What is gender in society other than an assignment that is carried by the weight of authority, aimed at organising society according to sex, controlling behaviour through roles, aesthetics and expectations. Gender is all too easily seen in terms of biological sex alone yet the properties given to assigned gender characteristics in society are fluid, decoupling often from sex as their determinant. It is largely a question of language embedded in narratives constructed through words and images.
I have looked at my work so far and language underlies much of it; language’s ability to define paradigms and redirect expectations and points of view; language in its broadest sense. The MA so far has been an unmethodological essay in artistic research that is extending my practice into areas both predictable and unexpected.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: Jacob Epstein, alabaster (in Tate Britain)
The Jacob of Genesis wrestled with the angel, some say with God, taming a vengeful angry deity and forging a new relationship between humankind and divinity. I see this divinity as the all encompassing material universe made flesh in a dream as Malakh.
After completing the Mid Point Review I woke to a new realisation, that of grappling with a multitude of ideas trying to reduce them to a single point with a focused coherence of some sort. It did go through my mind to do the Tantra thing and make a painting symbolic of this synthesis into a whole: a point for meditation. However, my nature would not allow me to settle on such a solution. You see, I view the world as a continuum panning vertically from the infinite to the infinitesimal and horizontally across the fastness of time and space. The world is a whole simple single entity and it is a complex of interrelated elements divisible and united. Reality is smooth and simultaneous, granular and causal. This duality is not a matter of indecision but of phenomenological understanding.
So the problem I was wrestling with can be summed up as, do I present a single work that tries to represent a multitude, issues, subjects, material solutions and approaches, a symbolic sign or do I present, what I call in the MPR, a compendium of interrelated works, each able to stand on its own? The former requires a silencing-out of ideas, the latter risking to appear disordered and confused. If I am to be honest, the minimalist approach does not satisfy my nature however elegant it might appear. I am a mongrel of ideas and influences, philosophically and genetically heterozygous .
In an attempt to resolve this problem I am lead to ask of myself, what is the glue that would bind the works if I were to take the second path? I have already gone over this in a much earlier post. I also hinted at the answer in the MPR where I have written, words are the labels of my thoughts. This is at least partially true. I am not a good speaker but I enjoy the act of putting ideas into words the semantics of language and their syntax. Much of my understanding of the world is worked out with labels, shuffled and shunted in my mind until they fall into place only to be moved again and again. I am talking semiotics here; touched on in the previous post Significance and Meaning.
Having settled on my general direction and that is not to have to create a single work, however holistic it might be, and that words are the narrative glue that binds their content, I start to think about the relationships between the works. In so doing, they start to take shape in my mind, decisions have a rational and an intuitive element: working with Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint towards a balancing and rebalancing a weaving of interrelations, invisible lines of tension that burgeon into some physical form in each part.
But do I explain these relationship in words or should they be left to be uncovered, discovered, debated and vulnerable to misunderstanding. I must leave this to the receiver but the trick is to leave sufficient breadcrumbs for way into the wood to be made accesible. A catalogue or a statement, a performance or poetry, for now that question can be left unanswered, there is time for that to develop and mature.
Now for some content. The very provisional titles with which I refer to each principle work, yes there are also small morsels I plan to sow in the interstices, are significant as monikers for the links being forged. Hermaphroditus deals with gender, language and religion through the channel of myth. Logos/Oracle again inspired by the myths deals, as logos alludes, with the disruption of language and understanding through biological and geological metaphors of the gut and the cavern: the devouring of reason and dissemination of ambiguity and ambivalence. Language links these two works but the third installation is unspoken, the absence of word. Shadowland translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, constantly reiterating in analogue and digital means the simplification of form, altering its meaning. Whereas Hermaphroditus unfolds and Logos confounds, Shadowlands simplifies and in so doing creates another narrative.
The trilogy of unfolding, confounding and simplification represents in some way how I see this project. An attempt to simplify and synthesise entanglements through unfolding. The nature of interpretation and mutation of meaning links the works and suggest further works. Is this not the essence of myth? As I write I start to draw together the elements I outlined in the project proposal and as I do so other considerations start to fall in place, considerations such as the aesthetics of each piece. This starts to look less important and somewhat superficial. However, it is still important as a means of conveying a sense defined by the thoughts that go into the work.
Finally, there is the fourth element, the antecedent to all three which for now must remain undisclosed lest I should abandon its making and disappoint myself. It is a relic of times past and gives context within my own practice, what you might make of it is not for me to say.
I now feel renewed, on the threshold of a dawn having wrestled the angel. Like in a dream I did not realise I was in quite such a struggle. This realisation has come with the Low Residency and the MPR. There is much planning and preparation, experimentation and workings out. The projects are ambitious in meaning and in making and I cannot afford to leave things to sort themselves out. I cleared a path but it is yet to be trodden and tested. It is now time to take the next step… and keep writing.
Hermes and Aphrodite bore a beautiful son. Hermaphroditus was raised in the caves of Mount Ida by fresh water naiads. Growing bored of his life he went walk about around the cities of Phrygia. One day, he wondered into the woods of the city of Caria near Halicarnassus where he was seen by the water nymph Salmacis. She at once fell in love and lusted after the handsome but still young boy pouncing on him in an attempt at seduction. 1 Hermaphroditus rejected her attempts and on thinking she had gone, undressed and entered the pool to refresh himself. On doing so, Salmacis sprung on him and wrapped herself around the boy wishing by the gods never to be parted from him. Her wish was granted and the two blended together creating a creature of both sexes.
This tale, one of many told by the Roman poet Ovid in his book Metamorphoses came to mind as I made a new clay model. It is a blend of ideas from the Willendorf Venus to retro rockets; from Philippe Stark’s juicer to the Sputnik satellite, deep sea monster and nimble crustacean. Cult and functionality melded without overt reference to the human form for hermaphrodites abound in nature.
The emergence of sexual reproduction long ago conferred greater plasticity to complex organisms enabling them to better adapt to different environments. Hermaphrodite animals have adopted this form of sexuality as a strategy for increasing fecundity, with respect to plants it is the norm. Only amongst the flowering plants do you find separate male and female individuals. These are dioecious plants such as the holly. Only female hollies bear fruit. In humans the sex organs begin to differentiate only after nine weeks but then sex is different to gender. The gendering of objects is deep rooted in culture. Ascribing a gender to a particular type of thing is common in many languages but not all languages assign the same gender to an object. I am always a little disconcerted when referring to a flower in Spanish and then Italian. In the former case it is la flor, whereas il fiore is the Italian masculine for the same word. Two romance languages with common roots, at what point in the linguistic womb did the two diverge? German also includes a neuter gender whereas English has pretty well lost all its grammatical genders other than for people, animals and a few other things such as ships (with a few dialectic exceptions).
A professor (who is no longer with us) said to me a few years ago that my work is gendered. I wondered what he meant at the time as I know that my intention in Chaos Contained was to move away from a binary representation of life. I was working in a neutral but fecund world full of life force transcending the cosmically parochial issue of gender. To this day I do not know to what audience he thought the works might relate to, if that was indeed what he was getting at. Ironically, the touring show of CC was managed, promoted and funded purely by women.
We are apt to see ourselves reflected in things and events including questions of gender. We live in times when questions of gender are being revised of their historical baggage. Whatever the case might be, it is so difficult to be objective about affective things. Emotions are at the heart of art practice and appreciation. That is why academic writing for an artist can be a stretch but it can open windows to new horizons through critical thinking. However, critical analysis has to be treated with an awareness of its implications for creativity.
Salmacis was the only naiad that did not take part in the hunts of Artemis on account of her idleness and vanity. She preferred to wash her beautiful limbs and tend to her hair. Ovid, Metamorphoses. Book IV, 306-312[↩]