultural order. This is best understood as a response to any accusation of the cosmetic as something superficial or impractical. Michel Serres offers us a way of understanding the application of colour and shape to the body in a way beyond this detraction: “Cosmetics and the art of adornment are equivalent expressions. The Greeks in their exquisite wisdom combined order and adornment in the same word, the art of adorning and that of ordering. ‘Cosmos’ designates arrangement, harmony and law, the rightness of things: here is the world, earth and sky, but also decoration, embellishment or ornamentatio. Nothing goes as deep as decoration, nothing goes further than the skin, ornamentation is as vast as the world. Comos and cosmetics, appearance and essence have the same origin. Adornment equals order, and embellishment is equivalent to law, the world appears ordered, at whatever level we consider phenomena. Every veil is a magnificently historiated display.” (Serres, The Five Senses) The nails and the poses that are pulled in the photos, then, are more about the use of ornamentation on the body, in directing the body, in the way that manner and manners orders the stances and physical relations of one to another. In the photos, the hands hold the symbols of the exotic, delicately and precariously.
I believe that this opens a passage to the fundamental dynamic of the show: the relationship between several cultural languages, but not speaking all of these languages. The origin of guilt in the wrong word, the wrong contortion of the hands, the wrong gesture. There is the language of the surface, but applied with different techniques: the adornment of the male body in the world and language of the queer, the gestures of this same world, and the language of the Wai greeting, the Manora, the acceptability of the fluidity of gender in the world of performance.
These nails are like precarious scalpels, trying not to drop or destroy the delicate orchids they hold, and they seem like a sort of weapon against the limitations of orders of culture and manner and the imperative of function. The gaudiness of the displays they offer warn me against considering them without a touch of irony though: these floral things and these acrylic nails, also symbols of trashiness and bad taste. It makes me think of the orchids among the crushed flowers in the bouquets at the 24/7 IGAs, last minute gifts for the unprepared, grown in a factory greenhouse by anonymous workers as symbols of love and care, left to wilt under xenon lights or on suburban windowsills. They’re not entirely honest, and perhaps this is another origin of guilt: of never being able to really say what you mean, because meaning comes from somewhere else. Not here in the space of the surface. There are things that belong to people, and there are things that form the body of who they are, and that form the social body too, and we are presented with choices in how we behave in relation to them. It is no doubt difficult, but I also admire the contortions of the fingers of the hands in these photos. They are like diagrams of awkwardness taken to the heights of poise, like a ballet of difficult relations.