Creon Upton – 17 August, 2011
Ostensibly, I think, this action piece was an exploration of a young child's experience of the world: to all intents and purposes blind and mute, constructing some kind of brutal entertainment from whatever's at hand, chafed and sore and lumbered by the discomforts of a full nappy and the merciless weight of its own body.
NAH, IT’S ONLY GABY
6 - 20 August (Action piece only performed on opening night)
From across the street, it was a great carnival mask, bobbing around in a small white room, seeming to float, knocking up against more run-of-the-mill human forms - which sought to scatter at its unheeding approach. A mother and her daughters sat in the grim cold, waiting for their Friday-night takeaways, entranced and delighted by this bizarre, bright, window-framed performance, one flight up, on the other side of the still-busy road.
Inside, it was hot and sticky and crowded and loud, a regular art opening but at twice the normal density of human flesh. It was what happens to adult spaces when children enter the picture: crammed and confined, bodies forced into the discomfort of others’ personal spaces, conversations disturbed by senseless, stentorian eruptions, grown-up entertainment compromised, working around the exigencies of a toddler’s environment.
No leisurely sipping on wine here: rather desperate swallowings of white Cubans (rum, Khalua and goats’ milk - the artist is of Cuban descent) from small paper cups. When you have kids (so they tell me), you just don’t have the time or space to enjoy your drinks in a casual, civilised way; no, you must maintain a constant state of insobriety (it helps you to get by) with stolen gulps of spirits that better not taste too good. Sweet and hard and smelly is best: keeps you away from that shelf until you really need it; keeps you more-or-less functional throughout the chore-filled day.
Our responsible hosts also brought through steaming platters of empanadas - sustenance taken on the hoof, high GI, warming our bellies against the sheer, debilitating work of remaining conscious in this tight, cacophonous, claustrophobic space.
Meanwhile, for nearly two hours, a blinded man clomped around the next room, ever just tantalising inches from posterior penetration threatened by the priapic, bicycle-mounted weapon that reared and bucked, straining up towards his nappy-wrapped arse, as he towed it with the stolid acquiescence of a grindstone mule (though with none of the grace), having willingly bound himself to this artefact of rude engineering: a fractured assemblage that recalled to me in its clunkiness my own childish attempts at creative construction.
Affixed to one side of the massive white mask that engulfed this poor man’s upper half was a wheel, spinning on its axis, rolling against the wall, guiding in some fashion his stilted progress around the room. The wheel had been taken from the front fork of the bike that he hauled behind him: a cute-pink kiddie’s number, an unstable cart for this carnival clown, this burdened beast - blistered and bothered and all out of bray.
Ostensibly, I think, this action piece was an exploration of a young child’s experience of the world: to all intents and purposes blind and mute, constructing some kind of brutal entertainment from whatever’s at hand, chafed and sore and lumbered by the discomforts of a full nappy and the merciless weight of its own body - with nowhere to go inside this four-walled play-pen, condemned to an endless repetition of inchoate expression that can only ever appear to an unsympathetic observer as mindless and pointless and senseless and dumb.
And in that respect, the immediate interest lay in the responses of the extremely grown-up crowd that had assembled for the opening. Vaguely titillated, everyone popped into the kid’s room for a quick look, but they didn’t hang around. This unpredictable, pathetic, messy creature inspired a few frantic screeches from those who faced actual contact with the abject figure, while others looked on in stern bemusement; still others were fain to discipline the monster, pushing at it, steering it off the loxodrome that bore the ghastly thing inevitably down on them - then, hoping some responsible parent would put this child to bed, they made their own determined paths back to the grown-ups’ room, back to line-up for another shot of liquor and another opportunity at the networking wheel of chance.
But there was something else going on too.
That first room of the gallery was particularly cramped thanks to a good part of it being occupied by a cardboard corridor that visitors were obliged to navigate as they made their way inwards. We were, it seemed, entering through a transforming passageway into the child-artist’s imagination - replete with miniature doors and hatches and windows cut from the brown card.
But once through to the other side we could see that the corridor was not constructed of some random collection purloined from a supermarket recycling bin: no, these walls were made from the uniform packaging of enough Mac products to serve a renegade colony of disaffected hipsters for at least a year. The ultra-slick building material created the unavoidable suggestion that this was not a child’s imaginary land opening up to us so much as it was the inner realm of the modern man-child, abiding in silence somewhere behind those horn-rimmed glasses and fashionable beard.
It’s disarming somehow to even imagine the possible existence of the clean-living, contemporary dude’s deeper consciousness, of his playing host to an unspeakable privacy. The very notion is disallowed by his unassailable completitude, his perfect surface, his ethical shopping, good living, natural fibres, informed choices, and of course by his enlightened approaches to parenthood. He brings together magazine-marketing and in-the-world wholesomeness, creating the perfect modern package, a symbol for a culture’s final self-knowledge: there is surely no chance of anything more going on beneath all that fastidious self-consciousness.
So while it seemed that I was supposed to recognise in the general degradation of the performance a graphic rendering of the life of the child, it increasingly seemed to me that this was more an enabling for the man inside the child’s mask to voice his own undiagnosed torment (oppressed by family, duty, history, necessity); and more, for him to subject himself precisely and entirely to that oppression - because he deserves it, because he simply must endure it, because he is owed no relief from the humiliations of work and pain, from the lacerations and chafings, the stench and despair of choosing to live right in a world that is wrong.
The “priapic, wheel-mounted weapon” that I mentioned sat precariously on the child’s bike, a plywood rocket to first impressions, the whole mechanism following the artist like a stubborn, rapacious shadow with no possibly good intent. But it wasn’t a rocket: more than anything it recalled a pistil, that sexily fecund, penile-seeming, centrepiece of a flower, which in fact comprises the female reproductive parts of the plant.
The contemporary dude with his MacBook has moved beyond social protest, beyond the labour movement and worthy causes and an exterior world that you actually have to touch. His praxis is purely domestic. He owns his reproductive outcomes and internalises household necessities. He stays close to the deepest secrets and secretions of human flesh, flashes family photos on facebook, glows in exuberance through daily encounters with the real. He disciplines and regulates himself into an infantile subjugation through his enslavement and devotion to the pistil and to the hermaphroditic ideal that it represents.
This is the death of romance. It is the embracing of toil and mundanity and careful self-management. It is small, sentimental pleasures within the confined circles of cluttered rooms. And it is made possible and bearable by broadband and blogs, by the Daily Show and Wilco, by the humbling rewards of careful attention paid to your child - and by the merciless sublimation of the inarticulate cries, the petulant protests, of the left-destitute child within.
Two Rooms presents a program of residencies and projects
by leading international and New Zealand contemporary artists.