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From the cradle to the grave
It seems only fitting at this fin de siecle moment that inquiries and reflections into matters of life and death should infiltrate artistic practice and exhibition spaces. Not that such matters have been overlooked in the past, but rather that they seem to take on more significance at this particular time, pointing to various experiences and observations of human frailty. The vapid hype and consumerism of contemporary capitalism is one thing, but the more-than-skin-deep existential consideration of the human condition within it is quite another.
Of course, that such a thing as 'the' human condition exists is open for conjecture, and the works in From The Cradle To The Grave seem to operate as a series of inflections rather than as exposition. They both delight and disturb as they survey a range of deeply emotional and personal life experiences. Curator, Chris Worfold has described the exhibition as addressing the fear of the 'everyday'. However, each work generates and imbues varying responses, repetitions and intensities; fear is but one of them and irony is notable among the others, especially those of Roderick Bunter, Chris Howlett, Anna Jackson and Peter Storey. In the fracturing implicit in irony, perversion and pleasure meld on the ground of jouissance, heaven on earth. Bunter's painting, Talking to the Tax Man about Satan's Superhighway (time is money) BIG DEAL offers a more materialistic and satirical view of everyday life whereby good and evil are conflated. There's a certain complacency about its menace, the lure of satiation, which translates almost as 'life's a bitch, then you die', or alternately 'your time will come'.
Jackson's and Storey's irony lies in their referencing of the eidetic imaginary. In a scenario confusingly reminiscent of both The Simpsons' 'Itchy and Scratchy' and The Silence of the Lambs, Jackson preys on teddy bears, photographing them and then systematically mutilating them. Jackson has disassembled teddy bears, reassembling them as a composite trophy of comforting pastel-coloured skins. In another work, she has turned the skin inside out, rendering teddy 'raw' and untouchable. In Storey's Resigned Cabinet, a decorated Christmas tree is hermetically preserved in a partially windowed cabinet. The tree, like Jackson's bear, is untouchable, an evocative memory into which a range of cultural significances collapse.
Howlett's Composition with Three Layers No 1 obliquely references childhood as an abject and passing experience. Howlett has used aged bedding to produce his works. He has drawn attention to large stains, most likely to be urine, on the coverings of mattresses, hanging the stained sections of fabric as a stretched canvas. In other works, Howlett has used the covering material to create battery-operated moving sculptures which appear as cruel experiments or bad dreams. Soft Accompaniment, is a deformed and yellowing pillow, which periodically jiggles and emits an unnerving crackling laugh: perhaps this is the pillow for the dying. Another is suspended and twitches like a severed limb. While they allude to a range of experiences, they are also manifestations of childhood fears, creepy things that hide under the bed in the dark.
These tales of trauma are poignant and perverse, daring to represent or reflect 'life' in an era whose culture is readily characterised as schizophrenic, excremental, amnesiac and panicked.1 What does this tell us of not just 'the real' but of our own reality? Foster points to a shift in contemporary conceptions of the real whereby the real is understood less as an effect of representation and more as an event of trauma.2 Both Callinicos and Worfold further address this notion of trauma and have brought to it a compassionate response. In Worfold's paintings of aged body parts, viscera and organs, there is a clear anxiety and sensitivity about aging and decay, while in Callinicos' Swaddling, a series of bundles of clothing sprinkled with powder, 'passing' is suggested. It impinges on the sense of care that swaddling is intended to procure. The prevalence of clothing and bedding in this exhibition (Worfold has also painted on a mattress) evokes a sense of the 'perishable', a direct connection to the corporeal. The body imprints clothing and bedding (from the cradle to the coffin) which in turn absorbs bodily form, smells and leakage.3
Overwhelmingly, the works in this exhibition seem to elevate experiences of loss and absence, the place of memory. It is not just forgetting that assumes great significance, but the fear of it. Kundera writes, "what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life."4 In fearing the 'everyday', forgetting might also infer habituated repetitions which have resulted in closure, an obliteration of possibilities; forgetting to take pleasure. There is something peculiarly life-affirming about these works despite their ostensibly sombre content. From The Cradle To The Grave exposes vulnerability and incompletion and shows concern for not only what remains and what is remembered, but also for what has disappeared.
Roderick Bunter, Talking to the Tax Man about Satan's Superhighway (time is money) BIG DEAL, 1997.
1. Arthur Kroker + David Cook, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, MacMillan, London, 1991 (fp 1986), passim.
2. Hal Foster, 'Obscene, Abject, Traumatic', in October, 78, Fall 1996, p. I 07.
3. Carol Mavor, 'Collecting Loss', Cultural Studies, I I (I), 1997, p. 121.
4. Milan Kundera in 'After word: a talk with the author by Philip Roth' in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (trans. Michael Henry Heim), Viking Penguin, New York 1981, p. 235.