Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Be careful how you multiply: The self as subject

by Stella Rosa McDonald

24 Nov 2013

Be Careful How You Multiply[1]:The self as subject


Autobiography – the wide range of what Dutch historians call ‘Ego-documents’ – fashions and refashions the self, in dialogue with imagined interlocutors, even if those imagined receivers are one’s future selves.[2]

Ana Mendieta created silhouettes of her body amongst nature and then filmed them burning. The Cuban American artist took photographs of her face augmented by stockings, hairpieces and glass. As a woman and a migrant she placed her body in peril as if to liberate the contradictory identity she felt was under threat; mixing up the syntax of her body to find herself in the picture. In the process of recasting and framing identity via a type of delegated performance, the artist farms out experience, action, even morals to others, experiencing the things they are culturally and socially denied in their everyday lives. Viewed through a lens, witnessed by video, or knotted in tapestry, our identities can be mercurial, transitory even contradictory. The impossible, forbidden, perverse or strange are made public and permissible. Artists who operate in this delegated mode of performance seem to account for their lives not retrospectively, but in synch with the nascent, describing their potential in the multiple.

Liam Benson re-imagines Australia as exotic and adopts the nation as a personal identity. His recurring self-portraits, though symbolically different, always maintain a resemblance to Benson. He expands notions of Australian cultural identity through a type of drag. His hair is kept long for ease of transformation, he wears hi-visibility clothing and wife-beater singlets, he sings flowery American ballads in flat Australian vowels, he sews.

His process is to merge oversimplified imagery, arriving at a glamorous preview of possible futures. In their distortions of Australian cultural clichés, his personae are beautiful and poised, facing us at the moment they find their best reflection. In the photograph The Bowerbird Queen (2012), he gives us a tanned, blonde-streaked Australian monarch flanked by native wildlife; the classical male nude in the landscape in Such Is Life (2011) is covered in tattoos of Holden utes, black cockatoos and naked women appropriated from those of his own father. In Jail Mate (2012), Benson depicts himself as a prisoner with a pronounced fake tan line where his singlet should be. Benson, whose practice includes performative work in video, absorbs cultural fictions and converts nationalism into a thing of beauty and possibility. The photograph I’ll never be black (2011) is explicit in this sense, with Benson depicted in black face wearing an “I’ll never be black” headpiece. Benson has described his work as a type of cultural envy, a way of performing the parts of others that you wish were your own.

In the video Ophelia (2006), Benson plays the title role, as well as that of Hamlet, endowing himself with a mixed allegorical significance. He felt homosexual romance was understated in popular culture and so made the video, his first, to commemorate the obsessive love he felt for his new partner.[3] Singing Elton John’s Your song, he climbs into the still corner of a river. The shaky standard definition video gives a sense of urgency to the performance.He seems desperate to express a passion that is as close to fury as it is to desire; encouraged by the tremor of his voice, his emotional delivery peaks as he lies down in the freezing water carrying the bouquet of flowers and shrubbery so often identified with Ophelia. You are never more than who you love, than who has made you larger.[4]

Where Benson draws the schematic, Anastasia Klose moves within it. As the subject of her own work, Klose has been variously described as vacuous, pathetic, heroic and a “positive victim”.[5] The issue of Klose’s work is in the reaction it elicits, revealing a culture that finds exploring sex on the screen barbarous and which still sees the unmarried woman as miserable. Andrew Bolt, columnist for The Age, lambasted Klose’s work as being symptomatic of “a culture sliding into vacuity, if not outright barbarity”.[6] Did he watch In the toilets with Ben (2005)?

There she is on the floor of her art school toilet, awkwardly pulling her friend Ben toward her, smiling, grimacing, ‘getting pumped’ by the nervous but willing Ben. In the toilets with Ben wasn’t filmed illicitly, it’s not a night-vision-green riff on celebrity sex tapes, it’s not even confessional. It’s an experiment. It’s saying something out loud to see if it rings true – and it’s disarming. As Klose performs her life in real-time she pays tribute to the trials of identity as a diarist might take note of the day, but with us watching, and beyond her intentions, her identity (that of Woman) becomes provisional and open to revision.

Klose’s videos often feature and are addressed to the women in her life. They are posed as responses to the impossible questions and relationships that we ask of each other. In Film for my nana (2011), Klose opens with the title Nana often wonders when I will get married. This film is for her. In it she walks around Melbourne in a wedding dress with a hand-written sign that says, “Nana I’m still alone”. As punks embrace her and tourists pose next to her on the street, she becomes a monument to The Bride. She seems cheerful and relaxed, but appears also as an apparition waiting to be sated.

Klose enacts our clichéd ideas of Romance, Intimacy and the Artist and often nothing much happens; she dances with strangers and they dance back (Dancing with strangers, 2009), she walks through Paris with a sign appealing to the artistic sensibilities of the city, and is plainly ignored (Je suis une artist Aussi! 2007). Because nothing much happens, because she plays the cliché, she shows us what it looks like to be lonely, to be intimate, to be yourself.

Paul Yore’s conception of his own identity is in the aesthetics of his work; it is playful, cosmetically chaotic, erotic and exhausted. Across needlepoint, sculpture and installation, it consists of several voices sourced from fiction, pornography, pop culture and Australiana. His carnivalesque installations are crowded with junk that he collects on his walks from home to studio. As an artist looking to articulate contradictions, everything must seem infinitely symbolic; glitter, Justin Bieber pin-ups and plastic toys become totems, exaggerated male bodies are pitched against colourful geometric backdrops, pornography and Greek sculpture commune. Yore’s self-described ‘sporadic transvestism’ enacted (in jeans and tee, kitten heels and hair bows) at the openings of his exhibitions is, like Benson’s cultural envy, a process of identity by trial.[7]

The dictum of ‘repossessing’ a feminine medium such as needlepoint may seem tired, but in Yore’s tapestries the subject is more visible as the medium is relieved of its feminine associations.  In a corner of the needlepoint Boys gone wild (2012), a young Adonis pisses a rainbow that extends to frame the picture while other adolescent-styled boys (his fantastic sexy idols) sit perched in gums and next to magpies. Technically needlepoint is not a process of embroidery, but the creation of a new fabric. The Boys gone wild are copied from drawings from porn, and from classic images of Isaac, David, and Eros and Endymion; the work is a study of maleness and Yore is cutting his own cloth.

In the novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, William Burroughs describes a carved, ebony penis with an opal set at the tip. In Natural Object (2011), Paul Yore has recognised a version of himself in making a version of Burroughs’ fictional penis. It is not a fetishised bling cock, a thing of perversion or secrecy or a shock object but a found object repurposed by Yore from a wooden junk-store sculpture. The installation Everything is fucked (2012) features a cardboard cutout of a child with a Justin Bieber head, urinating through a dildo into a sink. Due to public complaint this installation was seized from its exhibition at the Linden Arts Center and police involved in the matter have charged Yore with producing and possessing child pornography. The work was part of a curated exhibition, Like Mike, Now What? that featured artists who take influence from or share themes with the artist Mike Brown. Brown used pornographic collage as political satire and commentary and was convicted of obscenity in 1966. Is childhood the only aspect of life that we are not allowed to depict once we have left it? In line with Yore’s practice of confronting notions of a culturally determined identity Everything is fucked repurposes already popularised imagery to tell the story of the portrayal of children, and the story of a young man critical of his identity.

The explanation of a work of art is always sought in the person who produced it, as if the work alone is not enough. But when the subject is the very self of the author, and autobiographical vestiges remain in the works, then it is through recognizing the origins of artists that we can understand more fully the fictions they create. These artists wait beside the chrysalis, ready to capture the moments of emergence and change. Through a process of undoing they trial the fictions assigned to their sex, until all that is left and sure is the fact that just below the surface is another surface, ready to be scratched.



[1] Be good at several things at your peril…if you wish to fulfill various aspects of yourself you will encounter the puzzlement, even hostility, of monoselves who are unaware of their own multiplicity and potential. You learn that fulfilling variety is deadly serious. Otherwise it becomes trivial. Whatever you do the standard must be unyielding, punishing as that may be. So be careful how you multiply. O’Doherty, Brian. “Strolling with the zeitgeist: Five decades.”Freize Foundation, Freize talks. http://freizefoundation.org/talks/detail/brian-odoherty.

[2] Warner, Marina. ‘Open Questions. An introduction by Marina Warner’ In Moments of truth: twelve twentieth-century women writers, Ed. Lorna Sag, Fourth Estate, 2001 pxv.

[3] Conversation with the artist. March 19, 2013.

[4] Kraus Chris. ‘Sentimental Bitch’, in Video Green. Los Angeles Art and the triumph of nothingness. SEMIOTEXT(E), 2004.

[5] Bailey, John ‘Nothing to hide’ The Age March 18, 2007.

[6] Bolt, Andrew ‘Scenes From Our Fall’ The Age 18 March, 2007.

[7] Email conversation with the artist April 2013.