'Shaking Hands With The Devil' by Sarah Smith.
"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril."
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
The work of Alex Hetherington and Janie Nicoll respectively represents two related though distinct tendencies in what is principally referred to as appropriation art. Hetherington reinvests the intellectually and visually seductive imagery of modern culture, while Nicoll’s practice involves the recycling of dispossessed ephemera; the waste products and abandoned stuff of yesterday’s treasures. The source material of both is constituted, in part, by the disposable ‘readymade’ objects of mass culture that are momentarily precious before their imminent relegation by fashion. Hetherington’s sources are carefully selected and combine to produce densely referenced artworks, giving deliberate materiality to Roland Barthes’ insistence that all texts are a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Recombined fragments culled from literature, film, theatre, and art, commonly infused by a queer sensibility, fill the works with ghostly voices. Recognition of the sources cited (as well as their variegated relationships) rewards the knowledgeable spectator, but the clashing imagery and attendant meanings invite various points of access to the informed and the uninitiated alike. Nicoll’s sources emanate not from art, but from sub-cultural and ‘illicit’ recreational activities and, in particular, from the subversive debris these leave behind. Her sculptures, drawings and video re-frame the smudged mise-en-scène of the disaffected woodland, a kind of illegitimate theatre of the backstreet, replete with graffiti, broken glass, and lost or discarded trinkets.
An emphasis on surface and the contingency of signification permeates the work of these two artists, with a particular interest in cultural inscriptions of gender norms. Judith Butler asserts that gender is produced by the repetition of a limited repertoire of gestures and acts that ossify over time to generate the semblance of reality. In particular she emphasises the performative and linguistic ‘speech act’ as the site of the encoding of gender, claiming that “speech itself is a bodily act with specific linguistic consequences.” Hetherington’s deliberately flawed attempt at drag in his quickened dispassionate recital of actress Kate Valk’s dialogue for the Wooster Group’s radical theatre production House/Lights, is achieved solely by the electronic morphing of his voice into a feminine-sounding one, thereby creating a discordance between exterior appearance and the sound that emerges from within, augmented by the noise of the ‘mistake’ in the form of an electronic beep that punctuates his performance throughout. His parodic imitation of gender dissociates the feminine voice from the woman’s body, grafting it instead onto his own in an act that disrupts the ‘correct’ expression of masculinity. A highly ambiguous work, it is simultaneously comic and disconcerting, and throws gender norms into perpetual crisis at the same time as it replicates and deviates from its various textual forebears. Hetherington impersonates Valk, who herself is playing a female version of Doctor Faustus reciting the words of Gertrude Stein’s play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938), which is based upon Goethe’s play Faust (completed in 1832), a fictional treatment of various myths emanating from the Middle Ages. Add to this Christopher Marlowe’s late sixteenth century play Doctor Faustus, and Oscar Wilde’s own Faustian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and we have just one of many threads of references woven into this piece.
A distinctly troubling quality also pervades Nicoll’s re-framings of pre-existing objects and images, mobilised by the use of strategies such as her replication and enlargement of a trashy ‘Ace of Diamonds’ ring, or her meticulously drawn and framed copy of a hastily rendered spray-painted piece of graffiti that reads ‘Never Die.’ Is this an order or a plea? Does the ring represent an overshadowing by superstition, or is it an emblem of incredible luck? Elsewhere a drawing of a list of boys’ names designates the membership of a gang, originally sprayed onto a pathway in Glasgow’s Maryhill, now re-situated in the gallery context in an act that robs the list of its ritual territorial function and innate riskiness. Broken glass, graffiti, and burned out cars evoke rites of passage in certain communities, behaviour routinely associated with rebellious gangs of teenage boys. Transposing these signs into a gallery space strips them of their ceremonial significance, and presents them instead as evidence of illegal, yet culturally authorised codes of gendered behaviour in economically disenfranchised communities where masculinity equates with violence, vandalism and general destructiveness.
Nicoll also includes a wall installation that brandishes the statement ‘We Are All Prostitutes,’ a work that confirms the correspondence between the two collaborators. Amongst his many sources, Hetherington cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Querelle (1982), a tale of prostitution and murder that hinges on the cynical betrayal - ‘selling out’ - of a loved one, while his masquerade as a female Faust, articulates the ultimate act of prostitution in the famous Faustian bargain. By selling his (her) soul to the Devil, Faust will ‘never die,’ but will instead endure a soulless life in perpetuity (the ‘ring of fire’). The inclusion of one piece by each artist that is a direct response to the work of the other, reflects an affecting self-consciousness about the intersection of artworks across the lines of authorship in the two-person, or group, show, and the inevitable collision of cultural texts in general. Barthes describes the multiple meshes of intertextuality in modern culture in which “everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.” An artwork cannot be pierced to locate a point of origin and is not formed by an economy of clues that leads to a definitive meaning. Rather, it is an effect of the reader, in this case the spectator. In a prescient remark that chimes with Barthes’ influential assertions of the death of the author and the birth of the reader, Wilde warns us that we look beneath the surface of art at our peril for “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Butler claims that there is nothing beyond the surface appearance of things. The surface cannot be penetrated; it is all that there is. Traditional notions of interiors, origins, authenticity, and reality are supplanted by an insistence on the surface, beyond which we discover not a point of origin, but a vacuity.
This exhibition collates fragments of texts and objects that invoke an ensemble of social outcasts, provocatively equating homosexuality and criminality, an equation personified by Oscar Wilde. The performative utterances and speech acts that comprise The Consequence combine to assert the instability of all culturally sanctioned behaviours and ‘truths,’ and to highlight their dichotomous dependence on the repetition of certain vilified behaviours. That these articulations are all slightly off-kilter promotes anxiety in the spectator, as cultural ‘knowns’ are staged and displaced, their displacement being the most significant consequence of all.
Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author,’ Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press, 1977
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, London: Routledge, 1990
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), New York: The Modern Library, 1998.
This essay was commissioned by the artists for the exhibition "The Consequence" at Intermedia, CCA Glasgow, May 2007, with support from The Hope Scott Trust, The Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund, and Glasgow City Council. With thanks to Sarah Smith.