On my way to Cool Change Contemporary I stopped into Uniqlo, which had three days prior opened a two-storey shopfront in Perth’s Murray Street Mall. On Thursday there had been a queue, and there was still a dense bustle of people fondling linens and poly-cotton, apologising or not for the accidental sharp contact of elbows. I have a known ‘thing’ for Uniqlo, have embarrassingly bought into the lifestyle promise of versatile, neutral basics that properly fit my petite frame and as though seeking absolution for the dumb compulsion of this visit I sent live-action updates to friends I knew would softly scold me into better behaviour. Guess which basic bitch used their first day off in two months to go to Uniqlo, lol. I was depleted from a late night at work and in the shopping crowd I felt like I was underwater. Less than 100 meters from the mall’s corner the stairwell that leads to Cool Change, located on the second floor of the heritage Bon Marche Arcade on Barrack street, was a quiet oasis. I was still texting on the way up. Now my two fav chain stores have opened here I guess I’m never leaving. This was a running joke, not really a good one, on an arts scene plagued by exodus and closed-shops. Now that we have a Zara and an H&M and coffee in the laneways, how could anyone contemplate richer climes?
The opening of Cool Change has been, to borrow one of the weather puns that have drenched their promotional material, a breath of fresh air. It is run by eight artists/musicians/curators/writers, most of whom were until recently co-directors of Moana, an ARI established in 2011 that had suddenly lost its tenancy. Moana’s tiny, angular, architect-designed cube within another second-floor heritage conversion, has been superseded by the Cool Change team’s (relatively) low-budget and sensitive renovation of roughly 120 square meters of former office space into three galleries: a ‘project space’ used for residencies or experiments, a studio and a nascent shop. West facing windows and daylight fluros bathe the rooms with bright, crisp light. The space offers a program of three to four projects per ‘season’ plus occasional experimental music nights and other events. For the second Cool Change season since its opening in August there are exhibitions by Brent Harrison, Luisa Hansal, Jesse Bowling and Samuel Jackson and a residency by Liam Colgan. I planned to talk here about all four, but things turned out differently.
I had already seen a media release and when I entered the darkened space of Luisa Hansal’s Dead Weight I thought I knew what I was in for. The release included an image of a slight, white girl naked beneath a beige-toned mesh body suit and underpants spooning a soft, pinked lipped life-sized doll. I had parsed the key words: feminine, abject, pathos. Crouching over the object I recognised from the image, laid out on the floor like a corporeal chalk-outline, I ran through a series of aesthetic reference points. The object had more than a title, it had a name: Larinda (2018). Larinda’s body is formed from dough, hardened into cracked patterns that moiré beneath her own mesh suit. Her hair is a straight, synthetic wig and a moulded, realistic pout adhered to the exterior of the bodysuit stands in for a full face.
The portrayal of abjection, particularly in relation to the white female body, has developed a set code of signifiers that can ironically produce the sensation of comfort and familiarity rather than the push and pull of disgust and attraction. Hair and pale pink synthetic sheens. Dough. Terry Wolverton, Mika Rottenberg, Bonita Ely, locally, recently absconded Western Australian via Wollongong artist Lauren McCartney. There are more. Recently, I’ve been trying to reprogram myself into seeing the repetition of such codes within a different framework, to steel myself against the poison of a canon that theorises false-flag, lone-wolf originality into a model of genius often implicitly coded as masculine. What if instead we valued an entwined, embodied system of quotation and influence?
In my crouch pose, working through it, I opened the catalogue in which Larinda is brought to life in conversation with Luisa as the two eat toast. Two words stand out in this sweet and informal chat, one otherworldly, one violently tangible: ethereal and blitz. The latter is both an active and passive verb. To blitz, or to be blitzed by. Luisa and Larinda talk of the policing of women’s bodies through food and of the notion of transgression via mass carbohydrates. And there is this exchange, truncated here, slipped quietly into the dialogue:
Larinda: Do you remember the day you made me?...
Luisa: Well, I made you the day that marked a year since my brother’s bike accident
Larinda: (silence) The saddest day.
This is when I turned and saw the video, also titled Larinda (2018), and it happened. An immobilising vomit of sensation and memory irrevocably changed the texture and colour of my day. When I understood what was actually happening, all of my comfortable reference points and abstract musings on the canon were gone.
It was the way Luisa arranges Larinda that did it. They are identical twins slumped against the wall of a white room. She is unhurried and gentle. Larinda is inert but the springy bounce of the dough suggests some form of buried life. Lusia strokes her body-double, places spongy limbs into comfortable poses, rests her own wigged head against Larinda’s. Luisa’s eyes, visible beneath the mesh and her own neutral, prosthetic mouth are shaded with resignation, as though there is endless time. As though this ritual will continue forever in some parallel floating world. Larinda’s golem-form will never wake but she must still be cared for. There are close-ups of dough mixed by a bare hand, and a tight shot of Luisa staring out of the frame, her eyelashes pressed by mesh but still searching for contact and recognition. There is a dreamy, tinkling soundtrack, designed by Nat Pavolvic. So ethereal. It took me longer than it should have to realise I was crying.
In the three months prior to this moment, I had spent a fair amount of time standing over
prone bodies in white rooms. In June I watched my grandmother die in hospital, what might be called a ‘good death’ if such a thing is possible – after a fall at ninety-six, peacefully and, we were told, likely without much pain. I had been away for work and by the time I landed back in Perth she was unable to move or speak but was still there, looking out from deep within her own face as though staring up at us from the bottom of a deep lake. The family came out on mass to vigil, taking turns holding her hand, stroking her forehead. In the weeks after her funeral there would be another vigil over my mother, who after having eulogised her own mother was struck by a bout of pneumonia that, we were told, would have gone very differently if she had been less healthy when it did. She was admitted to the contagious ward of a different hospital and this time there would be no touching, instead we were urged to rub ourselves with disinfectant goo before and after our visits, performed behind face masks and plastic eye guards. I brought flowers and was chided by the nurses for their pollen. They blazed accusingly on my own kitchen table for the week of her hospitalisation, before wilting.
In the gallery my phone dinged in my pocket with a reply: wait whats ur other favourite chain store???
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.
It’s Bread Top.
Luisa’s synthesis of grief into object-form acknowledges something about the experience that it can be difficult to discuss: confronting the loss of another makes a sudden, sharp reality of the self. In the weeks after my grandmother’s funeral I would realise I was picturing my own and my sadness would be layered with guilt for making it all about me, just as I am doing now. it is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for1. Same. Larinda is touchable but unreachable, bilious but contained within her porous skin. She describes, in a sense, the limits of empathy – the ways in which grief and deep loss, and other emotions too, can sometimes be an exercise in boundary marking rather than breaking. Limits are re-defined, perhaps, but felt anew. Recently, the virtues of empathy in art have been extolled precisely for their boundary-blurring capacities, opening a viewer or participant to the interiority of an ‘other’ as a means of redeeming an individualism framed in relation to consumer capitalism. Luisa and Larinda and their difficult ambivalence towards redemption and beauty and getting transcendentally inside a person, towards a world of feeling ‘unpolluted’ by material desire, felt like a different kind of antidote. Even if there’s no escape, there can still be communion.
On the way out, I spoke to Jess at the desk who told me a friend, recently bereaved, had the same reaction, felt the same triggers. Later, I remember the diary I’ve been keeping this year and an entry made after a June hospital visit and there it is, the common material code: ‘her big inert body, stroked as we watched with a sonar wand that sunk into her like she was made of dough.’ (italics added). In the gallery shop there is merchandise over which owners might share a nod of recognition. In the catalogue this extension of the exhibition into product is deployed like a tension-breaking final punchline, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the strangeness of leveraging personal grief in a public performance.
Luisa: Oh Yeah! That reminds me, don’t let me forget the Larinda on Tour T-Shirts!!
I still regret not buying one.
What I did do was this. I left the gallery feeling blitzed, catapulted into walls of emotion by innocent prompts. The first sweet freesias of the season spotting median-strip weeds with cream (tears). A soft caterpillar narrowly avoiding my footfall (tears). A passing bus bearing a large photograph of Kim Kardashian in a luxe silver chainmail body-suit (tears). I found myself driven by another compulsion into the yolk-yellow cave of Bread Top, directly opposite Bon Marche Arcade, where I bought a custard bun with a crusty, smiling emoticon face baked onto its smooth surface. I ate it slowly standing on the corner of Murray and Barrack Streets with my face turned towards the sun, waiting for the sugar kick to push my trembling body back into the city’s flow. I felt momentarily, gratefully and defiantly myself & alive.
This was Saturday, 1 September. The first day of spring.
Gemma Watson is an independent artist, curator and writer based in Perth.