At the heart of the increasingly gentrified East Brunswick sits the artist-run gallery Punk Café, a name that makes a considered link between punk and the Australian middle class — exemplified by ‘café culture’. Like many of its contemporaries employing the language and aesthetic of punk antiestablishmentarianism, such as Info-Punkt (GE), Punk Café features a networked social order of artists whose oeuvres are generally typified by a deskilled critique of authorship and the limits of ‘expression’ — particularly by way of an unsettling aesthetic force rooted in abjection as a politicised aesthetic strategy. In December last year, Punk Café was stage to artist Hana Earles’s solo exhibition, My Major Retrospective. The exhibition was a self-reflexive critique on subjectivity and the body as a political anchor in post-modernist liberal-feminist creative practice that morphed into a humorous critique on the socio-cultural and political landscape of the globalised art world — both within the insular Melbourne environment and abroad. The result was a self-aware exhibition that reimagined subjectivity beyond a hedonistic conception of individualistic self-expressionism.
On three of the four walls, which were clumsily, perhaps even frenziedly, painted black, hung stretched bedsheets with diaristic notations in different hands that resembled a signed high school graduation uniform. These works are entitled exploration of my soul 1, 2 and 3; the materials list read, ‘permanent marker, ink, blood, cum on bedsheets’. The artist lived in the sheets for a month each, inviting visitors to contribute. The title itself references Tracey Emin’s Exploration of the Soul (1994), which was comprised of thirty-two pages of text on blue A4 notepaper. Emin created this work over an intensive ten-day period, recounting significant moments in her life up until the age of thirteen — the key themes of which were feminine desire, trauma, depression and maternal subjectivity. Exploration of the Soul was exhibited shortly after Emin’s solo exhibition at Jay Jopling’s London gallery, White Cube, also entitled My Major Retrospective (1993). Like Exploration of the Soul, Emin’s career-launching solo exhibition at White Cube centred on the artist’s confessional use of her own subjectivity and body as a political anchor point, and included teenage diaries, toys, paintings, drawings, unsent letters to boyfriends and relatives and family memorabilia.
In the middle of Punk Café, sitting on an office chair covered in patchily painted upholstery foam produced in collaboration with Kane Turner, was a television playing a video work entitled daddy. In daddy, Earles sits in a large anime-esque papier mâché mask, blowing kisses, flirting and talking on the phone. This footage was collaged over a VHS recording of the artist’s mother undergoing an immersion baptism. Audible over the looped gabba music soundtrack is a reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem, Daddy. The background of the video-collage mirrored the murky grey-black uneven painting on the gallery walls, as it became the scene of an abstracted confessional poetry of Earles’ own. Written four months before her suicide, Daddy is upheld as one of the most revered examples of confessional poems among Plath’s contemporaries Anne Sexton, Dian Vokovski and Elizabeth Bishop. Male personas in Daddy are behavers and doers (to women) and the female personas are ‘feelers’, and ‘imaginers’ due to the kinds of verbs they’re respectively endowed with.1 Despite giving all the agency to the powerful patriarchs of the poem, the primary pronouns are ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’ which occur a total of thirty-four times in comparison to the twenty-eight mentions of ‘you’ and your’ associated with the primary patriarchs — Plath’s dead father and estranged husband. The nursery rhyme-like progression has been read as an orientation of childish victimisation followed by vindication, including problematic references to the Holocaust as she conflates the personal and historical.
Earles’s show can be read as a series of becomings. The bedsheets that, when stretched and extracted from their prior realm of the bedroom, became exploration of my soul 1, 2 and 3, evoked a kind of moral cleansing akin to her mother’s baptism that draws on the concept of sexual sublimation — a transformation of sexual impulses into ‘creative energy’, substituting regressive desire for the symbolic law of the gallery wall. One note on exploration of my soul 1 reads, ‘I am more concerned with my body than art at the moment’, emphasising libidinal impulses through the bodily and the obsessional. If, as Freud suggests in ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’, the main defence mechanism for the civilised subject is sublimation, Earles’ emphasis on libidinal impulses and confessional shame become a self-reflexive, humorous take on desublimation and clichéd abjection within the genealogy of post-modernist liberal feminist art.2
According to Julia Kristeva’s problematic theoretical concept of abjection, it is through the rejection of the ‘improper dirty’ and the embrace of the ‘proper clean’ that the subject achieves autonomy — the former being reminiscent of the subject’s initial fusion with the maternal body.3 In addition to the imagery of her mother’s baptisms, the abject is evoked in a number of ways in Earles’s exhibition; namely through the cotton sheets, greyed with age and continued use, filling the gallery with the musty smell of stale bodily fluids. While the palpable presence of Tracey Emin’s legacy lingers, it is important to note that unlike Emin’s Exploration of the Soul, these works are collaborative. In their life on Earles’ bed, visitors signed their names, contributed drawings, or their own confessional material, causing the artist’s own hand to become indistinguishable from those of her collaborators. In this imagining of collectivity and subjectivity beyond a hedonistic or narcissistic conception of individualistic self-expressionism, Earles achieves a morose critique on the socio-cultural landscape and politics of the globalised art world.
Since the liberal (white) feminisms of the 1960s–1990s, the media landscape has transformed the way social fields are intertwined with other creative fields — with ‘post-internet’ artists such as Amalia Ulman, Bunny Rogers, Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Finch operating with a keen understanding of selfhood as social currency. While Earles’ My Major Retrospective offers insights into the life of the artist, what emerges through the collaborative aspects of the works is the suggestion that identity is shaped by the objects and environments that socialise us — constructing subjecthood as a combination of signifiers and communities that produce it. Various imagery is fused with text such as ‘Eliot Smith’ — a misspelt reference to the late sad-boy singer-songwriter, Elliott Smith — in the font and design of the Subway sandwich brand, which is featured alongside other recognisable brands such as Sandoz — a leading worldwide brand of generic pharmaceuticals based in Australia, particularly recognisable for their range of affordable antidepressants. PornHub, a popular free pornographic streaming site, sits next to hand drawn renditions of the Bratz dolls in goth-punk attire; a Care Bear dressed in bondage gear; the text ‘Jeff Koons’, ‘Miley Cyrus’; and the character Jane from the late 1990s dark teen comedy TV series, Daria.
This combination of material speaks to the subject as human capital — in a constant state of ‘becoming’ spurred on by the reinvention required by neoliberalism. The economisation of the self, intrinsic to the artistic endeavour, mirrors the logic of the self-brand on social media and Earles’ use of these recognisable yet abstracted brands and celebrities plays on the identification processes that they encourage. While it could be argued that these elements constitute the artist’s autobiography, it seems more appropriate to view them, particularly in light of their references to Sylvia Plath and Tracey Emin, as an ironic comment on the social movements since the 1960s that continually insist on the politicisation of the private. Where Tracy Emin’s My Major Retrospective was, for an early career artist, an ironic take on the tradition of the retrospective and the Avant-Gardist blurring of life and art, Earles’ rendition was an astute investigation of how art has, and should, move forward.
Worth mentioning is Earles’ involvement with the Instagram account Abject It Girls, co-authored with artists Grace Anderson and Natasha Havir-Smith. The account consists of self-shot photos of the artists engaged in various staged and unstaged ‘abject’ behaviour — referencing selfie culture and popular feminist narratives of the visual and the melancholy nature of impossibly divided popular representations of femininity. Drugs, nudity and the mess of share-house living dominate the account to focus on the subject-in-crisis, a trope employed by both reality television and Instagram micro-celebrities via themes of confession, exhibitionism and emotional realism.4 Like reality television, the focus is on ‘the abject working class woman who fails as subject/object of desire and consumption’.5 Importantly, unlike artists such as Amalia Ulman whose ‘It Girl’ Instagram account afforded her a ‘break’ as an artist (much like reality television and sex-tapes are used to build careers), Abject It Girls currently has just over one hundred followers. Their blasé attitude towards garnering a following and the inclusion of captions such as ‘abject expressionism’ operate from the understanding that no matter how ‘emerging’ the individual artist, there is a necessity to personalise everything and everyone — each being entrepreneurs of themselves and their brand6 — and that ‘the production of capital converges ever more with the production and reproduction of social life itself’.7
The contemporary condition that links autonomous bodies into larger media networks can be filed under what Paul Preciado has termed the ‘pharmacopornographic regime’.8 Referencing Deleuze’s concept of the ‘dividual’, Preciado posits:
Whereas discipline made ‘individuals’, the specific techniques of power of the pharmacopornographic regime produce ‘dividuals’, […] that can act only when enabled by multimedia and prosthetic technologies. Constructed by the market and by visual culture, the ‘dividual’ is an image before being a body, an affected consumer before being a citizen.9
Earles makes regular references to the psychotropic regulation of subjectivity and its ties to the production of capital, which are integral to Preciado’s conception of a pharmacopornographic regime — from Sandoz to the conflation of ‘healthy’ fast-food chain Subway and Elliott Smith. The latter being a particularly potent analogy given Smith’s status as a notorious pop-folk musician who, up until his death in 2003, struggled with mental illness and drug abuse, particularly of psychiatric medication. Likewise, the conception of being an image before being a body — a consumer before a citizen — operates in Earles’ work through the collaborative element of her exploration of my soul series as she beckons forth unreliable identity fragments foregrounding the fleeting performance of ‘identity’.
Untitled, hung on a wall that separated exploration of my soul 2 and 3, was a collage of caricatures that extended the representation of a fragmented identity via the depiction of mythical femininities. The canvas was dominated by a pre-pubescent fairy figure in the style of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies (1923–5): humanlike fairies dressed in fashions derived from the natural world, such as flowers and leaves. The costumes in Barker’s drawings, like the fairies themselves, become camouflaged and mimic the style of the flowers or natural environment around them as they constitute a pastoral fantasy where emotion is distanced and harsh reality does not intrude — a Pre-Raphaelite conception of nature and its relationship to the Divine Feminine. This supernatural depiction of unadulterated femininity is contrasted with two drawings Blu-Tacked to the canvas featuring Hentai-style pornographic depictions of hybrid human-animal characters. The first character at the top of the canvas is purple with the wings of a bat or gargoyle. She kneels, with semen atop her bounteous breasts, as she gazes adoringly out of frame to an imagined (male) other. The fox hybrid character at the base of the canvas, dressed in schoolgirl fantasy attire, leans on a professor’s desk and spreads her ass using her tail for leverage.
Earles’ inclusion of the human-animal characters plays into the often-invoked fantasy of the ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilised’ creature, for whom taboos or restrictions on sexuality do not apply — a concept which is readily associated with the abject and the fantasies and anxieties of heteronormative culture. Images of a fragmented sexuality and body, inclusive of the trope of the horrific monster of the repressed, come to suggest the self in an unfinished state. The culture/nature divide and the several related hierarchical dualisms it entails: male/female; top/bottom; mind/body; pure/dirty; imaginary/real are depicted as coexistent yet irreconcilable. Furthermore, the relationship between mental and moral health and cleanliness come to show that pleasure and shame, health and sickness are inter-dependent. In stark contrast to the ‘dirt’ or filth of the sheets and walls, Untitled brings into question the otherwise assumed unity, stability and closure of ‘abject’ feminine identity and sexuality supposed to be resolved through desublimation in the work of artists such as Tracey Emin. Thus, the use of the body as a political anchorage point becomes both a tool and a permanent, inescapable affliction that is perpetuated by liberal white feminisms and heteronormative culture. Like the dichotomous mythical femininities, from the pre-pubescent innocence of the fairy to the animal-human hybrids of the sexualised adult, Earles shows Tracey Emin’s construction of femininity to be equally binaristic and exclusionary.
There is a self-reflexivity in this work, which implies that while we are all subject to and operate within this pharmacopornographic regime, the self-indulgence it breeds leads us to find trauma and anxiety in the banal — typified by two lines in exploration of my soul 3 which read ‘both my parents are still alive’ adjacent to ‘Twacy Emim [sic]’. The condescension and infantilisation that the latter voices has the effect of critiquing the disingenuous narcissism inherent in the operation of self-as-subject in Tracey Emin’s work. Like Elliott Smith and Sylvia Plath, Tracey Emin comes from a position of relative privilege and her self-indulgence is positioned as a part of the melting pot of ‘first world problems’. There is also a reference here to an oppression economy that is increasingly prevalent in Melbourne’s queer and social justice circles — one where oppression itself has mutated into a form of social (and therefore artistic) capital that can be wagered against the oppression, or capital, of others.
The Invisible Committee tells us that what we’re missing, in an era of ‘extraordinary subjectivity’, is organisation:
What is missing from the situation is not ‘people’s anger’ or economic shortage, it’s not the good will of militants or the spread of critical consciousness, or even the proliferation of anarchist gestures. What we lack is a shared perception of the situation. Without this binding agent, gestures dissolve without a trace into nothingness, lives have the texture of dreams, and uprisings end up in schoolbooks.10
In this sense, Earles does not admonish the work of feminist artists like Tracey Emin as completely irrelevant, but rather re-positions their (often self-important) outlook as being part of a collective condition that is not biologically determined and increasingly commonplace in a neoliberal, networked world where everyone is encouraged to self-brand and where immaterial labour prevails. Thus, in Earles’ reimagining of what a feminist approach might look like in contemporaneity, she suggests a collaborative, less individualistic approach as a way to move past the dated logic that has been unduly privileged in feminist circles for the last sixty years.