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risks with self and stranger

darren jorgenson: pica’s intimate acts


Kissing Project (video still), 2009, Julie Traitis, Intimate Acts Kissing Project (video still), 2009, Julie Traitis, Intimate Acts
photo courtesy the artist
THE SUBJECT OF INTERPERSONAL INTIMACY WOULD AT FIRST APPEAR TO BE A DIFFICULT ONE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, SINCE GALLERY SPACES ARE SO TREMENDOUSLY CONTROLLED IN THEIR MECHANISMS OF PRESENTATION. LITTLE IS LEFT TO CHANCE, AS ARTISTS AND CURATORS CAREFULLY MANUFACTURE A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VISITORS AND ARTWORKS. IN PICA’S SHOW INTIMATE ACTS, THE BEST WORKS EXPERIMENT WITH THE LIMITS OF THIS CONTROL, AS THEIR PERFORMERS PLACE THEMSELVES IN AWKWARD SITUATIONS.

Thus in Smith/Stewart’s Mouth to Mouth (1995), Stewart is submerged in a bath, and is only able to breathe because Smith leans forward to exhale her own air into his mouth, between his bubbling outward breaths. It is this meeting of mouths that keeps Smith alive. In Patty Chang’s In Love (2001), two screens show the artist kissing her mother and father, their open mouths sharing an onion between them. Their faces turn from tears to disgust to something else, some undefined experience known only to the kissers. These works greet us as we walk into the show, and set an edgy standard. They evidence great control on the part of the performers, as they bring themselves into close contact with life-giving forces.

Such intensity is also at work within Futoshi Miyagi’s photographs of his meetings with internet dates, the Strangers series (2006). The photographs are taken in his date’s apartment or house, and show him in proximity to the stranger he has just met. In some images they are touching, in others he stares out the window or at the wall as if adopting the gaze of the stranger. These images are not, however, the kind of verite documentation that we might expect of a liberal lifestyle. The shots are instead tremendously composed, as the strangers assume postures for the camera. There is a sense of danger about Miyagi’s project that is ultimately controlled by intense performativity. Strangers and artist alike perform themselves, staging their own situation. It was Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness who most succinctly described the self-consciousness of performing the self. Sitting in a park, he became conscious not only of being looked at, but of seeing the stranger who was seeing him. For Sartre personhood is founded on this interchange of gazes, in which the self is created in a performance that looks upon the other that is looking at oneself. There is a strange empowerment in this interval, a consciousness of self-consciousness that Sartre called freedom. In Miyagi’s photographs this freedom is visible in the postures that these strangers assume, postures that perform the freedom to be photographed by a stranger.

The other works in the show are less edgy and more conceptual, playing out various ideas in photography and the moving image. Smith/Stewart are represented once more by Intercourse (1993), a magnificent large scale video work. Spit passes between two massive screens, from one mouth into another. The scale of these mouths turn them into frightening, pulsing masses of flesh resembling giant insect predators, moving quickly to spit and swallow. By contrast Elise/Jurgen’s Convergence of our Perceivable Distance (2009) is a slow, deliberate piece. Jurgen’s shadow tries to keep pace with Elise’s video projection, as her body moves across a screen. In moments he catches up, obscuring her projection, leaving only darkness before she reappears. This is a subtly ironic work, as Jurgen’s success in merging himself with Elise would mean only darkness for the viewer. Instead, we watch Elise’s outline, her barest form in light.

Kelli Connell’s Double Life series (2002-2008) is manipulated so that the artist appears to be in a relationship with herself, in naturalistic images that simulate commercial photography. These are the classical poses of advertising, glossy magazines and websites. In one she is getting out of bed where her doubled body lies sleeping. In another she smiles at her double who languishes naked in the bath. Others are more romantic than erotic, as Connell stands forehead to forehead in front of the setting sun, or sits with herself in the alcove of a scenic window. In simulating such photographic cliches, Connell’s images recall the uncanny depersonalization of Cindy Sherman’s early work that reproduced the image world of Hollywood cinema. Connell is instead working in a digital era, in which images are created rather than reproduced, composed rather than posed. While Sherman’s work could just as well have been from an actual film, Connell’s doubling is self-contained, as if we are looking at a mirror that only looks back at itself. If Sherman’s photographs addressed the viewer’s gaze with its constructions of cinematic women, Connell’s doubles no longer need us, as they look only upon themselves or to a simulated world that is brighter than our own. Connell’s work is the product of a digital era in which reproductive technologies no longer require a machine operator, but are largely automated so that images circulate by themselves.

To make sense of the performance of self in a digital era we can turn to the performances of Julie Traitsis’ Kissing Project (2009), a record of a series of virtual kisses. Participants are asked to perform kissing for the camera as if with an invisible person. The camera faces the kissers directly, for long minutes, making the situation uncomfortable for viewers who must witness their intimacy directly. Sartre also anticipated this piece when he suggested that we only ever perform for ourselves, and indeed these performances tell us all too much about the participants. Various styles, techniques and approaches to kissing represent not so much the difficulty of performing oneself but its solitary satisfaction, as the closed eyes of the kissers allow them to escape into some fantasy or other. Flickering eyelids and tongues enact a consciousness of the self to the self. The Kissing Project casts a voyeuristic light on the rest of the show, as its performances of intimacy are unrehearsed, its performers vulnerable to our judgements.

Strangers, 2006, Futoshi Miyagi; Intimate Acts Strangers, 2006, Futoshi Miyagi; Intimate Acts
photo courtesy the artist
It is the sign of a successful exhibition when, like a good CD or LP, works try out different things but also cohere to some abiding style or concern. Curator Melissa Keys succeeds in playing out variations on her theme, such as doubling and kissing, keeping the viewer interested in the whole. Featured contemporary artists from around the English speaking world include the US (Chang, Miyagi), UK (Smith/Stewart), Australia (Traitsis, and from Perth, Elise/Jurgen). These are all young artists, infused with a generational optimism that was sadly missing in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s 2008 show of the same name. While the works at ACCA spoke of impossibility and loneliness, the vibrancy of the PICA pieces turn impossible acts, such as kissing your parents, breathing another’s air, or doubling yourself, into performances that speak of care and love.


Intimate Acts, curator Melissa Keys, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, June 18-Aug 2

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 54

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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