It cannot say, but it can show
by Kate Power
I have x-rays of my ribs because I have a terrible pain in my side. I spent some time worrying and trying to figure out what the problem was. I had scans and tried massages, medication and yoga. In the end, it was determined that it was most likely a pain caused by holding my body taut with anxious tension. I was oddly pleased that it made sense with my work. Everything I make is a bit uncomfortable, reflecting my gendered experience of the external world as threatening. It also solidified my speculations about the way we carry experiences in the body. There are social interactions and pressures that are so quiet, they’re not spoken about, but they lodge themselves in women’s bodies because there’s no other way of expressing them.
Necessarily as a woman I constantly regard my body. Finding a language to describe things that do not fit into our current ways of understanding seems like a quietly radical gesture. The drive to create work that embodies subjectivity and aesthetic experience stems from dissatisfaction with the modes of communication offered. The inability to describe experience through visual or verbal language that is logically understood necessitates a new language, one that does not categorise or simplify. I’m specifically talking about experiences of the body, gender and sexuality.
My work centres on my experiences in relation to other people and things. I communicate sensations that are responses to social interactions and I am interested in what they can reveal about wider social concerns. I catalogue experiences between others and myself that are noteworthy, that make me feel or observe something and which later manifest in my work. Often these sensations or moments are responses to discomfort, anger, feeling trapped. It’s about desire too: the desire to act recklessly, inappropriately; inhibited desires that appear in strange and surprising ways. The moments I notice are ones where there is an unmentioned connection between myself and someone else. Sometimes tender, but more often it is about reinforcing dominance through unspoken codes like power postures and suggestive eye contact. This kind of subtle communication attempts to push people into passivity without appearing to do so. Little moments that knot people internally. In a time where communication and knowledge are increasingly technologically focused, it seems especially necessary to give a shape to these kind of sensory experiences that can not be defined within logical constraints.
The process of choosing and engaging with materials is significant and what art theorist Estelle Barrett describes as a way to “think and feel through their handling”.(1) Barrett describes how affect and sensation create internal images through our experience with things that occur before representation and categorisation, showing that thought and language have an aesthetic and material dimension. This material thinking process enables knowledge production that emerges before things become representational or symbolic. I relate materiality to the body because it comes about through sensory processes that enable otherwise indescribable things to emerge.
Performing sensory experiences through sculptures and videos is a way that I communicate the impact that seemingly small moments have on psychological and physiological processes. Allowing these strange forms to be righteous about their often-uncomfortable appearance is a way to communicate how experiences accumulate to create ill feeling or a bodily pain.
The way I make things is a similar process to the accumulation of experience I am talking about. Often it is a gradual amassing of stuff that determines its own form through the making. It can also begin with a resonation with the quality of a material that will lead to the determining of its shape. Sometimes the shape comes first and a material, substance or process must be sought to yield the thing. Recently I had the urge to describe a sensation of continual coming apart and sealing up, tension between a hermetic form and a less static substance. I happened upon a silicon object that had the qualities to both embrace and give way to a more malleable material. The process of combining this with a dough-like substance emerged at the same time as the idea of moving between an orderly form and a messy unwieldy thing. The material process and thinking process emerged simultaneously.
Last week I went to a discussion about a text called Object Lessons: Thinking Gender Variance through Minimalist Sculpture, in relation to Grace Marlow’s exhibition not at FELTspace in Adelaide. Marlow’s work is sensitively slippery. She uses found materials and relates them to things that result from experiments with stuff; a water balloon with a rock resting on it, an upright piece of timber covered in Vaseline, rock melons with silicon breast fillets stuck on. She imagines different ways to interact with things we are familiar with and configures them to render their original purpose redundant, offering a new relation that proposes how we could experience things differently.
She chose a text about the potential of ambiguity, abstraction and silence in sculpture as tools for political and social resistance. We spoke about ambiguity as a resistance to articulating experience through languages that attempt to categorise people in order to make them legible. The nature of choosing how to communicate came up. When knowledge is gained through ways other than language, it needs to be conveyed through something else. The ability to pay attention to subtle differences in materials is a technique I think Grace and I both value as a way to develop our own visual languages. It is a method I have noticed in the practices of other emerging artists, usually women, and see it as an indicator that this kind of informed and ambiguous process is a perceptively assertive way to communicate knowledge created through subjective experience.
Estelle Barrett, 2013, Materiality, Affect, and the Aesthetic Image in Carnal Knowledge: towards a ‘new materialism’ through the Arts, I.B. Tauris: London, p64.