Sex, Death and Violence
Cherelyn Brearley, Pip Ryan and Natalie Ryan
Essay by Toby Miller
11 Jun - 27 Jun 2009
This exhibition will present three female artists each responding to the themes; sex, death and violence. Although the artists will be exploring each theme separately within the parameters of their practice the abject nature of these topics harvest similarities which will allow the works to bleed in to a singular coherent reading.
Body o' me, where is it? 1
Sex, Death and Violence is a group show. It features the work of three young Melbourne artists whose artistic practices touch upon the topics of sex, death and violence in numerous ways and in various dimensions. In this respect Sex, Death and Violence is also a body of work. For me this means that however much the individual artists participating in the exhibition identify their work with one or other of the title’s three concepts, there will always remain something additionally significant about the fact that these three nouns, strung together, collect rather than disperse the various artworks out of which this exhibition is composed. We expect no less from any grouping of works presented under a curatorial sign, but it is likely that we will also want to read what is legible as a project within those exhibitions, wherein the curatorial and artistic voices are one and the same, as holding a different force or value, as if what takes place as logical argument in the first case is rewritten as a demonstrative statement in the second. A group show is a body that claims to speak for itself.
It is tempting to suggest that Sex, Death and Violence is, above all else, an exhibition about bodies, about the fact that we have bodies and about the fact that these bodies mediate a plurality of worlds, some passionate and heroic, others technological, a great many of them mundane whilst others on occasion traumatic and painful. Of course, to this it might be objected that such a description exhausts the possibilities for art – that that which is a body will always tell us something about the body, even if only in the form of a negativity. But if this is so, and I do not hesitate to accept that it is, then it will be a feature of the works included in Sex, Death and Violence that these conditions find registration not simply as facts about bodies, but moreover as careful meditations on the structures of recognition and misrecognition that take place between them. Taking up a position as a viewer in this exhibition will be a way of occupying, though never wholly or definitively, the third speaking position this exhibition cannot ‘own’ but necessarily relies upon. Bringing these thoughts together Sex, Death and Violence will be a way of registering some of the ways in which our world is shared: between us as humans, between us as and with animals, and between us and those who have come before us.
In construing things in this way, Sex, Death and Violence proposes that we claim a rather strange history as our own. A history in which art cannot wholly separate itself from the discourses, psychologies, instincts and desires for which taxidermy, curiosities, pornography, and horror are the vulgate genres. It is likely that we will want to resist owning our visual cultural past in this way, just as it is likely that we will view this resistance as being in many ways both natural and justified, as though these genres are the product of another time or community with which we do not share much, if anything, in common. But we are also likely to know that in parsing things in this way we are calling on the judge (our institutions) to be a witness, and thus to justify the exclusions that these same institutions make. Any court of law that operated in this way could rightfully be charged with making justice into a monstrosity, and it would be everyone’s responsibility to show that in doing so the justice system had come to resemble the very thing it had been designed to exclude.
It is possible to imagine the artists involved in Sex, Death and Violence laying a similar charge against certain cultural institutions, accusing them of failing to continue to make explicit the subject matter of the paintings and sculptures contained within them. This may strike one as a nonsense charge, but it gains force the more one is inclined to see the contemporary museum as embodying a conceptualization of art and spectatorship still largely shaped and defined by the categories of modernity and the aesthetic proscriptions of modernism. Sex, Death and Violence invites us to see things differently, and while what we do in fact see is unlikely to surprise any audience well versed in the shock tactics of contemporary art we may find ourselves unusually tempted to identify the works in the exhibition as bodies and to relate to them as such. Not fully a subject, nor simply an object, but markers and traces of one passing into the other, a passage that leads only into a strange hinterland we are probably more familiar with as objecthood.2 These are bodies that we may be tempted to call monstrous, but we should do so in the knowledge that the term ‘monstrous’ is etymologically related to the Latin verb monstrare, meaning to show.
Monstrous things do not capture our attention through the presentation of some form that is from another world; rather, what is monstrous is the presentation of this world at a moment when ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ fail to distinguish themselves from each other and thus fail to provide us with the necessary tools for our orientation. Such an experience of disorientation is a palpable dimension of the work included in Sex, Death and Violence and it accompanies what I take to be the exhibition’s strongest claim, that nature and culture do not divide simply into bodies and languages but are, rather, interwoven through and through. To see nature and culture as joined in this manner is to come to recognize that what may at first have seemed to be a distinction available to us as the differing dimensions of surface (culture) and depth (nature), is in fact only graspable as the differing dimensions of each other’s surfaces and depths and so only as a type of measure without any real priority or ground outside of our lives and the ways in which we come to live them. Which is to say that for these artists there is no nature to return to nor any culture to which we might aspire that is not already our own. For the artists involved in Sex, Death and Violence making this revelation into a fact is a form of exposing one’s body to one’s life and this, in turn, is a proper goal for both artist and non-artist alike.
Melbourne, May 2009
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