I Dreamed of Your Utopia
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skins, skins, nailed to a glass
wall liquid crystal, displayed.
Judith Butler: “In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.”
Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1999, p.136.
Changing to Summer
performance, single channel video, photographs
Department of Biological Flow
Ex-position (Program and Thumbnail)
performance and two-channel video
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Brendan Fernandes presented last night as part of the Art in the Public Sphere speaker series at the University of Western Ontario (the same series in which I gave a talk back in September). Fernandes is a graduate of the UWO program, now living and working in New York, and his return was met with a packed house at the Visual Arts Centre.
Brendan’s work is very personal and deals (primarily) with the complexities of identity and diaspora, particularly given his own experiences growing up of mixed Kenyan, Indian and Canadian heritages. Indeed, his practice continually challenges antiquated notions of “authenticity” as they relate to the global flows of migration, culture and commerce.
I mention him here because of one of the works he showed during his presentation, titled Changing to Summer. While perhaps not the most interesting or challenging example he offered during his talk last night, it directly related to work I’ve been considering at the Nonsense Lab concerning exposure and its politics.
In Changing to Summer, Fernandes attends several sessions in an ultraviolet tanning bed with stickers pasted to his body in various motifs, which represent textile imagery from his varied cultural backgrounds. Upon peeling the stickers — voilà! — Fernandes himself becomes a sort of temporary cultural tapestry.
Not only does he mark his body with these various signifiers (for example, an imprint of a mask borrowed from his Kenyan heritage), he also plays with tone, shading his brown skin ever-darker with each session in the tanning salon. As he pointed out last night during his talk, these “degrees” of brown-ness are tied to complex understandings of class in the diasporal contexts from which he draws his inspiration.
In this, Changing to Summer is certainly richer for me than comparable suntan/burn work by Ai Weiwei and Anna Gohmert, given the nuances of signification and how they weave into his broader project. While I appreciate what Fernandes adds to a technique that appears to be quite limited, I can’t help but feel that he remains in a spatialized frame of reference: yes, it takes time to make such a work, but the work itself is not so much about time; rather it is about the spatial surface of the skin providing a canvas on which to collage various images in sun-shaded relief.
There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but since I mentioned earlier a work-in-process involving sunburn techniques, it seems like an appropriate opportunity to elaborate on what this project entails (to be completed next summer, as documentation requirements necessitate being outdoors instead of enclosed in a tanning bed).
Currently titled Ex-position (Program and Thumbnail), this work proposes to reference Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering stroboscopic photography and its subsequent folding into the surveillant imaging of the moving body decades thereafter. To accomplish this I plan to “paint” the skin with sunscreens of various SPF factors, such that image-frames of a moving body appear in succession on the skin of my back.
To put it differently, Ai Weiwei’s work stands apart from that of Fernandes, Gohmert and Dennis Oppenheim insofar as it uses solar intensity in the service of negative space: he has clearly applied some sort of sunscreen on his body everywhere but that space which forms the letters F-U-C-K in his dermal communique, whereas the other three block out the sun precisely in the form of the objects they wish to represent, as with pinhole cameras and rudimentary opacity studies on photographic paper.
Ex-position (Program and Thumbnail) proposes to combine both approaches by painting the back with different degrees of sunscreen protection such that various images emerge at different moments. As the shielding from the sun begins to wear off for lower SPF levels, an image will begin to emerge, before the next, and the next — eventually offering a slow movement of the body across the canvas of the skin.
Instead of painting with colour in space, then, think of it as painting with time — the application of white pigment to produce red pigment.
The entire process will be recorded to video. One channel of the video will be a large-scale image of the entire (slow) process as it unfolds in real time (the program). The second channel will be a small-scale reproduction of the same image, accelerated to more quickly articulate the process involved (the thumbnail). The shrinking of the image will be inversely proportional to the ratio by which the image has been accelerated, thus suggesting a topology of space and time in the presentation of the exposed skin.
Sunburned GSP#166 (Mojave/Winter Solstice full day)
4 - 11”x14” unique gelatin silver paper negatives
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“After hours of exposure, the sky, as a result of the extremely intense light exposure, reacts in an effect called solarization- a natural reversal of tonality through over exposure. The resulting negative literally has a burnt hole in it with the landscape in complete reversal. The subject of the photograph (the sun) has transcended the idea that a photograph is simple a representation of reality, and has physically come through the lens and put it’s hand onto the final piece. This is a process of creation and destruction, all happening within the camera.”
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“The project is a critical reading of the monument in the contemporary cities. In a few-minute action, the official canons of the monument are inverted: in the place of the hero, the anonym; in the place of the solidity of the stone, the ephemeral process of the ice; in the place of the monument scale, the minimum scale of the perishable bodies.”
Reading Position for Second Degree Burn
Im Schatten der Antike [In the Shadow of the Ancient World]
While doing research for an upcoming work involving solar processes and (the politics of) exposure, titled Ex-position, I’ve been fortunate enough to come across a few other examples of what we might call “contemporary sunburn art”. Of these embodied performance works, it is interestingly enough the oldest — Oppenheim’s — that seems to me the most contemporary, even 40 years after the fact. Reading Position for Second Degree Burn puts the emphasis on process as process, rather than on the formal outcome (as image or its negative space).
But is it possible to put more emphasis on process itself as a kind of thinking through movement? This is the question that Ex-position hopes to address.