It is really very convenient for the narrative of this text that in the two weeks prior to this, I have attended two ceremonies at the nearby Greek Orthodox Church. The first a christening, the second a funeral – this is true. It seems appropriate to start here, because the only thing you really need to, quote unquote, ‘understand’ Justene Williams’ ‘The Curtain Breathed Deeply’ is that the work follows from the death of the artist’s father from mesothelioma and also from the artist wanting, in her own words, “to get sex” five years after coming out of a long term relationship. And also the exhibition, like the Orthodox Church, is a series of unexplained secret rituals, full of incense, rhythm and hidden rooms strongly implying deep mysterious significance. It is easy to feel like you are uninitiated. Overwhelmed by sound and movement and awkwardly stumbling through the pokiness of the rooms, we might automatically rest upon a classic defensive mechanism employed when looking at something which commands so much attention but won’t immediately reveal its inner workings. We reflexively ask ourselves ‘what does it mean?’ But is this question – what does it mean? – even helpful here? What sort of magic do we suppose will happen once we are given the secret codex, once we can say what the owls symbolise and what the giant cheeses stand in for? Do we think this is the process through which the work will really transform us?
Susan Sontag begins her essay ‘Against Interpretation’ by stating ‘The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual’. We should never completely trust such broad sweeping accounts of how culture operates – for instance a belief in magic and superstition isn’t something completely relegated to a past era, there never was a clear break from this – but I think that Sontag was correct is claiming that in contrast to this, modern times have culminated in the strange, unsupported idea that an artwork’s content – its supposed conceptual meaning – is where we should largely exercise our critical faculties and that we should do this at the expense of attention paid to the work’s sensual and visceral form. That being the effect that texture, sound, colour, movement, smell, pattern, material and etc., etc., etc. have somatically. How these qualities directly work on your attached living human body and how this makes you feel and remember.
Sontag also states; “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” I agree with this sentiment. While sometimes it can be helpful to interpret the work – as a curator I’m often called upon to do this – there is something sacrificed when this happens. The work can cease to be, in Sontag’s words, ‘erotic’, but other words we can use could include ‘ecstatic’ or ‘captivating’, and also ‘interesting’.
There are a number of contemporary factors which have amplified the process Sontag described. Of importance, as pointed out by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, is the continued dominance and spread of financial capitalism, which flattens and abstracts language and – in my own opinion – art (which is a type of language) from the world by subsuming it to information. The vast majority of exhibitions I see I telecommute to through the fairly hegemonic distribution channels of e-flux, contemporary art daily, art viewer and so on. And while I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a body when I look at these exhibitions online, its crucial my body is definitely not in the same space as the work and as such the physical complexities and chaos of looking at art is contained by high-res jpegs backlit by clean burning LED pixels. Working and living within what is by global standards a fairly marginal arts community, the reach that the internet gives me is something that adds an immense amount of value to my life. However, when many of these exhibitions contain performative structures, abject materials, play with spatial relationships or contain any kind of sensory experience that isn’t audio-visual, it becomes obvious that there is an extra level of access available to those who have the social and financial means to remain physically mobile in Europe and North America. This is an unkind way of saying that much still depends on what Anne Loxley in her catalogue essay for this exhibition refers to as a ‘physical intelligence.’
There are many parallels in Sontag’s essay in Eve Sedgwick’s ‘Paranoid Reading & Reparative Reading’. Here Sedgwick notes how theory has been dominated by what Paul Ricoeur calls a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, which means simply a type of criticism that seeks to decode a text or artwork as if it contains secret meanings. It’s a very loaded term which implies a number of things including a lack of trust or faith in the work or artist, the fear that the work could be trying to fool you and that the critic stands in competition with the work or text. Sedgwick describes this type of critical practice as ‘paranoid reading’, connecting the practice with deeply psychoanalytical implications centred on the protection of the self from the humiliation of being exposed as not knowing. In the fifteen odd years since Sedgwick’s text was first written I can’t help but see this dynamic playing out in the rise of popular paranoia. How the accumulation of selective evidence has been accelerated by the internet and how this fastidious accumulation of, in Donald Trump’s words, the ‘semi-exact’ is used to deny climate change, debunk feminism, connect vaccinations with autism and play down police brutality against black men, amongst other aggressions. Watching the rise of these paranoid discourses and also the American election from afar, you can’t help but be struck by Sedgwick’s epiphany that knowledge isn’t necessarily connected to something we might call facts, but it is a social operation participated in by egos interacting with other egos. Knowledge is something that is performed. It protects, oppresses, liberates and shackles, but it is never something that just is.
Speaking and writing about an artwork is essentially a transmission between human beings. What we say about it is subject to the intrusions of our psyches and also operates within existing human relationships and power dynamics. Critical distance is a myth. We cannot turn off our fears, anxieties, our animosities, jealousies and deep uncontrollable loves. Neither can we simply renounce our positions of privilege and adjudicate from an uncompromised vantage point. Both Sontag and Sedgwick imply this: that interpretation is a territorial operation. Which is not necessarily bad, I suppose you could describe all human interactions as territorial. But something we must always be aware of is that through interpretation we can never pretend we aren’t at least partly talking about ourselves.
Rather than ask ‘what does it mean’, a better way to speak about this exhibition could strive to be inclusive, less authoritative and, in the words of Sedgwick, understand “… the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of culture.” This makes room for a different interpretation for every viewer, cobbled together from independent sensual experience, personal history and memory, poetry, nonsense and the pleasures in tripping over, misunderstanding and making mistakes. ‘The Curtain Breathed Deeply’ is full of structures which serve to frame and obstruct; there are screens, walls, tarpaulins, hidden nooks and objects standing in the way. It would be more faithful to the work that any discussion of the exhibition should likewise obscure as much as reveal.
Returning to the Greek Orthodox Church. Maybe it was simply proximity, or maybe it was the time and space given for the mind to wander, but another reason why I thought of the Orthodox Church in association with this writing, is because the exhibition became during those services a mental exit to the church’s patriarchal and conservative structures. So when the priest jingled the incense thurible around the baptised baby, this was disrupted by thoughts of Justene Williams performing in her film ‘Santa was a Psychopomp’. Here she celebrates her own shamanic sacred rites, the thurible replaced by a Christmas tree producing that same jingle and smoke. And when the priest stated ‘the body is marked by error’ over the deceased, I thought about how both bodies and error are celebrated in the exhibition and rather than being marked by sin and shame, it acknowledges a generative potential in mistakes. I thought about the church’s own sacred processes of concealing and revealing, the secret room at the back that only the priest can go, but which through an open archway the congregation can see a dimly lit altar. And I think about the male performers in the film ‘The Joy of Life after Matisse/Madonna/Marcel’, whose abdomens are transformed into midriffs through being revealed between two pieces of fabric, which makes me reconsider the hidden altar in the church as an architectural midriff. This deflates this sacred space of all its potency and makes me giggle and I can’t help but feel the exhibition is helping me in some way.
I am struck by the exhibition’s ability to work on me to conjure recollections. Surrounded by so much that is ritualistic and visually textured I find myself suddenly drawn back to childhood and an early fascination with Wicca, the polished round pieces of rose quartz, purple velvet fabrics and talisman necklaces left outside under the light of the full moon. I read the love spells and mourning rites throughout the videos in the show and remember ones I once tried to cast and this leads me to an article I read about the return of the witch as a figure in recent contemporary art, and then I think about how Silvia Federici connects witch-hunts with the enclosure of the commons by capitalism as a means to appropriate the domestic labour of women, how this seems appropriate to me somehow because I am sitting inside an allegory of a house, how this also reminds me of a book I’ve been trying to read for nearly a year called ‘The Many-Headed Hydra’ because this also talks about the enclosures of the commons, but also because I’m thinking of witch-hunts and fascination and being seduced and that makes me think of Medusa, another ancient Greek villain, who like so many supposed ‘witches’ in history should have been remembered as a tragic figure, a victim, rather than a monster.
With my mind on both midriffs and Madonna’s own playful conflation of religious and sexual iconography, I am surprised by a memory that is produced, one not thought of for years but brought back by watching the men in ‘The Joy of Life after Matisse/Madonna/Marcel’ trying to dance away gender essentialisms. As a young boy, inspired by Madonna – I was a big fan – tying my t-shirt up into a knot and applying my mother’s make-up only to be scolded for this. But conflictingly remembering how as a child my long eyelashes and short stature were commonly noted and it was said to me often ‘that I really should have been a girl.’
I don’t mean to take this personal turn as an indulgence, but rather as a way to demonstrate that although the exhibition contains very real references to Picasso and Leger, Madonna, Milli Vanilli and more, it is unlikely that this is what the viewer will really, naturally take from it. Craving that tickle of association the mind will perform a series of stunts, juggling half-completed thoughts, misunderstood ideas and long forgotten narratives. And this is where the power of this exhibition lies. In Justene Williams’ words, it possesses a “subtle knowledge or an emotional intelligence.” Like poetry it equally applies coherence and confusion to exercise this associative impulse and by doing so draws attention to the expansiveness of human subjectivity, to your own subjectivities. When faced with chaotic ambiguity the mind will want to drag us to some unexpected places. But perhaps these places are more personally meaningful even though we usually don’t have license to talk about them when discussing art in a ‘serious’ context such as this.
So this has ironically been a very paranoid preamble to tonight’s program to explain away the requirement to explain. Also, and I know this sounds funny, but I wanted the audience to leave tonight feeling proud and empowered. This is probably far too ambitious. But essentially, this exhibition is about sex and death: haven’t we been preparing for this our whole lives? Rather than unlock any mystery I feel it is better to say that it is ok to think about the work in terms of your own knowledge. The key shift in interpretation that can come about is to move away from a search for meaning and towards the question ‘what does this exhibition do for myself and others?’
(Before ending I just want to say two things. One, I could be wrong about everything and maybe this is fine because it allows you to work with or against my errors, and two, after the talks tonight we can hang out in the bar and I can listen to you).