This year began with a black clad man. He wasn't exactly me.
I was interested in proxy bodies, and so was he. But he became one for me. He was the first figurative sculpture I ever made.
For some time before moving to Rotterdam I had been making sculptures that visually referenced juridical and penal furniture, that left such a gaping hole where a human body should be that they represented it by its absence. These were made as rickety modernist design, looking like prototypes for objects that never went into production. I was interested in the tyrannical control of the artist, especially the male artist. Interested in his propensity for the observation and representation of bodies. When these sculptures were activated in performance I was always uncomfortable about whether or not the present body being my physical body was conceptually necessary. Since they were usually uncomfortable to activate the pragmatic ethical necessity that it be my own body became an alibi.
(Documentation of Costume for a script for an unproduced puppetshow, May 2015)
When I started trying to put a work together upon arrival here I realised that the gaze that looks but doesn't touch, that attempts to radically disembody itself, does so in order to stigmatise the very fleshiness of the bodies it examines. I realised that one way to get out of the cycle of representation that I had inherited was to figure the gaze rather than satirise the representations it produced. In this sense I don't regard this black clad man that I have become as a representation — the gaze itself is unrepresentable because there is no first presentation to re-present. It is neither me, the man behind nor, nor his products. It needs to be figured in the first place. This is how I came to be a terrible sculpture of myself.
In the past my works were always kept in close quarters with one another. New works would be tested in the presence of old ones, props would appear and reappear across videos. I had been in the same studio for 3 years.
But now I found myself in a new city and a new studio, with nothing but my body and the clothes it held in place. I would start with these. With the question: What do you wear? And I would answer it with more questions: Why do I wear it? What does it produce? What does it reference? Where do I draw the borders and boundaries around the practice of wearing clothes? This would be my material.
Feeling as big as a house
I began to work again on a text I had begun writing in Dublin about a man who becomes trapped in the chimney of his parents' house. The original stakes of the text had been around the comedy of the decontextualised academic: once he gets stuck the narrator begins to try to tell the history of the chimney but can only do so from a highly personal, sometimes delusional, perspective.
Once I began to rework the text I realised that this perspective was not interesting enough to me as an end in itself. It became a vehicle for approaching the subtext of the narrative, giving the character an outlet to voice his thoughts on inheritance.
Rather than treating the journey into the darkness of the chimney as a flight from embodiment I started to try and figure it as an extension of embodiment. The narrator felt cold and small in his parents' house without their presence as he could no longer figure himself as the child in the Oedipal drama. The details became specific: the house became an impressive Georgian townhouse and crawling into it became an attempt to wear its authority. Only when he has cramped and debased his own body does he gain the confidence to use the paternal voice, to speak with confidence and hold forth on matters regardless of whether he understands them.
This then left me with the question of how to bring this scenario to form. For a group critique I memorised the text and performed it in the studio. I was dressed all in black. For each of the texts three sections I adopted what I understood to be different performative strategies:
-When the narrator is describing feeling lonely in a house that is getting colder and less inhabitable as his money runs out I took sedentary stiff positions pressed against walls and floors. The black clothes here were meant to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek signifier for angst. -As he described the physical process of climbing into and getting stuck in the chimney I pulled all the drawers out of my desk and pushed myself in while speaking. This part was quite energetic. I thought here the black could be read as more or less the clichéd uniform of performance and experimental theatre. -For the final section where he is stuck in the chimney and attempting his pseudo-academic chimney history I wore cardboard models of fireplaces on my hands and feet and a cardboard chimney stack on my head so that my body became a drawing or sculpture of a chimney network. I tried to stand as still as possible and talk with an authoritative voice. Being out of breath from the previous section made this not really work. Here I wanted to turn around the use of black as a theatrical signifier for "nothing" by using it as a dumb, literal signifier for the dark sooty chimney pipes.
Immediately upon completing the performance I knew I wasn't happy with it. I still cared about and believed in the work but felt that the performance hadn't allowed the space to read nuances and subtleties in the text, and that in the text things were often kept subtle to the point of invisibility. These problems were underlined by a general understanding among the group that the narrator was me, or too similar to me, or was someone I hoped they would sympathise with. I needed to cultivate a more clear expression of confusion, and find a way of putting bodies on the line that implicated me without direct being read as confessional.
Around the same time as I did this performance I was reading and being blown away by Elena Ferrante's series of Neapolitan novels. Ferrante is a myterious and possibly pseudonymous figure, but I came across the following quotation in a rare interview with her:
'The "I" who narrates my stories is never a voice giving a monologue. It's always a woman writing, and this writer always struggles to organise, in a text, what she knows but doesn't have clear in her mind.'
Throughout her books Ferrante's narrators make occasional references to the act of writing, often citing its limitations as well as its capacities for catharsis. They don't do this more than once every hundred pages, and they rarely dwell on it. Without forcing the point they create a meta-narrative, a context for the language we are reading. Ferrante reminds her reader that bringing thoughts and feelings to form is another whole practice on top of the one that is more explicitly presented in her narratives, which is building a life in which one has space to think or feel in the first place.
As the quotation makes explicit Ferrante understands this as a problem that affects women. She situates her stories in political and academic fields where men's presumed nativeness to language allows them to gain positions of power with unthinking ease while women are forced to drop out at various points for reasons that never occur to the men as anything but "natural". Her books powerfully perform the denaturalising of this dismissal by narrating its effects on an intellectual life, the ways intellectual effort can effect and even overcome it, and the many ways that being embedded in the world where these processes occur complicate both of these effecting processes.
If I am not to be doomed to replicating Ferrante's sometimes well-meaning but always ultimately complicit male characters I feel I need to find a way to narrate this denaturalising from a man's perspective. If Ferrante's narratives show thoughts that are not permissible being brought to form by people who are not permitted to think in places where they are not permitted to act I am beginning (possibly unwisely) with the vast sea of what is permissible for men. Crucially this sea includes discourses of self-destruction, self-abnegation, self-loathing and self-fragmentation. Even in the academic fields where these discourses prevail little has changed. They haven't achieved anything and their period of experimental grace may be coming to a close. As Braidotti says when outlining the need for traditionally marginalised subject positions to assert themselves 'if the white, masculine, ethnocentric subject wants to "deconstruct" himself and enter a terminal crisis, then—so be it!'
Where can I go from here?
There followed two important studio visits.
One with Jan in which he pointed out that I was a figure without a ground, and that if I didn't formulate one something unintentional (my voice, the repeated phrase "Georgian house") would become the consistent factor against which it was possible to read detail. He also reminded me that, black clothes or no, I'd eventually have to do something about the fact that I had a face.
Another with Rana Hamadeh, who also made two big "a-ha!" contributions. Firstly, and on a similar line to Jan, that I had not really employed three different performative strategies. My white male body shoving itself into various positions at various speeds only constitutes one. And following on from that, that there was no need to inflict violence on myself as some kind of penance. I am not the subject or the object of my work, my inheritance is.
So I stopped stuffing the flesh that I use to walk around in the world into drawers and started to think about how my body is constituted in the world, what its constituent elements are. I began thinking seriously about how my body had always been in my work, sometimes appearing in spectral form as a set of reference dimensions and sometimes physically present, without ever being addressed directly.
The main outcome of this thinking has been a body of drawings, photocopies, collages, models and sculptures which allowed me to focus on details of bodily representation and begin to allow the codes and signs that make up 'my' body in the broader terms of inherited masculinity. Images of architecture, furniture, fashion, anatomy, typography circulate and frame one another. I've developed a visual language with which I can quickly make specific articulations using the technology available in the studio. I regard this new process as a generator of source material that can be employed and moved around in different ways depending on the stories that need to be told or the trajectories that need to be taken. The puppets for the show, or the pieces for the chessboard. ((note: I may or may not use the pretentious term 'techno-cubism' to refer to this process but it might just be opening a can of worms))
Another major outcome has been the question "How is the black clad man not exactly me?"
Two new outfits: loungewear, a tee-shirt for Corb
The first way I employed or deployed the outcomes of this process was for a show in my flat. I set up a plywood bench based on a model I originally a stage set made for the writing machines exercise in the RWRM seminar. I conceive of this object, which I had designed to resemble a quasi-cubist reclining figure, as being on a slippery sculpture-furniture continuum. In my flat it had cushions and a light on it, which slid it to some extent more towards the 'furniture' pole. In other experiments in the studio I had pushed its role around between sculptural autonomy and plinth/platform for other objects. I also thought its figural qualities as being sufficiently obvious to joke around with them, giving it the title Loungewear within the installation's broader title Two new outfits.
The other 'new outfit' was a video installation called a tee-shirt for Corb. This work involved projecting a video onto a mural on the otherwise unpainted plasterboard wall across from the bench. The mural was of a figure whose chest functioned as the screen, and the video was a close up of my hands using tracing paper to make a drawing while a voiceover gave a second hand account of the story of Le Corbusier painting in the nude on the walls of Eileen Gray's E1027. The voiceover used the conceit of the narrator trusting his father's version of events as an alibi for being an unreliable narrator in order to frame modernism as a patrilineal tradition as a subtext or countercurrent to its more common((?)) framing as a radical interrogation of traditions.
I held a group critique around this installation and found it interesting that while some of the criticisms of the video echoed those from the previous performance (in Boyer's terms, that the struggle remained theatrical and ultimately continued to fix power) there was a more nuanced discussion about the mechanics and dynamics of this. For one thing people seemed to be able to take more pleasure in it. Despite this Mike remarked that "when this is over all we are left with are the subjects it raised". I'm not sure it's in art's power to do more than this, but maybe the goal is for the subjects you raise to do something different than the subjects you started with. The subjective voice that guides this video ends up in the same place it started, playfully deferring narrative responsibility to its father. I spoke to Tracy afterwards about my enduring interest in artists who use characters with their own names and attributes to do strange and dark and sometimes shocking things. She pointed out that by making the character's resemblance to me go beyond the name, by using my own image and actual details from my real life family, and then sending the character out on these dark limbs I was "putting my finger in the hot socket".
The final shot of the video is a freeze frame of the last image, the 'completed tee shirt design'. It shows the narratives three main characters: Eileen Gray (her clothes replaced with one of her prototype chairs), Le Corbusier and my father (both wearing the same glasses and rendered in a style reminiscent of Le Corbusier's 'purism'). Perforating the image are the letters of the phrase 'E-1027 IS OURS'. In the discussion there was some laughter about how the two men had taxidermied Gray and claimed her legacy, which was relevant and prescient, but I had hoped that the phrase lingering after the story had been told might open a question about who can lay claim to this legacy. Gray's Irishness, her sidelining as a woman architect in the masculine modernist trajectory, and the rather perfect idiosyncratic livability of E-1027 were all referenced in the video and I wanted to make a genuine proposal about taking up this imperfect situation and moving forward with it. Hosting the event in my home was intended to be a gesture towards the germ of generosity and inclusivity that E-1027 still holds despite its history of being vandalised and appropriated. This history can't be erased, but with Gray's legacy increasingly getting the justice it deserves I don't think that the house's importance is diminished by accommodating the tattered history of its recognition. A house's own history is always its principal occupant.
The ability of the video to open out towards this more generous, and from my perspective more sincere, territory seemed to be undermined by certain elements of the subjective position I had given the narrator in relation to the story. In some ways this figure of the black clad man is becoming a fucking cage. To the question "How is the black clad man not exactly me?" the obvious answer is that until now this distinction, which I always took for granted, has not been made adequately clear in the work. I risk living inside a very boring hall of mirrors. Assuming I find the technical and aesthetic means to make the distinction clearer the thornier question becomes what exactly to do with it. What use is a terrible sculpture of oneself?
My maternal grandfather was a professor of chemical engineering who was of sufficient importance to the University that some time after he died his faculty commissioned a bronze bust of him for the foyer. The artist they chose was an idiot. He made very boring colour field paintings and quite amateurish bronze busts and regarded these as two wholly separate practices. I never worked out which he thought he was moonlighting as. Since I was the subject's arty teenage grandson he expected me to be in awe of him and imposed himself on me quite a lot at the events surrounding the bust's unveiling and launch. I found him unpleasant on a personal level and I was angry at him because he had just made a terrible sculpture of my grandfather.
In the minutes after it was unveiled my disconsolate aunts and uncles walked around it trying to convince themselves that from extremely specific angles this lump of metal bore some resemblance to the head of their dead father. It was a really, really sad scene. I have an unlikely seeming memory of the panel of reference photographs they had provided for him being to hand during this process, and of their slowly dawning realisation that he had achieved certain planar likenesses but the 3-dimensional shape they had clustered around to form was ugly and grotesquely unrecognisable.
This was deeply upsetting to the family, admittedly more so to the parents and aunts and uncles than me and my cousins, for reasons that I find myself curiously unable to explain. In a sense it seems obvious why, but in another sense since they didn't pay for it and it was in a building that probably none of us has visited since it seems like we could all have quite happily laughed and instantly forgotten it. Part of what was upsetting might have been that it didn't matter to either the artist or the institution that had commissioned him that it was a bad likeness and a bad sculpture. Both of them had gotten what they wanted from the transaction, and so long as the family remained quiet during the unveiling and the dinner and the rest of the rigmarole questions of aesthetics would never have to be raised. And we did keep quiet, because the hurt made us convince ourselves that this was ok, this was an ok memorial.
The question I'm asking myself now, and which I don't claim to have resolved, is whether a terrible sculpture that knew it was one could be more than the sum of the specific angles it was drawn from. Whether the grotesquely unrecognisable shape it resulted in could raise new subjects.
Trusting my intuition that it could, but understanding the need to get my finger away from the hot socket, I can begin to propose avenues of exploration. Some of these I have already started to work towards:
1. Lying. I’ve done some text-based experiments with lying as a practice, drawing on a long pub-based history of lying as a habit. These experiments have loosely followed the constraint of embedding one invented detail into a fabric of honest narration. The sub-constraint has been that this detail should be obviously false, although it needn’t be totally fantastical. (illustrate with examples: Kron, mountain, reanimated Mark)
2. Making the sculpture worse. I made a drawing before Christmas of Malevich's black square with hands and feet and a head sticking out of it. I think this is quite good. Since the general trend in making the images has been to treat the clothes as a separate entity to the body parts that emerge from them there are possibilities inherent in further abstracting this. Letting the elements drift and diffract and see where it leaves me. (illustrate with examples: Nicholas on the wall, The Incredibly Fine Grey Dust, three armed figure + arachnid figures from notebook, plasticine rearrangement)
3. Diversifying. I don't want to allow the black clad man locked in an Oedipal struggle over the inheritance of modernism to become a permanent cage. Invent characters. There are other clothes and other figures who can be brought into play. Variations on the actors who can conflict with variations on the stage. (again, illustrate with examples: The Servant, The Incredibly Fine Grey Dust, Society of Knights and ..., surely there are others?)