Catalogue essay for Deborah Paauwe

Stolen Riddles at Greenaway Art Gallery 2015

 

 

That breathing in and out remembers lost or quiet things you always wanted[1]

 

Somewhere I still have the photographs my friends and I took of one another dressed up in my sister’s clothes when we were only eleven. We posed with props that empowered us to perform new and different identities: my sister’s electric guitar, a plastic tiara and a purple exercise ball.  This memory is of a specific hot-blooded communication that occurs between girls, where the move from childhood to adolescence is navigated together and where there's a tension between solitary and shared experiences. The cloudy photographs, taken on a disposable camera, show undeveloped bodies in poses that awkwardly practice how to simultaneously present the allure and integrity of being a woman.

 

Child play is a safe and private rehearsal for ‘real’ life’s performance. The intimate spaces created in pre-pubescent secret-sharing, lies and games create a particular momentary excitement, which can verge on both the erotic and sinister. Play between girls exposes that the nature of intimacy between women is inextricable from emotions responding to the socially constructed performance of femininity. This unconscious awareness of performance creates a tender, trusting understanding of how it feels to be perpetually watched. Though never overtly explained that this is the way of the world, through social codes and the pervasive construction of gendered behaviour, certain rules are learned.

 

Becoming a woman felt a bit like becoming famous[2]

 

Deborah Paauwe’s staged portraits of pre-pubescent girls are intimate considerations of the volatile transition from girlhood to womanhood. The images capture the complexities of navigating this time with secrecy, ambiguity and take a sensitive approach to the physical indicators of innocence budding into awareness.

 

Like most of Paauwe’s photographs, faces in the Stolen Riddles series are obscured from view. We glimpse teeth awkwardly finding their position, presenting a confronting and grotesque image of childhood development, further heightening its precariousness and uncertainty. Subtle suggestions of narrative are constructed through the coupling of the girls, emphasising their solitude in the singular photographs. The physical interaction between the girls draws attention to their vulnerability. A protective arm folds over a flat chest, unformed hips are embraced and supple arms are linked in mutual union. When viewed as a whole, the tension between the girls coupled and isolated speaks of states of loneliness and alienation, where the difficulty of navigating private and public spaces becomes an experiment with freedom and an emerging awareness of the significance of beauty is formed.

 

In Stolen Riddles there is a focus on the lushness and allure of hair. The wigs are sumptuous and appealing. In some photos they look like ripe fruit, while in others they are arranged awkwardly and shambolically, like soft shields or bad hiding places. The obstruction of faces with hair has an uneasy edge and gives the impression of dual identities, heightening the sense of a shared secret game. Of course in all games there is an initiator and an initiated; a complex web of power relations. There is something more assertive about the girls in this series. The gestures of hair-shaking and protective unification have a strength that feels as though the subjects play a more active role than in Paauwe’s previous work.

 

once we had the peculiarities and history of our bodies in place we went on to the stories…[3]

 

The contrast of young girls together and in private is at the centre of this series as Paauwe reveals a tender embrace, the desire for escape and a sense of alienation. These images could be seen as responses to memories or might remind us of the mysterious ways our own childhood recollections manifest in adult experience. This transitional time in the lives of pre-pubescent girls is both intriguing and uncomfortable. There is pleasure in looking at these photographs, yet the contrast between the girls’ innocence and awareness destablilises our gaze, creating a pervading sense of unease. To counter this discomfort we try to decipher what it is, and in that process, create narratives of our own.

Kate Power, 2015

 

[1] Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013).

[2] Caitlin Moran, How To Be a Woman (London: Ebury Press, 2012).

[3] Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (London: Vintage Books, 2010). 

 

 

Catalogue essay for Derek Sargent

Allure Me at CACSA Project Space 2015

 

The need for a kiss

 

“But if there’s no sex, then what’s the point?”[1]

Tender embrace. Innocent lust. Private desires. Soft skin contact. Carefree intimacy. Open kiss.

Images of intimacy between people reflect common desires that make us human. In adolescence these images are eagerly observed, aspired to and reenacted in awkward first sexual encounters. Through mainstream media pervasive heteronormativity is established, giving the impression that teen sexuality is something that occurs between good-looking twenty-year-old women and men masquerading as fifteen-year-old teenagers.

Popular culture fails those of us in adolescence that don’t identify with the conventional narrative. We waited for the arrival of the TV guide to hunt for hidden codes that might suggest that elusive queer movie. You find yourself in a dark lounge room with the anticipation, anxiety and excitement of the suggestive keywords written in the guide “two women find themselves in a cottage”. Could this be me? There is an isolated, desperate yearning in this quest. This is particularly true in eras where the Internet was not a means to find resources. It was slim pickings. Although there are more representations now, they are rarely realistic or appealing. Homosexuality in pop culture is often stereotyped men that many queer adolescents wouldn’t relate to: flamboyant fashionistas, bitches, sex workers or victims of crime.

Adolescence is often riddled with anxiety about belonging. Representations that validate innate desires are frantically sought after in hope to construct and justify emerging identities. Michel Foucault observed that people living in Western countries have increasingly attributed their identity with their sexuality; “it was everywhere present in him at the root of all his actions”.[2] The quest for self-reflective imagery in adolescence is central in developing ones place in the world. When satisfying imagery is unavailable counter-reading enables the viewer to reimagine the narrative of an image with one that fulfills their own desires. 

Derek Sargent’s sculpture and installation practice seeks to subvert heteronormativity in adolescent sexuality by privileging queer imagery of intimacy and longing. His auto-ethnographic approach invites us to counter-read the pop culture imagery that he applied to himself at the critical time of adolescent sexual development. Using found footage and images and symbolic manipulation of materials and colour; Sargent creates immersive queer utopias where desire and expression are honest and relatively uninhibited.

Sargent’s installations are wholly consuming, if we were able to look away or evade the intensity, we would miss the point. In Allure Me, the height of the gallery is reduced, concentrating the space and imagery in it and creating a new, unchartered territory. The ceiling is harsh and structured but softens and bends at the corners and is manipulated by colourful wool, which seems uncharacteristically strong. The feeling is a slightly uncomfortable cocooning. We know the ceiling probably won’t fall but we’re aware that danger hovers above. There is also the possibility of magic in this structure- a colourful, shiny canopy that makes me think of big city lights and the potential of an exciting party.

Materials are used in unconventional and thoughtfully intentional ways. Steel bends and curves, embodying an almost fluid form. Wool is pulled straight and taut, developing strength and purpose. We could consider the application of these materials as contradictions of how masculinity and femininity are stereotypically viewed. The wool is holding it together, and seemingly deploying the steel. The steel is bent and in some cases, appears droopy.

Images of intimacy between boys are at the centre of this environment. We are drawn into private worlds of tender, lusty connections. These representations are rare. Not just between two boys but of boys at all. The vulnerability and care hidden in us all is open and exposed in the imagery of romantic longing. The humanness of these moments liberates masculinity from its typical disconnect with vulnerability and homosexuality from a question of morality to one of humanity. By drawing people into common understandings of human relationships, Sargent reveals the universality of gay experience. It is important to him that people are consumed by the imagery, rather than alienated by it. The sensitivity of this approach creates a kind of heartbreaking realness about the obstacles people face in order to feel connected.

Expectations of gender and sexuality can be a confining social structure, one that limits and transforms the way people behave. The way identity is constructed could be seen as learned behaviours that are repeated and adapted through routine. Judith Butler considers gender and sexuality as ‘acts’ that are necessary in order to be seen as “a recognisable human subject”.[3] We become more visible to others through well-known language and signs, but are obstructed through the curtain of convention. Sargent considers the way imposed imagery shapes feeling and thought and restricts vulnerable behaviour that is free of public, or contrived performance. 

Allure Me doesn’t just speak of queer adolescence but the human yearning to feel connected to others. We are voyeurs to a place where expression is free and queer adolescent intimacy is at the centre. There is optimism in the warm colours and the way tender moments between boys are celebrated; yet a jarring uneasiness lingers. Perhaps we are reminded of the difficulty of adolescent terrain. Perhaps this uneasiness is another reference to Sargent’s experience of adolescence, aware of his desire, yet restricted by the potential isolation of it.

 

[1] In conversation with Derek about art

[2]Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, 1st ed. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1976).

[3]Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (Routledge: London and New York, 1990).