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Parthenogenesis means ‘virgin birth’. Conceptually, it lies at the crux of civilisation and its manifold discontents, ravelling more recently in the guise of western moral and ethical judgement, than in its genesis in the Greek myth of Athena, born from the belly of Zeus. The curators of the exhibition Parthenogenesis, Liz Ashburn and Gary Carsley, set up a dialogue that is ostensibly concerned with seeking out antidotes to cultural hegemony by constructing two visual camps—the referential and the observational.
The referential camp is punctuated via a hit-list of New York centric artists—Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman, cogent choices as each artist makes work that is concerned with the construction of identity within a media saturated world. In Kruger’s case this is through her co-option of the advertising rhetoric of ‘Condé Nast(y) Publications’. The overlay of pithy text onto carefully chosen found images ensures a visceral (re)occupation of the signs and codes that construct identity. Similarly, Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre and (sub)sequential ‘self’ is (re)informed through an occupation of mass media iconography. Keith Haring’s pop iconography creates aesthetic sensations from ideas central to the discourse on identity politics. This insistence on a self, constructed out of the fragments of desire, posits the self as an ‘original’, caught in a state of mimetic overlay.
The observational camp includes Australian, Canadian and Indian artists—each place of origin once dominated by colonialist rule, each now coalescing with Northern American power structures. The inclusion of the American Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass makes for a sharp intersection into this assemblage.
The Sydney-based performance collective the King Pins, radically pump ’n‘ grind their identity as black American rappers complete with overly complacent young white girls sliding all over these misogynistic icons. Their sharp parody of the ubiquitous icons of American rap inverts the power-play binaries of black/white and masculine/feminine, destabilising the hegemonic ideal. Drag for these girls is a seizure of the codes and structures that limit and control identity, a mimetic parody of oppression. Their Evil Dick translates flawlessly into the paradigm of the gallery and stands up to the legendary performances of Craig Russell, projected into the same space.
The film Outrageous,1977, sees Canadian-born Russell playing the role of Robin Turner, a gay hairdresser who wants desperately to be a drag queen. Russell’s voice spins out Broadway hits, echoing throughout the gallery space and bringing minimal choreographic moments into a monochrome performance of platinum on platinum. Russell creates a zone that relinquishes the US seal of approval and stands up to the bullying trademarks of cultural hegemony.
While Russell was dragging it up as Marline Dietrich et alia in Canada during the 1970s, Luke Roberts was documenting his studio performances as ‘Alice Jitterbug’ in Brisbane, escaping the conservative geography of a place blind to queer culture. Roberts, pulling his penis tightly between his legs, masked gender and revealed different possibilities in the construction of self. Roberts’ multifarious practice suggests an aching desire to push at the edges of an otherwise lacklustre society which at that time was more excited by the pumpkin scones of Sir Joe’s home baking wife, ‘but don’t you worry about that…’.
Indian artists Hema & Chintan Upanhandy’s greeting cards collapse the past, future and present, building on a collaboration of equality and dialogue. These works, placed alongside the fragments of Cary S. Leibowitz’s objects, evoke the melancholy of identity—that is, its all too present monosyllabic construction. Leibowitz’s character ‘Candyass’ is queer, Jewish and painfully miserable, and delivers pithy text phrases over the fragmented signifiers of adolescence, Jewishness and the domestic. Leibowitz creates a Möbius strip of New World and Old World positions on identity, ensuring the dilution of the stereotypes that have for centuries dominated these cultures. Yarmulkes made of bright pink and blue and American high school felt pennants with texts such as ‘GO FAGS’ and ‘HOMO STATE’ inverse notions of his Jewish American culture and successfully rephrase these positions.
The collection of Mambo works, Study for Philistine’s Monster, 2003, places the Australian suburban ideal firmly into the psyche of contemporary aesthetics. These subservant icons that Mambo has offered up bring to mind the importance of larrikinism in the formation of Australian identity. The multiplicity of genres and clear-cut appropriation of styles from Picasso to Haring makes for a familiar tour of Euro/USA centric 20th Century painting interspersed with local political satire.