Artists: Francis Alÿs, Brook Andrew, Del Kathryn Barton, Farida Batool, Vivienne Binns, Leigh Bowery, Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, Christine Dean, Kelly Doley and Diana Baker Smith, Ella Dreyfus, Regina José Galindo, Amala Groom, Samuel Hodge, Geumhyung Jeong, Kate Just, Samson Kambalu, Deborah Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Radha La Bia, Pat Larter, Richard Larter, Leigh Ledare, Gary Lee, LIP, Teresa Margolles, Dani Marti, Chris Mason, Marie McMahon, Ebecho Muslimova, Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway, Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat Ul Ain, Tracey Rose, Patrick Staff, A.L. Steiner, Martine Syms, VNS Matrix, Gillian Wearing, David Wojnarowicz, William Yang, Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, Cao Yu
Curators: Talia Linz and Alexie Glass-Kantor
THE PUBLIC BODY .02 is a dense exhibition. Showing at Artspace, Sydney, across consecutive years, .02 is the second of a three-part project that takes, as its title suggests, the representations of the body as the overarching subject matter. While the first part of the series took nudity and the sexualisation of the body as a logical starting point, .02 presents work that focuses on the act of being a spectator to the changing body, whether that be the body of another, or that of the subject's own.
Dominating the line of sight upon entering the building are a series of iconic photographs of Leigh Bowery presented as wall-to-ceiling prints. A legend of drag, performance art and the 80s club scene in London, Bowery used his face, skin and self-made costumes to transform his body into something more exaggerated, at times animalistic, clownishly sexual or just a total gender fuck. Leigh Bowery was a man of spectacle whose absurdist take on the body was presented to audiences as an alternative to the rigidity of mainstream representations of our flesh. Bowery's work is a proposition: you can accept that you are encumbered by your own skin and bones, but that doesn’t mean you can't try and wear it whatever way you want to see it.
Where Bowery's work revelled in shock and awe through deliberate presentation, Patrick Staff’s work for .02 explores the body as unwieldy and grasping, beyond the control of its subject. Artist and writer Catherine Lord is the primary subject of Staff’s video work Weed Killer (2017), providing a monologue recounting the physical and emotional experience of her own body as it went through chemotherapy following a breast cancer diagnosis. Lord is at odds with the behaviours inside her body and the chemicals being used to contain them. Lord’s language is evocative and at times heartbreaking as she is at pains to find acceptance with what is happening to her flesh. When Staff cuts away from Lord, we find ourselves in a bar with the camera fixed on performer Jamie Crewe as they begin to lip-sync to Masters at Work's 'To Be in Love'. Despite Crewe’s passionate rendition, the bar is scarcely occupied and those that are present aren't particularly focused. For both subjects of Weed Killer, there is a disconnect between their private and public representations. Despite feelings of isolation, they continue on, if only for an audience of one: the subject.
While Bowery and Staff's work are given privileged placements in this sprawling exhibition – Bowery’s prints looming over the gallery entrance and Staff’s work designated its own room – Kelly Doley and Diana Baker Smith's In Search of Pat Larter (2017) is another noteworthy piece amongst the scaffolding. Journeying into Pat Larter's archives, the video work acts as a one-way conversation with Larter. It recognises her position as the primary muse to her much-lauded husband Richard Larter, and celebrates her as key figure in the mail art movement, also canonized in the work. Doley and Baker Smith are an active audience to Larter’s art, rearticulating her history for the present. Through In Search of Pat Larter the artists offer Larter renewed life, independent from her perceived previous position as mere muse. This rediscovery reveals that remembering the past can lead to new potentialities for the future; remembering does not have to be an end in and of itself.
In THE PUBLIC BODY .02 there are no static ideas of the body; even the understanding of it as a complete or absolute is rejected. The body is a loaded force and a consequence of the changing world around it. The body is past, present and potential, as evidenced in the exhibition through works that represent the body in stages of transition, or independent of the subject’s own grasp. At every turn in .02 artists are clashing with the parameters of the body. Maybe we don’t even own our bodies; maybe they are simply the products of time.
On the opening night of .02, all eyes were on Radha La Bia (alter ego of artist Shahmen Suku) and their performance White King, Brown Queen (2017). Grinding turmeric while standing in a bathtub, wearing fathered eyelashes, a magnificent turban and dressed in a sheer embroidered leotard that created a dewy gloss to their hairy chest, Radha La Bia was a fabulous vision. The audience was enamored by this performance and the artist seemed to revel in the attention with mouth ajar and bedroom eyes aplenty as they rubbed the crushed turmeric onto their skin. Yet there is an ambiguity in this subject-audience gaze. As the wall text points out, while turmeric holds a place in Indian, and particularly Hindu, cleansing rituals like weddings, childbirth and funerals, it is also believed to reduce facial hair growth and lighten the skin. Across Asia, fairer skin has become linked to higher social status, a reflection of the impact of hierarchies from colonial rule. In White King, Brown Queen Radha La Bia wears an historic ritual on their skin, but also a contemporary one. The body is cleansed for ceremonies but it is also cleansed of this very culture. Standing in that bathtub, staring out at us all, Radha La Bia changes their body, colonising it to meet a pervasive colonial gaze.
Ambitions are high for THE PUBLIC BODY series, with this exhibition alone bringing together over 40 works, from the 1970s to the present, featuring both local and internationally renowned artist. The curators absolutely fill the space with artworks, keeping the gallery from feeling too crowded by partitioning rooms not with walls but mere scaffolding. This allows audiences to easily swerve between works, helping to limit the feeling that the artworks themselves are closing in on the viewer’s own body. Ultimately, the exhibition design is well planned, allowing the audience to get lost in its ideas and discover new works each time they navigate it.
In saying that, the inclusion of a series of quotes from manifestos by renowned writers and theorists such as Paul Preciado, Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway does start to crowd the space. Presented as A3 printout on white cartridge paper, these texts are hung on the wall amongst the artworks. While the words may allow for greater nuance in readings of THE PUBLIC BODY .02, as objects they are simply washed out by their surroundings. Perhaps they would have been better suited to an exhibition catalogue rather than to be seen as an artwork in their own right.
Superfluous or not, however, these texts are probably more indicative of the exhibition's strength, than much of a downside: THE PUBLIC BODY .02 has a hell of a lot to say. It may be large and intimidating but it is so refreshing to see an exhibition that embraces scale while remaining so tightly focused.
Dense, ambitious and expansive, there is also a lot to be discovered in THE PUBLIC BODY .02. This is an exhibition enamoured with the spectator, and audiences should embrace this position. Speaking from experience, repeat viewings have only improved this exhibition.
Luke Letourneau is the Coordinator of Kudos Gallery, a board member of Runway Experimental Art Journal and an emerging curator based in Sydney.