let the healing begin

institute of modern art, brisbane
5 March - April 2011

How art can heal oneself and by extension, others, is the subtext of this exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA). The ‘adults only’ exhibition explored cultural and personal issues of shame, bodily insecurities, the boundaries of pain and eroticism. The exhibition opened with a naked tour lead by artist Stuart Ringholt. Once the obligatory legal disclaimers were signed, gallery visitors were asked to strip down to tour the exhibition. The experience provoked an initially awkward sense of composure. It was wholly unfamiliar to be naked in what is normally a public space, in the presence of other naked strangers, of same and opposite sex and of varying age and body types. The normally congenial opening became a performance in itself, one where I have never felt so profoundly part of the ‘art’. In the tour, Stuart Ringholt clarified that the origin of the idea was for us and himself to confront and overcome our bodily insecurities. Ringholt’s performance-based art work has previously dealt with ways of experiencing and overcoming his own embarrassment, fears and anxieties, many of which we all share. During the mid-1990s he suffered drug-induced psychotic episodes from which he was forced to recover in a psychiatric hospital. He says that art was the only thing that dragged him out of the abyss. Having fully recovered he says, ‘It may be time, soon, to do something for someone else which will take my art somewhere else’.1

The artistic compulsion to get something ‘out’ or off one’s chest, is quite common. The artistic release can be effective in resolving and exploring some anxiety or anguish, but pushed into repetition, it can just as much become an extreme which exacerbates what one hoped to overcome. During a forum accompanying the exhibition, Mike Parr described his early self-inflicting performances as a way of proving his self-awareness, ‘You think I’m crazy, that I can’t control myself? Watch this!’

Stuart Ringholt’s Circle Heads, included in the exhibition, is a book of portraits with circular holes cut into the faces, where other facial parts, from other individuals, are inserted. The facial disfiguration, like a catalogue of botched plastic surgery or portraits of car accident victims, is confronting. For most, the face embodies our concept of self, the disfiguration of the face becomes a visual metaphor for the derangement of self.

Robin Hungerford’s video Like A Hole In The Head, Part 3 features an enlarged artificial head set on top of the artist’s shoulders. Various knives and even saws are used to bludgeon and slash the head, inducing crimson blood to splatter out in a mock self-mutilation. Initially repulsive and shocking, on subsequent viewing it becomes absurd and grotesquely humorous. This demented sense of humour is evident throughout the exhibition, used as a tool to expose, satirise or sidestep a disconcerting reality.

Selections from the photographic series Smudge by Polly Borland extend along one wall. Each is a torso dressed-up in a range of technicolour stockings, lycra, wigs and ping-pong balls, creating a perverse fetishistic ambiguity. A mishmash of animal vestiges, bulbous protuberances and improvised disguises stare blankly back at you, demanding a response. The faces are always concealed (but Nick Cave is known to be one of the three models). This creepy extension of the childhood game of dress-ups, blurs definitions of gender, beauty and normality.

Artists Mike Parr and Dani Marti, Lacanian scholar Justin Clemens and Scott Stephens from Religion and Ethics, at the ABC, were invited to the ‘Talking Cure’ forum. Given the line up one might have expected a little more friction. The consensus view was adamantly in opposition to the notion that art could be healing. Mike Parr added that the notion of art as healing was really a misplaced legacy of the institutionalisation of art. Discussion centred upon various concepts and responses to our modern cultural malaise. Mike Parr described his Portrait of M and F (1996), a much spoken about portrait of himself with his amputated stump resting against the mastectomised breast of his partner, as part of a ‘structure of hesitation’. Ronnie van Hout’s Doom And Gloom features two child dolls in bed cloths, both with recognisable van Hout faces. The children, with fingerless stumps, aged wrinkled faces, just woken hair and confused mute expressions, similarly characterise this form of domestic discontinuity. Scott Stephens situated our ills as a result of our being slaves to the plasticity of desire. This sentiment was echoed in Mike Kelley’s The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration, in which he links mental health problems to mass cultural indoctrination, where celebrities, as spectacular fantasy figures, are the only form of desire. Mike Parr identified our reaction to refugees as derived from a culture of ‘smug hygiene’—a fear of otherness, which connects with a shame and repugnance of our very animality.

Stuart Ringholt, On Wednesday He Wore a Plastic Nose, 2003. Photograph. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.