Carmen-Sibha Keiso and Emily Hanson
October 13 - 31, 2023
At Hyacinth, I am eyeing the cracked and conspicuously unlatched floor-to-ceiling windows that one could plausibly lean on and fall through, down six floors of the Nicholas Building to certain death – an unfortunately fitting image given the rental precarity of the gallery, as evinced by their ongoing GoFundMe campaign. To my mind, Hyacinth is one of the few galleries ‘for the girls’, and this show’s subtitle, Tendencies in Female Behavior, could be neatly applied to other recent shows that suggest the abject, interior feminine a.k.a. a hot, ill girl who spends most of her time indoors: Grace Anderson’s Johnny my baby recalling famous sexual-depressive Tracey Emin if she used more love hearts in her work; gallery directors Nicola Blumenthal and Eleanor Laver’s leper, where the eponymous work is an astonishing grouping of rose stems spelling the word leper: and The Freedom Show with Katherine Botten’s hand-drawn exit signs decorated with coquettish bows and swirls in glitter pen. In Emily Cardboard, our girl protagonists venture outside, at least some of the time.
In the seven-minute video displayed on a museum standard Sony CRTV, we watch Emily Hanson walk and pose in her apartment and on the streets of her home city of New York, shot on a camcorder by Carmen-Sibha Keiso, who also makes cameo appearances. Fragments of their monotone conversations, noise pollution and nondescript ambient music make up the video’s mumblecore-ish soundscape. Eight folding chairs are ordered to face the television, each with a single-page colour printout each with four photographs of physically diverse shop mannequins (pregnant, differently abled, or with a BBL), culled from a collection of over 200 mannequin found images by Hanson. The printouts imply the chairs to be more an installation than seating, and I opt to sit on the floor just in case. Two male patrons, film critic Digby Houghton and artist Luke Sands, arrive shortly after and take their seats on both the chairs and printouts without hesitation. One even swivels his chair around to better converse with Keiso (call that tendencies in male behaviour).
If the video is Keiso’s contribution to the show, a multimedia artist who describes her role in this and other video work as that of a ‘cameraman’, Hanson’s contribution is the outfits. I counted twelve distinct looks in the video. All are styled by Hanson, and mostly modelled by her, but also worn by her faceless body doubles made of cardboard, this show’s namesake, which debuted shortly after the making of the video. Repeating elements such as knee high boots, baker boy hats, bustiers, headscarves and capri pants create the foundations for the ensembles, while statement pieces contribute to a visual call and response between the outfits and their backdrops across Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Somewhere near Myrtle Avenue, Hanson pairs a cheerfully graffitied wall with skinny multicoloured knee-length shorts in what seems to be a Lego print. She crouches and scuffs around seductively in slouchy leather brown boots with about a dozen buckles on each as Keiso films through diamond mesh fencing. A peekaboo back knit sweater and a straw bowler hat complete the look to indie sleaze perfection. But this footage is from 2020, a whole two years before buzzy news articles on the revivalist hipster aesthetic began to circulate. In the accompanying text, an interview between ‘Emily Cardboard’ and Keiso’s semi-fictional hipster persona, Hanson is described tongue-in-cheek as a ‘fashion experiencer’. In reality, she is a clothing reseller who also produces her own pieces. One of these is a snapback with JACK KEROUAC embroidered in urban typeface, which Keiso wore to the show’s opening, a perfect pastiche of drug-fuelled, self-ironising literary cool that was big in the late aughts and came back during the pandemic.
Keiso and Hanson spent a year together in locked-down New York where they lived like characters in a Tao Lin novel, taking six-hour-long Kratom-fuelled walks through the city and finding respite at their favourite Brooklyn kava bar, Ka-vá, where Hanson helped orchestrate an exhibition curated by Nick Irvin of Lin’s mandala drawings in 2021. While the Taiwanese-American novelist’s writing has been somewhat lazily defined by critics as emblematic of a listless class of urbanite millennials with brains addled equally by drugs as by the internet, I stand by the more psychoanalytically-informed interpretations of his work as aesthetic experiments in autistic jouissance. It is this underrepresented cognitive sublime that Emily Cardboard taps into with girlish flair. The neurodiverse viewer may find themselves in subtle markers throughout the video, from their monotonic commentary in alcoholism, disability and the technical quirks of Keiso’s camera, to the way that Hanson, once at home, relaxes with her legs wound impossibly around each other in sensory search for compression. Keiso described their long walks together as exercises in autistic-girly-psychogeography. As a female autist, I find their solemn, eventless traipsing through the city in strange sexy-ugly garb almost joyous, a perfect study in autistic girl companionship and all its drama-free intensity.
Outside Trump Tower, Emily is in a striking gold ensemble. The star of this look is a cropped, puffy, sleeveless, double-breasted trench coat top, accessorised with gold fingerless gloves adorned with beaded roses on the hands and oversized black bubble glasses. At the time of filming, wayward artists and fashionable dilettantes were eligible for a $750USD weekly stipend as part of the US Government’s pandemic unemployment assistance program, a once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity that could support artmaking, if only within the narrow confines of your apartment and permissible open air settings. Taking photos of yourself became state-funded auto-fictional bedroom art, which Hanson excels at in this work with Keiso as her accomplice and enabler. At the time, plague-induced indie sleaze nostalgia had piqued a renewed enthusiasm for the first generation of internet It girls, and a host of aspiring party girls began modelling themselves as copycat Cat Marnells and Cory Kennedys, while the real Cat and Cory were getting off drugs and writing memoirs. As she lounges in bed wearing tabi booties or looks out, pantsless, over a Brooklyn rooftop, Hanson seems to have all the factors that combine to make a girl It: being physically modelesque, nonpareil personal style that walks the line between unflattering and hot, and the right amount of aloofness. Emily Cardboard seems to document a sort of slouching towards It-girl-dom, where the girls’ attitude towards It is shot through with both satirical embrace and sincere refusal.
In their interview, the two half-jokingly contextualise Hanson’s protagonist within the ‘desire that New Yorkers have for female abjectionʼ and ‘the urgency to affirm the history and context of it-girls here. Otherwise New York would be socially dead.ʼ At the same time, Hanson rejects the futile strivings of would-be It girls as reflective of ‘a longing for a dead NYC that no longer exists’ where people ‘move here to develop an ED, wear skinny black jeans and a broad-brim hat and try to be a model on the cobblestones’. Predatory older male artists, who leap at the chance to imprison any aspiring It girl by converting her to muse, are similarly rejected by Hanson: she declines to be made the plaything of filmmaker Eugene Jarecki because of his ʻshort-man-older-brother complexʼ, and graciously accepts a printed pair of pantyhose gifted to her by sculptor Peter Friel (seen in multiple looks in the video, styled with the ass ripped out) while maintaining that she is not ‘one of those girls’. In the video, the refusal of It-ness is found primarily in the presence felt behind the camcorder, namely, Keiso. Instead of performing a sad paid pap walk or being voyeuristically shot by some star-fucking creep, Hanson welcomes Keiso to be an equal partner in the creation of their weird-girl-world that supervenes over the real New York. There, they can be mutual muses in a new society of their own making, of which the torn chairs, diverse shop mannequins and cardboard body doubles are also citizens, leaving the thoroughly picked-over carcass of New York society behind. The fact that Keiso mostly films and Hanson mostly models seems, in the end, incidental. For every outrageous outfit that Hanson wears, I imagine an equally unexpected fit donned by Keiso, just out of sight behind the lens.
Carmen-Sibha Keiso and Emily Hanson, Emily Cardboard; Tendencies in Female Behavior, 2020
By now, I’ve watched the video several times over, and from my spot on the floor, I look back at the unlatched windows. In an infamous episode in Sex and the City’s final season (Splat!, 2004), a past-her-prime party girl falls to her death through a similar window after proclaiming that New York is over. With Emily Cardboard, Hanson and Keiso offer us an alternative, more peaceful way out.
Joanna Pope is a German-Australian writer and researcher working in the cryptocurrency industry.
un Projects’ Editor-in-Residence Program is supported by the City of Yarra, Creative Victoria and City of Melbourne
Editor: Carmen-Sibha Keiso