This group exhibition The Stain, brings together works by five artists: Clare Milledge, Leah McPherson, Andrew Newman, Stefan Popescu and Ben Terakes. All the works are remnants of past performances. Their presence here, curator Leah McPherson has stated, is their bid for a ‘second life’ as an art object. By implication these objects bring with them, in addition to the usual aesthetic value of artworks displayed in a gallery, an intangible extra charge–a residue of the past performance. It’s also true that the artists are more or less explicit about this, and that all the residual objects operate in different ways.
At the outset I hesitated over whether to address the performances separately, before approaching the residues. McPherson has been careful (canny?) to state in her exhibition proposal that the artists accord each ‘equal value’. The question of priority became the first critical tool I found to dig around with: how closely folded together in time are the performance and its residue? Clare Milledge exhibits ritual garments that were designed specifically for performance use. McPherson’s flung urine and ink paintings and Terakes’ mouthprints are the products of performance acts, hence perfectly in time with them. Andrew Newman’s photographs document soil samples collected from the sites of past sexual encounters now distant (how far exactly we are not told) in time. To complicate the issue, his performances were claimed for art only in retrospect. Stefan Popescu’s sculpture presents a further complication. Created in the gallery, using DIY special effects techniques, his ‘residues’ are an invitation to imagine a performance (a gory massacre) that has no actual place or time, either past, present or future.
One way to think about this exhibition, and the diversity of the work in it, is as an attempt to test its own premises, to see if they will or won’t hold. From this perspective, the works in the exhibition offer much, collectively, individually and in the varied ways they relate to their performance origins. All are the work of artists previously trained in the visual arts, if not specifically in performance. All five artists have used additional materials, other than the body, to make their performance works, its residues or both. Photographic and/or moving image documentation exists for most of the performances but does not appear in the exhibition. None of the artists is indifferent to the aesthetics of their work. This is true whether they adopt traditional art materials (paint, ink, paper) as Terakes and McPherson do, or alternative ones. In their different ways all the artists seem to want to imbue their works with a measure of love and abjection at the same time.
A few further observations will help to flesh this out. Nearly but not all the prior performances were solo actions (Newman’s sexual encounters being the exception). There’d be something too sad about this search for lost love, if it weren’t so deftly laced with wit and self-awareness. Terakes also performs intimacy, or the hope of it, but in a different way. After smearing paint around his mouth he presses his lips to cloth or paper; the lifeless surface responds with a printed trace of his mouth. McPherson’s paintings have a visual delicacy and fragility that belie the use of her own urine to make them.
Another critical tool is the one McPherson herself suggests, the stain. Each of the artists has contributed in their own way to the fleshing out of this idea. So much so that I wonder if the residual stain, in all its forms, hasn’t become more vital to their performance practices than the body itself. I could list all ways they do it, but it’s far better that the audience discover the stains for themselves. It is enough to say that a bodily fluid is directly or indirectly incorporated in every artist’s work, not overlooking the fact that some of these uses are private/secret ones and one at least is fake.
McPherson’s decision to exclude photographic or moving image performance documentation from the exhibition might seem old-fashioned, a step back to a time when any form of performance documentation was the subject of vehement debate. But that would be misleading; the curatorial premise is neutral when it comes to photographic and moving image documentation in general, neither for it nor against. I suspect it is rather that for these works the photograph isn’t abject enough, loving enough or incomplete enough. Newman indirectly confirms this, by using a cloying rosy pink or a tangerine light to bathe photographic images that are otherwise evidential, deadpan, flat.
Turning the argument around, could it be that the invisibility of the performances–their disappearance–helps to lend their residues a special quality, an added ‘something’? That would be a touch ironic but far from impossible. Trained in photography, McPherson knows about the famous Winter Garden photograph of Roland Barthes’ mother as a child. Photography’s most theoretically important image, it has never been published (some doubt its existence). Its invisibility has immeasurably enhanced its power.
Magical powers…some of the artists have stated a desire for the ritual quality of their performance and/or the admixture of a bodily fluid to endow the residues with a transcendent or magical power. Of the five artists, Milledge’s performances are the most overtly theatrical and ritualistic and in the gallery her residues come closest to evoking the performance scene. Both she and Terakes are on record expressing wishes of this kind. We may take them at face value, or look further for the desires and fears that ghost them… they can work either way.
Experienced together, these residues present as vessels for the containment and the overflow of anxieties and desires. Their origins in performance have shaped them, keeping them close to the performing body while marking their difference from it. The value these artists place on that space (not too close, not too far away) seems to me consistent with a prevailing inconsistency in the way these works address us–their mixture of love and disgust, a sense of missed opportunity that shadows every action no matter how urgent. For this offering alone, they deserve their second chance.
As a writer who experienced the dual time frames of the work on exhibition as an extra ‘pressure’ to take into account, it seems important to acknowledge here that I did not see any of the actual performances. Before writing this essay they existed for me solely in the form of the performer’s written words and images of the works on exhibition. How far that disqualifies or qualifies me to write this essay is for the reader to say.
Senior Lecturer, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney
The Stain, Verge Gallery,
Jane Foss Russell Plaza
University of Sydney Union
9 May – 3 June, 2011