The Monstrous Gaze
Experimenta Social #12: The Unstable Body and Its Image (Presentation), Melbourne, 2017
This talk is aimed at contextualizing my most recent exhibition The Umbral Empire: Prologue, an installation originally presented at MARS Gallery in 2017 and comprised of lightboxes, video projection, a stereoscope and an offsite mural. The aim of this project was to frame colonialism as a prolonged eclipse. This is a framework that allowed me to think about the constitution of media portraits and their postcolonial underpinnings. More importantly, it opened the gates of a hellish process where I reconfigured their morphology with an abominable impulse. Indeed, if colonialism is a cosmic event that overshadows visual systems, as The Umbral Empire posits, then anomalies are its logical conclusion. As these entities would inevitably register the monstrous effects of living under an abysmal shadow. Following this line of enquiry, I developed a series of malformations that sought to visualise these grotesque creatures by appropriating popular imagery. Meanwhile the off-site mural functioned as a more wholesome articulation of this concept.
The notion of race as a monstrous marker, an aberration or a deviation from the norm, is a line of enquiry that runs throughout my practice. Often expressed by distorting the physiognomy of my subjects in videos and pictures, it is a gesture that has its historical precedents in antiquity, the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. What follows contextualizes my engagement with the unstable body and its image in relation to a visual tradition formally known as The Monstrous Races, a hideous compendium of monsters developed by early Western travellers who ventured into the East. The terror, curiosity and repulsion associated with these creatures and their territories later became foundational to the spectacle of modern colonialism. In other words, the way in which Europeans initially depicted and signified the Americas and its inhabitants in the 16th century was ill informed by the myth of The Monstrous Races. However, this is a relevant precedent to broader postcolonial countries where the image has served the purpose of inscribing the Other as an anomaly, including Australia.
In this presentation, I will unpack this historical precedent and explain its connection to three of my video works: aXolotl's Happiness (2014), Delegated Performance [Radish] (2016), and Postcard eXotica (2016).
Once we establish that the Western Gaze is like a malfunctioning camcorder prone to terror and deformity, I will return to my last exhibition The Umbral Empire: Prologue (2017). As this work applies a similar logic to that of The Monstrous Races, by corrupting pictures of media personalities and turning them into monsters. The Umbral Empire also draws inspiration from a body of films based on H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmicism. The ultimate invasion scare, cosmicism is characterized by renderings humans as insignificant in the scale of the universe. This nihilistic effect is often achieved by introducing fictitious and ancient entities that exist beyond human comprehension, inducing madness on those who meet them. The contrast between the grandiosity of these forces and the impotence of humans, makes our existence seem like a banal casualty.
Even though cosmicism does not directly associate itself with the history of The Monstrous Races or colonisation, we can identify a similar gaze across these events. A mode of depiction that locates the Other as a demonic ghoul born from the same sulfuric sperm that stains the flaming chambers of Pandemonium. Equally feared and desired by the West’s vivid eye, the Other is as an ambiguous entity commonly charged with humanity’s most repudiated sexual and murderous drives. This talk seeks to demonstrate how the Other is coded as a monstrous being in meaning making practices and how this network of nefarious signs has influenced my studio practice.
The earliest pictorial depictions of The Monstrous Races date back to the Middle Ages, when they were drawn by intensely xenophobic travellers who sought to make sense of the unknown sights they encountered. A typical depiction of The Monstrous Races includes an illustration and a text describing the monster’s physiognomy, behaviour and customs, while emphasising the transgressions that categorizes them as non-human. Since the bodies of the Races often bore a humanoid form and were capable of speech, Europeans anxiously sought to separate themselves from these repellent and soulless beings. To this end, they framed them as an utterly Other deviation. Neither human nor animal, they became a dark mirror that reflected humanity’s abject impulses.
These medieval pictures were based on earlier accounts written by Greek and Roman travellers who were repulsed by the exotic. This is explained further in Alexa Wright’s book Monstrosity: The Human in Visual Culture. Where she traces some of the earliest mentions of The Monstrous Races in a Greek treatise on India. She establishes that The Monstrous Races were often malformed depictions of indigenous tribes. Noting the inclusion of real peoples such as Pygmies, who were considered non-human because of their short height. She cites the example of the Gymnosophist, a monster who was said to stand in one foot while staring at the sun. Wright observes that this description bears a loathsome resemblance to the practice of Yoga.
As Europe entered the rational period of the Renaissance, the racial mythos of The Monstrous Races began to dissipate. However, it briefly regained its popularity in the 16th century when Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. The Spaniards quickly reconstituted this terrorizing gaze to make sense of the unfamiliar indigenous peoples they encountered. Persephone Braham provides images of early maps and excerpts from Christopher Columbus’s diary in the book Monsters and The Monstrous to show that Columbus held certain delusional beliefs. Indeed, Columbus’ diary notes sightings of sirens and cannibals with dog noses in the American continent. Distortions of this kind unleashed a debate on whether the indigenous were human or non-human.
Like The Monstrous Races, the Indigenous peoples were seen as possessing markers of rationality, such as language and the development of a complex society. However, their nakedness and “blasphemous” beliefs were perceived as indications of a soulless primitivism. This foul logic is familiar to Australia, where a similar unwholesome gaze oversaw the early categorization of its colonial population. In effect, The Monstrous Races are one of the most spectral apparitions of the Western Gaze, making the Other manifest as a revolting beast. In sum, they are a ghoulish panorama that predates more familiar forms of racial hallucinations in picture making.
Moving away from The Monstrous Races, I will now show excerpts from three of my video works that connect to this history of fear and desire.
aXolotl’s Happiness' is a video featuring an anthropomorphic axolotl performing banal domestic activities. The axolotl, otherwise known as Mexican walking fish, is a neotenic salamander endemic to the lakes of Mexico. The axolotl is notable because it possesses various enticing characteristics: it can regrow lost limbs, becomes infected with human touch and is trapped in a state of eternal youth as it reaches sexual maturity in an infantile state. Its name originates in the Aztec deity Xolotl, god of monsters, sickness, and deformities. These associations in tandem with a twisted sense of self-identification with this creature inspired a masochistic figure that relieves the boredom of its entrapments by inflicting pain onto itself. The work also draws upon Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar’s short story Axolotl (1952), a Kafkian narrative about a man that transforms into an axolotl.
Delegated Performance (Radish)
Delegated Performance (Radish) is a similar video featuring an anthropomorphic radish. It was originally commissioned to be shown at Melbourne Central and facilitated by MARS Gallery. The performance consists of three actions prompted by products that are easily available in a department store: a neon light, spray bottle and mud mask. I’ve been attracted to radishes over the years because they are in fact swollen roots that appear to be bloated to the extent that they need to be withdrawn from the ground. Once removed, they’re either consumed or left to rot and perish. This connotes a troubled sense of displacement and non-belonging.
Postcard eXotica is a 30min cinematic re-enactment of a collection of vintage postcards depicting Mexican stereotypes. The work is a tenebrous meditation on the Western Gaze and its vices. Particularly the ways in which it turns the Other into a sign that circulates in a grotesque network of racial nihilism.
The Umbral Empire: Prologue
Returning to The Umbral Empire, this exhibition is a continuation of Postcard eXotica’s engagement with pictures. This project employs the model of an eclipse to read media images from a somber postcolonial perspective. Indeed, a real total eclipse can only be seen from a delimited geographical area known as the path of totality. In this region, the world appears to be swallowed by the eclipse’s cosmic shadow. This work employs a reading strategy that approaches images like a colonial eclipse: contending that we can see its shade, yet, we are missing its deep shadow. A dark space where sinister mutations are likely to occur.
This dreadful concept draws from a body of films inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. As explained earlier, the philosophy of cosmicism locates humanity as an insignificant casualty by placing it against larger forces that come from outer space. In H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, knowledge of these cosmic entities is notoriously found in a book called the Necronomicon, a dark bible of sorts written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. This fictional character appears to signify the Other as a deliverer of evil knowledge. Like The Monstrous Races in the Middle Ages, Lovecraft charts the Middle East with a hallucinogenic impulse that contorts difference with a wicked exoticism. The Umbral Empire: Prologue spins this logic to corrupt found media images and articulate their postcolonial dynamics. Once again, appropriating Western debris and reformulating it to think through the legacies of colonialism in visual culture.