Apparitions of Imperial Pestilence
by Katie Paine
Historically thought to herald death and destruction, eclipses have long been emblems of terror in our collective consciousness – as they gradually plunge the earth into darkness. One of the first written accounts of solar eclipses can be dated back to 3340 BC: glyphs etched into stone monoliths in Gaelic Ireland. In Ancient China, accounts declared ominously, that ‘the sun had been eaten’. In Ancient Babylon, eclipses were thought to bring bad omens to kings and rulers. To avoid a perilous outcome for the kingdom, the king would abdicate and a condemned criminal would take his place – within a hundred days of the eclipse, this false king would be assassinated, thus fulfilling the dark cosmic prophecy brought by the eclipse, at which point the original king would take his place once more. It is fitting then, that for his exhibition The Umbral Empire: Prologue artist Diego Ramirez uses the motif of an eclipse to question contemporary structures of power; plunging dominant Western modes of thinking and colonial master narratives into a shadowy and uncertain territory.
Descent into darkness.
Leaving the foot of the stairs, to enter the black box at MARS Gallery has always felt a little sinister, but this nagging feeling is amplified a thousandfold as Ramirez reimagines the gallery space as a portal into a gothic netherworld. Known for exposing problematic colonial attitudes and gross cultural inaccuracies, Ramirez co-opts the aesthetics of horror and the grotesque as a mechanism through which to unpack cultural stereotypes. The universe of The Umbral Empire: Prologue is further expanded with an offsite mural nearby that reads: Colonialism is a Prolonged Eclipse,a more direct articulation of his research into the ramifications of Western depictions of the Other that have dominated for centuries.
Stepping into the gallery, we are greeted with an alluring amethyst abyss – like a star collapsed in on itself. It appears to be an indeterminate orb, with its centre singed away leaving nothing but an amorphous periphery. This image is in fact a headshot of American actor Zac Efron at the height of his High School Musical fame: after the artist’s intervention, all that remains is his shaggy millennial coiffure, as his face is now marred by a forbidding black mass.
For this exhibition, colonialism is represented as a contaminating force, an inescapable black hole that consumes everything in its wake. Ultimately, Ramirez reimagines a realm that lies beyond the black hole, with the return of these personas as apparitions, deviant readings of their original selves. As the artist observes, periods of colonisation have prevailed for centuries and just like an eclipse, “deprived these bodies of light”. After time, sunlight is relinquished from its lunar prison, but its weak rays illuminate strange mutations, grotesque entities crawl out from “the deep shadows”.
Moving through Ramirez’s exhibition, we are presented with a gruesome ensemble, celebrity idols of perfection reimagined as the ghoulish cast from a B-grade horror film. Like a deck of Tarot cards, this quartet of images function as signifiers for a cascade of warped Hollywood tropes, emblems ofa world populated with cultural stereotypes. Could it be that we are gazing into an inverted speculative future in which these Western idols are themselves a dying race? Like stars whose mass has expanded to such a monumental extent, they have begun to collapse from the inside out....
The gothic and the post-colonial have always gone hand- in-hand. Historically, things were referred to as gothic in reference to their deviation from accepted classical standards. The term gothic as such was coined by the artists of the Italian Renaissance, and they used it to describe anything that did not come from ‘the civilized world’ of Ancient Greece and Rome. The term itself signified the wild, the barbaric and was most often used as a dismissal of ‘primitive’ medieval art and architecture. Flash forward centuries and the gothic was used to portray the racialized other in early 20th century film: Nosferatu modelled on degrading representations of the Jewish people, or The Mummy, emblematic of the peak of fetishisation of Egyptology.
For this exhibition, it is the hegemonic body that becomes monstrous, as Ramirez deconstructs and corrupts idyllic depictions of celebrities: in Caribbean Star of Conquest the smooth manicured skin of an eternally groomed Ricky Martin, is disfigured horrifically: decapitated, the flesh at his neck black and putrefied, a grimacing gash where his lips once were. Previously primped and debonair, Martin has become a repulsive flagitious jester. Light spills out from the edges of the printed perspex, the image of Martin eclipsing the flicker of light behind it.
In another work, a night sky has been robbed of its moon; in its place we find the bloated globe of a woman’s face (an amalgamation of media personalities) framed with greasy golden ringlets, frozen in a swollen sneer – her mouth leaking septic ooze. Below, lit by her grimy glow, peasants trudge on foot in a desperate flee from famine. Gas Dwarf of Famine is just one of Ramirez’s grandiose titles that render the exhibition the sardonic stuff of gothic fantasies.
Previous works by Ramirez have been littered with lewd innuendo, often referencing the discourse of postcolonial theory, with figures such as Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, who in his seminal book Black Skin, White Mask considers the politics of desire operating within racial discrimination: postulating that hatred is born out of the shame and subsequent denial of desiring the Other. The Western gaze has so often imagined a monstrous Other to its sanitary Anglo-Celtic counterpart. The Umbral Empire: Prologue completely distorts this notion, wrenching these two opposing poles into a new order. Desire has turned putrid: figures so often thought to be archetypes of Western desire are warped. Diseased and festered, these beings have become their very worst delusions of the racialized Other.
Ramirez’s four prints correspond somewhat to Four Horsemen, said in The Book of Revelations to signify the apocalypse. They are also known to bring war, famine, disease and death – things that have taken place incessantly throughout history. Indeed, Ramirez muses that the four horsemen could be seen as analogous to Imperial expansion: conflict, plague and starvation are all disasters that take place when the empire expands. As the artist has argued in his writing, for many nations that have been colonised, the so called apocalypse has already taken place.
At the end of the gallery we are presented with a literal eclipse, its neon glow shifting and flickering. Facing the eclipse, we can gaze into the viewfinder of a stereoscope, to look through an assortment of book and magazine covers. It is as if we peer into some odd realm in which the media that assaults us each day has been consumed by a plague of sorts, rendering the subjects in lurid tones fit for the covers of a Goosebumps anthology.
The first image is a cover of Paris Match familiar to the art world, in which a young Algerian boy in French military uniform stands in rigid salute. Roland Barthes’ seminal Mythologies declared that the image implied that the boy – a signifier of the broader colonised Algerian population – was content with the Empire, and that the subject was claiming alliance to the flag. Ramirez reflects on the image: “I figured that Barthes himself was ‘possessing’ the image, placing on it his own particular semiotic interpretation. I understand that I’m not French or Algerian, and sensibly limit myself when commenting on this, but it is a passage that has deeply shaped the way I read pictures. Hence why I also include a cover from an American pulp series called Spicy Western Stories, where a hideous Mexican is kidnapping a white woman – it is a model that has informed my understanding of vilifying or taming myths that are meant to unfairly describe me. Roland Barthes appears on autobiographical book covers in which he unpacks himself on his native language and is translated worldwide with an assumed degree of accuracy, while the rest appear in disposable media where they are spoken for and continually misunderstood”.
The eclipse is not only a visual signifier for shifting mechanisms of power, for Ramirez, it also functions a method of understanding these bodies, these signs, through the gaze of the West. A Western (semiotic) understanding of images, of ideas, has eclipsed these cultures. ‘We might never be able to see these images without that baggage” he muses.
Following Paris Match and the Mexican in Spicy Western S t o r i e s , the stereoscope shows us images of Barthes himself, lit to theatrically resemble quintessential depictions of Dracula in the vein of Bram Stoker – suave yet menacing. Finally, musician Psy of Gangnam Style fame stares vacantly out from behind his sunglasses in Forbes magazine, his eyes glowing an icy android blue.
For this succession of images, Ramirez deleted segments of each figure essential to their identity: eyes, mouths, throats violently torn away, a visual mimicking of what happens when people are oppressed, corrupted and degraded.
Fear in the Colonies
Stereoscopes certainly have a place in colonial discourses: The State Library of Victoria has in its collection many a stereoscopic image of Australian flora and fauna, as well as scenes of Indigenous peoples. The stereoscope, the most experiential form of media prior to film becoming widely available to the public, was considered a perfect medium to display this fantastical ‘undiscovered’ territory, subject to heightened attention in the West. Ramirez’s inclusion of the stereoscope speaks to his most recent filmic project Postcard eXotica, screened at ACMI – and then again at MARS – in which he interrogated ethnographic
photographic practices during the Mexican Revolution. For both projects, the camera becomes a mechanism of the Western gaze, complicit in compartmentalising individuals through the cold facticity of its lens.
The stereoscope possesses a crimson interior. Stepping away, your eyes struggle to readjust to the gloom, each glowing lightbox a phantasm that swims before your eyes, for a moment it is as if vision itself has been corrupted, which is in fact what an eclipse is: an assault on vision as all is plunged into darkness.
The gallery interior continues to swirl and shift, could gazing into the glow of the lightbox really have seared itself on your vision so? Look closer, and the darkness is dappled, undulating like the bottom of the ocean, or a virus that fluctuates beneath a microscope at a curiously glacial pace. This is a projection created to alter spatial awareness and destabilise learned ways of viewing, accepted ways of inhabiting space. For The Umbral Empire: Prologue, Ramirez orchestrates this sensory reconfiguration, as an experiential method of interrogating accepted ways of interacting with and understanding the world.
Katie Paine is an artist whose practice sometimes co-opts curating, criticism and fiction to unpack notions of historiography and the archive.