Friday, March 25, 2011

:: h e a v e n :: h i m m e l :: Henriette Kassay-Schuster & Hermione Merry

‘:: h e a v e n :: h i m m e l ::’ is a collaborative project that has components in both Melbourne and Berlin—Melbourne’s is realised with Henriette Kassay-Schuster as its subject—Berlin will be Hermione Merry. Live performance and video projection run simultaneously. Places are connected to languages and dislocation is integrated with a lack of specific local vernacular and untranslatable lexis. It is like the feeling of trying to put powerful emotions into words. This installation takes shape within a series of projected images and lights on the walls. The videos show a woman (Kassay-Schuster) in a blue dress making a series of vaguely distinguishable hand movements—the gestures of an airline hostess, a totalitarian dictator, a sprite or St Francis. She is in a forest. It is night. While the video is lit from a single point, two simultaneous projections of the same image build a scene imagined as lit by car headlights. 
The metaphysical is central to this work. It seems as though the woman in the blue dress is a visitor like a ghost to this scene and is either warning us or reminding us of an event we cannot yet know or have forgotten. Unlike the archetypical red coated innocent in the forest of fairytales, the blue dress gives her a serenity and celestial quality that makes us not fear for her but more for ourselves because we can’t quite understand her message to us, but know it’s important.

A structural network of steel scaffold holds a car’s windscreen with rear-view mirror and a rear window—a metonymic car a metaphoric drive. The formation evokes a set for a driving scene in an old movie. It is like those familiar sequences, obviously shot in a studio, with a point of view from somewhere on the bonnet—where Cary Grant discusses his relationship with Grace Kelly. Behind them an unrealistic Monte Carlo background winds away. In ‘:: h e a v e n :: h i m m e l ::’ a crash is implied in the car’s gestalt fragmentation. Through the rear window is another projection of the blue dressed woman with her back turned—an eerie ghost on the highway. The evocation of these familiar tropes is dislocated in a way similar to the experience of reading subtitles while watching a foreign film when, absorbed by the action, the visual English of the subtitles seems subjectively to be heard in the audible other language. Dialogue is said in a strange sign language. These artworks make contact with a pre-conscious set of messages, gestures and sighs which seem to ruminate rather than speak directly.

Arm and hand movements, waves, salutes and such gestures have specific connotative meanings. More abstract forms of gestures, gesticulation, scratching ones nose, etc can convey specific meanings though often unintentionally. These gestures are performed by Kassay-Schuster in the same space as video images. What is demonstrated by Kassay-Schuster’s performance is the integration of language and a subject. Her performance is mediated by the surrounding video images that seem to direct her. Yet, there is a conspicuous difference between the live performance and the video performance. This artwork emphasises the powerful symbolism of the medium of video. Hand gestures that seem abstract live, contain a hidden code in reproduction. The difference between two languages could be one way to describe the effect but it could also be like different sets of skills—the gestures of workmen on a building site, coaches and football players, semaphore code or subtle signs passed around a poker table. Language like this where gestures are woven into a physical jargon often are much more likely to represent their subject then their spoken equivalent—a finger pointing up replaces the word ‘up’; a word which has only an abstract relation to its meaning. The artists’ abstract gestures conflate language and body language.

Any squeamishness one feels at the possibility of a returned gaze from a performer in that strange performance/audience relationship can be alleviated by allowing the video’s direct gaze to take over. However, the very questioning of reality and unreality, simulacra or systems of language and knowledge, is made to feel removed—as if the structures themselves are in the driver’s seat. The hands gestures, in isolation, constitute a pre-linguistic consciousness. The work gives an insight into the power of language. What is imbedded in its text is its very own enunciation. Language breathes life into meaning. The blue dressed woman’s serpentine movement poetically offers the viewer this knowledge. Yet, it is the persistence of the drive (embodied in the car) of an aesthetic will to find out what shouldn’t be known that is tragic. The hand gestures are warning you not to understand them because if you do you will understand your own mortality. 

At George Paton Gallery
Tuesday 22 March 11 – Friday 1 April 11 2011

Tim Alves & Anna Newbold

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Picturing Mother and Child

Konrad Winkler
Julie, Isabella and Charlotte
Silver gelatin selenium toned print
20 x 29 cm
The Cunningham Dax Collection

The Dax Centre houses a collection of works made by people suffering mental illness or emotional trauma, collected between 1950 and 1980. In the exhibition 'Picturing Mother and Child' we see images that artists have made of some of the darkest and loneliest moments of motherhood. Many show spiky, visceral births, tiny shrivelled babies attaching like parasites and moments of sheer exhaustion and lethargy at the constant grind. These are contrasted with several simple Madonna and Child drawings that evoke the beauty and tenderness of motherhood.

One series of works in particular evokes these conflicting images of motherhood. It is a series of pictures made by an anonymous woman who had had many children and was also a patient at the Victorian Psychiatric Hospital. This series of bright works painted in 1957 often show a woman breastfeeding her child, wearing a Madonna like veil. Next to her, prudish women and men crinkle up their one lined caricatured noses to suggest their disapproval and disgust. The baby is tiny. In another, one of these a big nosed women pokes her head into the pram as though sniffing the very vulnerable baby. One shows a mother child compositionally shoved in a corner as brightly striped Flemington jockeys and horses walked obliviously across this contemporary nativity stable. This painting speaks of a sense of the invisibility of the everyday miracles of this bond and the profound intensity of the emotional state a new mother experiences. These pictures evoke the real chasm between the ideal and the reality of motherhood. Even in moments where a mother may feel like the soft and nurturing Madonna, feeding this beautiful baby—there is always an outside world of strangers, sisters,  books on sleep by women named Tizzy and Pinky, helpful friends, mothers and maternal health nurses who are ready and willing to inform new mothers that they are doing it wrong. 

New mothers are the easiest targets because they want so desperately to do everything right by their baby. They face not only having to confront their own ideas about how they were parented and how they choose to parent this child but also contain so many of the projections based on regrets and desires of other people of the outside world who want to impart their wisdom to new parents. Donald Winnicott, a mid twentieth century English paediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst coined the term “the good enough mother”. To Winnicott, the concept of the perfect or ideal mother was not only unrealistic but undesirable. Just as the mother who is also a virgin is the stuff of myth or faith, the mother who denies her feelings of ambivalence at times or feels a need to be “the best” will inevitably fail and could most possibly pass that sense of failure onto the child. In the words of Martha Nussbaum, who has been a proponent of his work, the relationship between a mother and child was one of those "highly particular transactions that constitute love between two imperfect people”. The “good enough mother” is one who doesn’t need the child to be a perfect child as some sort of reflection of herself.

Konrad Winkler
Julie and Isabella
Silver gelatin selenium toned print
20 x 29 cm
The Cunningham Dax Collection

In many of these images, the women seem torn by guilt or a sense of failure and have lost the sense of their own goodness and their ability to really hold their baby. In one particularly striking gauche painting of 1966, a woman has drawn herself as made of big green empty circles. The figure has a green empty tummy, green empty head and green empty breasts with small black baby hanging from one of them. The image seems so childlike in its technique but offers a very melancholy and desperate cry through its bold dark brush strokes. The woman can simply not hold or contain the hunger, the rage and the desperate neediness of the child.

In the collaboration between Julie Goodwin (mother) and Konrad Winkler (photographer) we see a really interesting insight into post natal depression. With great pathos, Winkler photographed Goodwin over a period of two years with weekly visits to her house or studio. The photographs show Goodwin trapped and claustrophobic, in one literally bound up, in the domestic. The most striking photograph is of Goodwin sitting in a chair, like she is holding on. Her head is back but her jaw seems clenched and her eyes are distant. In the background a demanding daughter Isabella is screaming at her while riding her bike. By the shape of her mouth we imagine the long and drawn out “Muuuuuuuummmm” as she circles perhaps again and again and again. Winkler suggested at the time that Goodwin start keeping a diary and draw a portrait of herself each day. Some of these documents are also in the exhibition. Goodwin described them as “getting something positive from this cruel infliction. They were small steps that gave me hope”. 

Julie Goodwin
No Title
Oil pastel and coloured pencil on paper
21 x 14.8 cm each
The Cunningham Dax Collection

These artists and mothers seem to have given and given to the point of depletion. The viewer hopes that these works, as tangible outcomes of therapy, have been part of a process whereby the artists have been given some nurture, kindness and understanding. The nature of The Dax Centre’s collection raises some really interesting ideas about art in therapy. It is a means for making powerful and honest art about very real but rarely discussed human conditions. 

About the Cunningham Dax Collection
The Cunningham Dax Collection, amassed over a 70 year period, consists of over 15,000 artworks including works on paper, photography, paintings, sculptural work, journals, digital media and video created by people with an experience of mental illness and psychological trauama. The Cunningham Dax Collection is part of the Dax Centre. The Dax Centre promotes mental health and wellbeing by fostering a greater understanding of the mind, mental illness and trauma through art and creativity. For more information on the Cunningham Dax Collection and the Dax Centre, visit:

Picturing Mother and Child
17 Nov 2010 to 9 April 2011

Anna Newbold

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sibling Rivalry: Jim Shepard, “You Think That’s Bad”

As an only child, I feel reluctant to enter into any discussion on sibling rivalry. I sat at breakfast tables when my parents worked early and have watched the down turned lips of a sister who missed out on the last bit of jam from the jar. I have watched fits of rage by brothers who wanted the front seat and have seen others shed bitter tears over getting the ugly orange bear rather than the koala in the Christmas hat. I watched as an outsider and felt awkward. They wanted the one the sibling had. It was ‘not fair’. They always got the ‘good one’. I realised there was much more to this then me with my only child ways could understand. Jim Shepard’s collection of stories “You Think That’s Bad” has helped me understand a little more about those red faced teeth clenched door slamming weeping for the koala fits of rage and the guilty residue that resides with ambivalence.

Shepard’s stories are filled with characters that often can see the futility of their desires, are embarrassed of their ignorance and naiveties but seem stuck on a trajectory that leaves them feeling helpless or complicit. In two of these stories “Happy with Crocodiles” and “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” the tension in his characters’ relationships with their siblings underpins their sense of themselves and their primary motivations. These characters carry with them their unresolved jealousies. Their desires to be recognised as worthy and good are also fraught with self loathing and are ultimately self destructive. 

In ‘Happy with crocodiles’ our narrator fights through mud and heat and insects that attack like pins. Amidst the turmoil of World War 2, this young soldier recalls his relationship with his high school sweetheart Linda. However, it soon becomes clear to his soldier friends, the reader and eventually the narrator himself that this relationship with Linda is bound up in his rivalry with his brother. In each memory, the younger brother finds the presence of his older brother having been there before him. When he first has sex with Linda she asks him “Where’s your brother?”; when his brother enlists in the war Linda is crying so he enlists too”; his brother comes up to him in the kitchen and informs him “so I hear you guys are going steady”. His brother seems to get enjoyment from the narrator’s sexual conquests but at the same time wants him to be aware of his role in them somehow. In an oedipal sense, this would seem a repeat. The older brother has enjoyed the privilege of a time when he alone could enjoy the affection of his mother. However, the younger brother’s desire for the affection and attention of the mother has always been shared. While the young infantry private endures the pain of war he imagines his air force older brother (who gets twice as much leave as him) at home with Linda. He becomes aware of how compromised his relationship with Linda was and how this echoes the family structure of his childhood.  

This oedipal conflict is further exasperated by the boys’ cold relationship with their absent father. He remembers, as a child, his father looking at them with hate. It made his brother “tear up” and run away first. He had stayed behind to see if “it was just my brother or both of us he hated”. Both boys suffer from this hatred for and from their father. This seemingly benevolent concern the older brother takes for his younger brother’s sexual maturity takes on caring paternal tone. The older brother informs their mother that her son “has a new hobby” when they talk of Linda at home. The older brother seems to have been successful in usurping his father’s power and is now the paternal figure in this house. Every way our protagonist tries to measure his own masculinity and independence seems paradoxically thwarted by the caring instruction of a helpful brother.  Like the paternal figures that would send their young sons to war, this type of fatherly care is ultimately fraught with corruption and suffering.  In these stories fratricide is a crime one can be guilty of just by wanting it to be so.  

In the story “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” we meet a middle aged narrator who has joined a team of avalanche experts in a very cold research expedition in Davos, Switzerland. Like in “Happy with Crocodiles” the narrator endures the dangerous present while recalling a sibling rivalry that has brought him to this point. In this case, the narrator’s twin brother Willi died after being rescued from an avalanche on a skiing trip when they were teenagers. Their mother and the narrator deal with grief in a similar way. They both become obsessed with snow and for gathering as much information on what happens in an avalanche as possible. In their own ways, both mother and son feel an enormous sense of guilt and responsibility for what happened to Willi. They also share a feeling jealousy in relation to Willi that manifests itself in much the same way as wanting the same book about snow at the library.  

The narrator is obviously jealous of the closeness of his mother and Willi. He recalls their tradition of summer walks “you have twin sons, yet I always see you with only the one” said a neighbour to the mother. In grief the son now has the mother all to himself. However he will never have the ability to enjoy her love in the way his brother did. Any enjoyment will be racked with guilt of a death wish fantasy of his brother while alive. His mother’s jealousy stems from Willi’s relationship with Ruth who we learn from the story was a girl both the narrator and his brother seemed to only fantasize about. The narrator finds out in the course of the story the depths of their relationship and so begins to understand his mother unspeakable anger and jealousy of the beloved son’s wandering affection. Both women in the narrator’s life become representative of a fantasy that he will never have access to because his desire is in what he lacks. He wants what his brother has had to self destructive ends. Lacan uses the German term “Lebensneid” to describe this life end jealousy that is in the register of jouissance. The narrator sits in hut about to be crushed by an avalanche realising his absurd commitment to stepping into his brother’s wake and that his fate, like a hand-me-down, will at any moment “hurtle down” towards him.  

The narrator of this story asks himself when faced with the adult Ruth “Why does anyone choose one brother and not the other.”  I think this may be one of the questions at the heart of the rage of the backseat tantrums. Why not me? Only children don’t get to practise that feeling on siblings. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.