Signposting the In-between.

Dotted throughout Walker Art Gallery are ritualized signposts. The exhibition, entitled Ritual Bodies, proposes to act as an intervention into the Walker collection- challenging the way we as viewers look and engage with the works of art as well as questioning and highlighting the specificity and exclusivity of the collection. How then does the work intervene?

Firstly let us consider the title. The implications of ‘Bodies’ are fourfold: art as a body of work, the Gallery/Museum as an institutional body and the corporeal sexed bodies of the artists, models and viewers. ‘Ritual’ implies an established set of prescribed acts and behaviour.

Let us take this further.

What ritual does the gallery enact? Walker Art Gallery is an institution established to preserve and display our collective art history. It is also predicated on a notion of ‘genius’ that is succinctly described by Christine Battersby as an ingrained, historicized “logic of exclusion”. This “logic” sets out to normalize and reinforce rigid distinctions: male/female, civilized/savage, masculine/feminine, erotic/obscene, subject/object, ‘low’/’high’, public/private, where one side of the polarity gains validity, significance and dominance.

So within this institution are posted contemporary works whose purpose is to draw our attention to this ritualized activity, this elitist exclusivity that invalidates, distances and negates particular groups and to infuse a different flavour, speak with…

… a different voice.

Do they?

On first impressions the work seemingly reinforces a sex-gender axis-they are engendered. The women’s work involves knitting, dresses, personal memories, the domestic. The men’s concerns are sex, sin and characterisation- more public, more ‘universal’ subjects. On closer inspection what we see permeating Walker Art Gallery collection is playful poetical provocation, thoughtfully positioned and strategically located in between the rigid polarities of masculine/feminine, viewer and art work, significance and insignificance, private and public, erotic and the obscene. A blurring. What we see is the use of their ritualized engendered position to quietly subvert visual, cultural and political paradigms.

Jacqueline Wylie’s Shoddy Work involves a destroyed knitted painting, piled on the floor and stuffed into a cabinet. Initial inspiration came from the knitted clothing that her mother made for her family. This has led her to reflect on and question why certain objects are assigned value whilst others are seen as insignificant and worthless. Wylie’s intentions are to sign post “the absence of the feminine” from art history.

This work by-passes simplistic ideas of inclusion which would slot the feminine back into the gallery space. What it does do is create vital, dynamic exchanges of meaning within its processes, production, materials and display. Knitting and Painting. Creation and Destruction. Monumentality and detail. Hard and Soft. Eruption and containment. Rubbish and Preciousness. By fusing and juxtaposing conventionally incongruous elements what the work is acknowledging and asserting is their parallel equal significance and therefore sequentially the feminine’s unnatural absence.

Philip Davenport’s piece Heart Shape Pornography is deceptively simple. Heart shapes are cut from porn magazine and the words are crafted into haiku-like poems that are then inscribed on apples. What this effectuates is a blurring/enmeshing of ‘female’ conceptions of love/ romance/poetry with the ‘male’ derivatives of sex/porn/lust, private yearnings and public cravings, ‘high’ ideals of the nude and raincoat-seedy top-shelf concepts of ‘low’.

So how does this act as an intervention?

Posted throughout the Gallery approximately three hundred apples are planted next to paintings of erotica where apples figure actually or symbolically.

Apples?

A symbol of desire, the Fall, corruption, sin, nakedness, shame, woman. Within Art History this nakedness was seen as something which must be contained, controlled. The Nude Tradition signified this containment. The artist (male, white, middle-class, ‘genius’) aestheticized this unruly female flesh into something ‘high’. By enmeshing ‘low’ with ‘high’ ideals of pleasure and desire what is set up quite potently in Davenport’s work is a frank and concise interrogation of an artificial dualism and ultimately debilitating cultural categorizations where erotic representation and the activity of looking is a charged punitively regulated activity.

Margaret Cahill’s piece Gathering consists of a group of life-size (adult and child) plaster dresses, eerie ghostly effigies that obstruct our smooth passage through the museum. These reference and attempt to liberate the constrictive dresses worn in many of the oil paintings in the Walker Collection. We are reminded of Jane Campion’s The Piano where Ada’s dress simultaneously imprisons and protects and Tilda Swinton’s gloriously-knowing aside to the camera in Sally Potter’s Orlando- her huge dress restricting but also acting as a physical manifestation of a very intellectual questioning distance. Similarly the dress embodies particular polarities in Cahill’s work. However instead of using the dress to create a questioning distance between the spectator and the body, the dress is distanced from the painting to conversely draw us visually, physically and aesthetically closer.

The work is rigidly skeletal (implying oppressive social/historical and interpretative viewing codes) but by literally forcing us to “be moved” and interact with the piece it also breathes life into the paintings. The viewer/participant actively ‘performs’ and plays out their interpretation- smells the human hair, senses the fragility of the muslin/skin, feels the tightness of the waist, circumnavigates the voluminous skirt. We are enfolded into the painting with all our senses and therefore begin to liberate the paintings from their dusty incumbency.

And finally a delightful image

Can you imagine the museum’s gallery guard suddenly bursting into song. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

Mike Dawson’s alter-ego The Gallery Guard patrols the Gallery looking to introduce and engage the spectators with the works on display and get the other guards to join in with a few impromptu songs. So, what comes to mind when we think of the gallery guard. A quietly diligent enforcer of rules? An officious just-doing-his-jobs-worth? An old man/woman snoring in the corner?

A gallery space seems to converge somewhere between a Church and a University. We amble through these tightly regulated spaces, approaching and viewing art with a keen awareness of a seemingly impenetrable idea of ‘objectivity’ and the need to ‘get it right’.

The Gallery Guard injects humour and a slice of healthy anarchy into these intimidating claustrophobic conventions. What this achieves is to acknowledge the viewer as a valid participant rather than an inconsequential alienated spectator.

So, have these interventions succeeded?

These ritualized bodies are poignantly posted to make us curious. We are curious. There is a sense that they are signposts to an other way of viewing. They gently and quirkily obstruct our smooth viewing habits. They get in the way, make us shift our attention. A slight irritation. A welcomed diversion. We trespass into that green terrain of the in- between and find that we are whistling a tune in a gallery and really wanting to engage with and ask questions of the paintings.

The Gallery Guard sits quietly in the corner and closes his eyes every now and then when he thinks that nobody is watching.

DON’T TOUCH PLEASE!

JACKI WILLSON