Triple F: Tribulations and Western Hallucinations
The Article, Melbourne, 2017
The Lines in Between by Triple F at Seventh Gallery is an exhibition dealing with the impact of cultural identity on female subjectivity. Triple F is an all-female collective comprised of artists from different parts of the world, including Sofi Basseghi (Iran), Paula van Beek (New Zealand), Vanessa Godden (North America) and Tassia Joannides (Australia). Their most recent exhibition builds on their varied cultural backgrounds to articulate a complex narrative of gender, body and place. The mediums employed in the exhibition are equally diverse, ranging from video to performance and sculpture to sound. As the title of the exhibition infers, the artists are interested in the marks that divide, cross or trouble stable categories of identity.
In an increasingly xenophobic environment, this has become a morbid concern. Since the ‘wrong’ shade of skin currently operates as the line that separates ‘them’ from ‘us’ with a renewed sense of vitality. Even though racism is by no means a new phenomenon, there is a contemporary feeling that the Western world urgently desires to return to a pre-World War II era (all those miserable politicians sobbing about the PC police like this is 1917 are as embarrassing as the retro bell pants they wore in the early 2000s), a wish communicated by the growingly protectionist policies of the USA and Australia’s immigration circus. However, The Lines in Between eschews the grandiosity of newsworthy content to concentrate on subtler personal spaces. In fact, they turn their attention to an everyday event that is not unlike the news: conversations. As media theorist Stuart Hall tells us in his oddly compelling VHS lecture Representation and The Media (1997), conversations establish a sense of shared reality as they facilitate an exchange of meaning about the world. Therefore, it is here where we find the cultural anxieties of today manifested with wretched expressions, unwholesome intonations and hopeless words.
The performance Cartography (2017) by Vanessa Godden (an artist of “colour” as they say) is a case in point. This performance was first enacted on the opening night of the exhibition and it begins with the artist sitting on the right side of a kitchen table positioned in the middle of the gallery space. Over the table there are three carefully arranged piles of powder consisting of flour, chili powder and curry powder. Above her, there is a lamp and in front of her an empty chair. The performance begins with the artist slowly placing her head into the first pile in a sensual motion. Then she climbs over the table and begins to cover the rest of her body with the powders in a seductive display of ethnic tension. The performance immediately provokes uneasiness because one can’t help to empathize with Godden, whose cavities must be burning. But also, because the fine dust of the chili and the curry also irritates one’s own nostrils. Cartography ends with the unclean artist taking a seat on the other side of the table, now covered with a cacophony of coloured powders.
The disquietude of Cartography indicates that there is something more disturbing at play than solely a return to cultural origins. While at first glance the work evokes Ana Mendieta’s Silueta works (1973-77) – a series of actions in which the Cuban artist covered her body with earthly materials such as dirt, the pain connoted by the chili and curry powders suggest an imposition of sorts. Vanessa Godden’s body appears to be subject of a perverse conversation, where meaning making is guided by the thwack of a bigoted kitchen table rant. Indeed, Godden corrupts the return to origin by conjuring an algorithm for casual racism: brown bodies equal the food they consume. This gruesome logic, which underpins bitter slurs such as ‘beaner’, is painfully registered by Godden’s body. Once clean and wholesome, the artist eerily marks herself with the elements that bring flavor (or a defining character) to the Other in the eyes of the West.
In this way, Vanessa Godden’s performance draws a cartography of Western fear and desire that charts the tribulations of a widespread Western hallucination: brown bodies are born from the dust and fog of exotic spices like mystical spawns. A grotesque example of these ‘kitchen table conversations’ takes place in Pauline Hanson’s 60 Minutes episode The Hanson Phenomenon (1997). In this bizarre Australian documentary, Hanson is sitting with her family at the kitchen table ‘debating’ Australia’s political landscape. In a memorable outburst of retro-racism, Hanson’s mother tells the camera: “if you go back to when I was young, I was always told the yellow race will rule the world, and if we don’t do something now, until we catch up a little bit, I’m afraid yes, the yellow race will rule the world”. Based on this mother’s advice, one can easily picture this family reducing a complex subject to a mix of curry powders in an exhausting game of racial anti-politics. Exchanging the racial sign back and forth across the table in a manner reminiscent of Godden’s Cartography.
Moving on and expanding the theme of conversations, Sofi Basseghi speaks back to the wrongness of Australian racial gossip by presenting a multi-channel video titled Fog of an Expected Existence (2017). In this video, installed across two screens and one projection, the artist collaborates with Setareh Akef in an interview that deals with the subject of womanhood in Iran – an explosive and loaded topic in the ears of the West. The work touches on the expectations associated with completing University, entering the workforce, building a family and finally, the politics of the hijab. To produce a richer portrait of the subject, the artist records Akef in the backdrop of personal spaces such as her home, car, local café and the outskirts of her city. While most of the video involves her speaking to the camera, it also includes more poetic scenes. Such as Setareh Akef holding large pieces of cloth covering the city’s horizon. In short, it is a video about the symbolic fog that surrounds, blurs and engulfs the subject’s cultural identity.
Also employing the medium of the voice, Paula van Beek participates with Audio Tour (2017). As its self-explanatory title indicates, this is a faux audio tour of the exhibition recorded by the artist. The piece is divided into 5 tracks and delivered in a manner that mimics the formality of an actual audio tour. It begins by describing the space and bringing attention to the objects that surround the viewer as well as the physicality of the gallery. But the conventional tone of the audio is suddenly disrupted by strange claims, such as hacking the gallery’s CCTV security camera to broadcast the face of the exhibitor. Or the description of a woman supposedly standing outside Seventh Gallery. The last track sits closer to the broader theme of the show by referring to slut shaming and gender issues such as non-binary identification. However, the political density of these topics is lightened by the inclusion of absurd phrases like “no great night out ever started with a salad”. As the audio tour ends, one pleasantly realizes that one was guided into a third space that exists neither in the audio tracks nor the gallery space, but rather, somewhere else in one’s reception to these claims.
Finally, Vixen (2014) and Best of Bizarre (2017) by Tassia Joannides tackles representations of femininity and desire. Made with secondhand bras, satin and linen thread, these sculptures take a monstrous turn to trouble the norms that plague the production of the female body. Vixen is an amorphous mass of bras that hang from the ceiling in what appears to be an appropriation of the surrealist male gaze. Indeed, while the aesthetic of lingerie encodes the piece with an aura of sexual appeal, the actual shape of the work is more reminiscent of the uncanny bulges that characterize Hans Bellmer’s repellent dolls. Best of Bizarre applies this counter aesthetic to a collection of lingerie objects that have been modified to provoke a similar sense of unfamiliarity. For instance, multiple bra cups that have been merged into a single cup to form a cyclops of intimacy.
The Lines in Between may be frowned upon by those that resent the identity politics movement of the 1990s and its multicultural, feminist values. Epitomized by artists like Coco Fusco, The Guerrilla Girls and Adrian Piper, this period of time produced controversial shows – such as the 1993 Whitney Biennale – that taught us the true extent to which those in a position of power hate being told off. However, with the return of political figures like Pauline Hanson in Australia, one seems obliged to look back and recuperate the legacies of identity politics. Sofi Basseghi, Paula van Beek, Vanessa Godden and Tassia Joannides use the model of a conversation to exercise this duty and provide some cues about how gender and race are discussed today.