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Un Magazine 5.1

Extreme Beauty: Approaches to the Real

Tim Alves

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16/24

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<em>Extreme Beauty: Approaches to the Real</em>, installation view, Photo credit: Mark Ashkanasy

Y3K, Melbourne, 4–24 December 2010, curated by Kate Briggs

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The ‘Golden Fleece’

Fourth, no Discovery —
Fifth, no Crew —
Finally, no Golden Fleece —
Jason — sham — too.1

Extreme Beauty: Approaches to the Real followed the threads of the classic stories of psychoanalysis, including Oedipus the King by Sophocles, to understand how the aesthetic experience of art represents our continual sublimation of desire. Classical tragedies, like that described in Emily Dickinson’s untitled poem 870, suggest that desire’s pursuit of satisfaction leads towards destruction. Extreme beauty would yield such visual pleasure that it would be blindingly sublime: it would nullify any chance at future pleasure by its comparative inference. Viewing this exhibition was not the hyper-gratuitous experience of ‘extreme’ in popular culture, however. What was relevant in Extreme Beauty was the application of psychoanalysis to the use of language, exemplified by how ‘extreme’ — as in sports, makeovers, or nose jobs — implies an inadequacy. To add ‘extreme’ to beauty, in order to describe something that transcends it, is to make it grotesque and deathly.

The exhibition located classical tragedy in contemporary art that was homely in scale yet epic in scope. Like the Oedipus story, Extreme Beauty seemed to evoke the construct of the family from the perspective of the child. Piece by piece, works by Janet Burchill, Juan Davila, Maria Kozic and Elizabeth Newman brought this perspective to mind, eliciting a series of oblique symbols. Many were connected to the psychoanalytic notion of desire, initiated by the sublimation of the breast from infancy. The Grecian pattern in Laminex employed by Constanze Zikos suggested childhood memories of kitchen tables. A mirror drawn by Davila represented the device which psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan considered instrumental in the development of the ego. Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s X Table 2007, an X-shaped dining table with holes, abstracted the place around which the family traditionally eats. (A Lacanian remark suitable for dinner table conversation goes: ‘everyone makes jokes about macaroni, because it is a hole with something around it’.2)

The plot of Oedipus is driven by a gap in knowledge around which his destiny is shaped; a gap that represents forgotten memories from early childhood. This hole, gap or thing unknown — an X — illustrates a void at the heart of desire.

Elizabeth Newman, <em>Untitled</em> 2005–2009, fabric and oil paint on canvas, Image courtesy the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne, Photo credit: Mark Ashkanasy

Untitled 2005–2009, by Elizabeth Newman — a piece of blue fabric, with hems like a tablecloth, attached to a stretched canvas — represented our human desires, specifically, our desires formed through language. Woven cloth is something of an analogy for language; each thread relies on other threads, just as words rely on their relation to each other in order to generate meaning. For humans, fabricated cloth replaces animal hair though, like a fig-leaf, it is also a metaphor for the hair that remains. Our interest in body parts is maintained by their public concealment, so that desire is heightened by cloth. As Lacan put it, ‘it is the world of words that creates the world of things’3 yet, ironically, describing Newman’s artwork in words causes it to lose its abstract poetry. What has been subjugated by language in Newman’s work functions in a similar manner to the image of a supple, pink breast in Maria Kozic’s painting Human Landscape II 2010 — the sublimation of an ineffable thing into art.

Juan Davila’s mirror, drawn directly onto the wall, describes a process that could also be thought of as poetry-destroyed-by-words. The drawing traced the building onto itself, reflecting the installation of Kozic’s paintings. Yet this was artificial in the way of theatrical set design — a staged mirror. In his drawing, Davila alluded to our identification with ourselves in the mirror; whilst leaving the viewer’s image out of the frame. Across the exhibition, these conceptual relationships relied on a language of symbols. ‘I’ symbolises me — that person I see in the mirror. The ‘I’ in the logic of the woven textile analogy of the blue cloth in Newman’s work was not fixed to the body it implied. Likewise, in Davila’s drawing, the viewer’s reflection was absent, an ‘I’ articulated by a void.

Burchill’s Emily Dickinson c 1864 2010 consisted of seven brightly coloured paintings on hessian that translate Dickinson’s poem into visual art. Burchill’s installation emphasised the poem’s syntactic fragmentation, locating Dickinson’s intriguing idiosyncrasies in the visual pauses of blank images. This translation expressed the ambiguity between fleeting thought and text’s concrete materialisation: between poetry and its description. The poem’s motif — first, second, third — is brought out of register and, finally, dissolves altogether.

The use of hyperbole to articulate a transcendence of desire can quickly become banal because the satisfaction of desire is only momentary. Extreme Beauty: Approaches to the Real conveyed the performative power of language, whereby desire is caught up in what can be said and its extremities, or limits. I am reminded of the final scene of Marco Ferreri’s film La Grande Bouffe, in which four men eat themselves to death. The last man dies while slowly spooning two very large pink blancmange breasts into his mouth. Extreme Beauty: Approaches to the Real demonstrated that aesthetic pleasure conceals a curved momentum towards tragedy.

Tim Alves is a Melbourne-based curator.


  1. Emily Dickinson, Untitled, (Harvard variorum edition poem 870, manuscript circa 1864), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Little Brown & Company, Boston, 1960, pp 414–415. 

  2. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Les Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1986, p 121. 

  3. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, Les Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1966, p 65.