Saturday, February 27, 2010

we don't want to have this conversation

Huda Lufti's current exhibition making a man out of him at the Townhouse Gallery is inclusive, didactic and formally interesting, but it maintains a static point of view: merely representing the conflict between male and female gender roles. It does not take into account the amount of variation and different levels of analysis available in the field of gender studies. We have chosen to have a conversation on some of these aspects beginning with objects from the exhibition itself and branching outward.

M: Lutfi's interest in toys stems from their strong role in how, as humans, we condition gender identity since childhood. By examining Barbies versus Batman action figures, one can gain insight on the formation of our perception of what is masculine and feminine. In mustache and lipstick and stripping off the garments, Lutfi accurately demonstrates that we have simply been conditioned for so long to perceive certain qualities as a function of gender. By placing Batman and Catwoman action figures side by side with the rest of the pieces in the show, we see the fake roles that are given to males and females. Compared to her pieces that try to showcase our similarities, the actions figures demonstrate a societal reliance on these roles.

E: To further explore the idea of cultural conditioning, in mustache and lipstick: the heads are all the same, androgynous, white-washed, neither distinguishable as male nor female, wearing sunglasses with male cutouts in the lenses. One has red painted lips and another has been given a mustache: two small, yet completely stereotypical, characteristics of female and male. If we remove these two qualifying characteristics, Lufti seems to be saying underneath our construction of gender, underneath what has been socialized by society and by cultural practices, we are all the same. Our similarities are often overlooked, and in this sense Lutfi's observation is useful. But if we are indeed all similar, where does it leave us? Where do we go from here?

The discussion of socialized gender roles is well-articulated in the following: Baby X, A Child's Story without Gender.

M: So much of our culture is divided based on gender. It is true that gender is one of the basic ways we identify ourselves as humans: I am a boy or a girl since the day I am born and express myself as one because I have been taught to do so... But can we argue that everything beyond the reproductive functions is constructed rather than inherent and can be simply given up through a meditative experience? Although I believe that self examination and meditation can be successful, how is one expected to do so using the myriad of influences we are constantly confronted with?

E: The different conceptions that we face are evident in Lutfi's exhibition, but there does not seem to be an argument behind each of these representations. I think that the baseline discussion regarding gender and sexuality is that it is completely constructed. You look at the language we use (the idea of masculine and feminine nouns for example) and see that everything has been categorized. Of course there is the neuter case... In German for example "child" is neuter, das Kind. It's is as if the language itself admits that a child will become more than an "X" once it has been in society long enough... It seems as though so much of gender has to do with its commercialization.

M: Playing further on this notion of commmercialization of identity, we see Lutfi continuing her practice of re-presenting collected objects from around the city in new contexts in her work. As the audience we recognize them and we also recognize the new meanings assigned to them. For example, in stripping off the garments, the expensive Gaultier perfume bottles are presented as symbols of pure human existence. It positions meaning as not instrinsic to objects and beings. In this installation we see the bottles, once a symbol of capitalism, commodification, and luxury, as a substitute for our essential humanity liberated from socio-cultural conditioning.

E: The black light is a glaring way to shine new meaning onto our cultural perceptions of one another. These perfume bottles seem to lose some of the definition in their body, as they radiate under the strange form of light. It's almost as if they are becoming less male.

M: Yes, but we are still limited to comparing these perceived changes to our culturally-ingrained perception of the male. We are recognizing the different ideas introduced via the installation piece in relation to what we already know. So is the so-called liberation process actually a liberation?

E: The intention to re-position these found objects is a good one; it employs the freeform conversation space of the gallery. But the exhibition does not leave room for questions, and the "transformations" are narrow. It is hard to see past the commercialization and heavily ingrained cultural associations these objects project. The viewer does, in worst case, not learn anything new at all from the exhibit.

M: I do recognize the symbolism put through the pieces, but does it really entice us to reflect on the archaic gender issue any further?

E: Gender studies, like most deconstructive discourse, begs a new way of looking at the world. This exhibit does not offer us a new way of looking, leaving the audience searching, needing to look past ourselves and our current state of commercialization, if we truly do want to see anything new.

M: But leaving it entirely up to the audience means that some might put in the effort, while most will simply bypass it as a simplistic take on the issue of gender representation.

making a man out of him runs through 17 March 2010.
all images courtesy of the artist and Townhouse Gallery.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Mirror and the Self

The scene of Zoe seated across from the hypnotist can be seen as a conception of Lacan’s mirror stage. The opposite pantomime, their hand movements that imitate walking, the space between them where there images are transformed. The water in the fountain between them is barely enough for a reflection, yet it creates the chasm over which the two characters reflect one another.

What we eventually see is a candle floating in the water. Careful observation allows the knees and feet of a body, presumably Zoe’s, totally submerged, as if she is now John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. In death she is connected with her other half, Gradiva, the ghost-like version of herself who walks among stone ruins. While Zoe organically traces the sunlight in the mansion, Gradiva’s tracing of shadows are more considered, and more structured.

While Zoe and Gradiva are mirrors of each other, albeit in death, the twins mirror each other in life. And these mirrors turn outward on us, and how we see ourselves.

We must consider Sequence One in Four Movements , inspired by the story of Narcissus and Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In each frame of the four-channel film a man stands in profile in front of gazebo like background, his purple shimmery leotard complete with wings that drift with the movement of his arms. Sometimes it appears as if the screens are moving in directions exactly opposition to one another, but the careful viewer can see that something is always just slight off.

It is this slight discrepancy in movement that invokes the idea of mirrors. For each screen at first mimics the other, and then not. Here the idea transformation of bodies is explored; we use mirrors to explore our own transformation; and similarly transformation can take place in the mirroring of gestures.

For both Sequence and Splendid, the act of mimicking itself can take on the role of the mirror, and whether or not the mirror is present or not becomes secondary.

If we truly discuss Lacan’s Mirror Stage here we must consider his take on the transformative properties of looking in the mirror…. the process of looking results in fragmentation, manifesting in dreams, disintegration in the individual, and even the “growing of wings.”

Doa and her film therefore show us that whether we are growing into butterflies or just growing into ourselves, the transformation is continual; we are slowly walking, slowly transforming, into what we cannot know, except that it is undoubtedly splendid.

See Lacan, Jacques. The Mirror Stage. Delivered: 17 July 1949.


Appropriation/ Interpretation

An artist talk I attended last week critiqued the practice of mimicking, re-interpretation and re-presentation, especially in contemporary art discourses. The artist discussed novelty and creation in absolute terms, conceptually and literally as he narrated his experience of producing a new material in collaboration with a metallurgist.

These notions of creativity and creation versus appropriation struck me as I walked through Aly’s show, The Girl Splendid in Walking. Does the fact that the artwork is based on a literary text, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen, make it of any less value or authenticity? What additional value does it offer? Gradiva has been previously positioned as an icon of sexual desire and human delusion by Freud in Delusion and Dream in W. Jensen's Gradiva and then by artists such as Salvador Dali and Andre Masson.

Representing the novel using choreographed performance and video, Aly focuses on delusional and obsessive sides of human psychology and their manifestation through physical movement. She translated highlights of the plot into symbolic action, reactivating the novel for the audience. The re-presentation of classics can actually layer the work and it is interesting to explore which ideas and readings of the text are introduced and developed in The Girl Splendid in Walking.

Challenged by Jensen’s description of Gradiva’s walk in the novel, which is physically impossible to perform in reality, Aly introduced her imagined version of the captivating walk. The walk is actually the underlying theme connecting different scenes of the video. All the characters in her work are striving to recreate this impossible movement with their feet and even hands, aided by hypnosis and meditation.
The real sculptor and muse to the Roman frieze, the original which rests at the Vatican Museum, remain unknown to this day. However, Jensen’s story and plot has become fact because it has been re-created over and over so many times. Aly for instance offers a solution to the anonymous authorship using the twins; and confirms the muse for Gradiva as a fictitious character that can only be envisioned in a dream.

So what is the actual source of inspiration to Aly in The Girl Splendid in Walking; is it Gradiva, Freud’s interpretation of it, the actual Roman relief or a mixture of all of them? How does each layer affect our own experience with the work? Do we add our own layer as well?



Doa Aly’s latest work leaves us wondering about many of its elements.

We don’t know what is real and what is an illusion; we don’t really know if the girl the hypnotist recreates actually existed or if she just existed in his dreams.

Who did the twins really see? and who was that girl who walked like (Zoe) but did not look like her? and does it really matter who she is? Or is it only her gait that matters? Why does the girl in the palace trace the sunlight until it disappears, whereas the other girl traces her own shadow?

These questions force the audience to either satisfy themselves with this mystery or draw up their own perspective of the story.

Doa makes the audience part of her work. As we watch her video, we see what she creates, while becoming part of this repetition. We then try to develop our own perspective of her work and reproduce it in these terms.

Doa plays on the abstract elements such as thoughts and dreams being performed by / reflected through human bodies. In the real world we become more preoccupied with the external distractions clouding our perception of who we really are, how we feel, what we think, and what our dreams or inspirations are.

The film shows a parallel between the state of hypnosis and the state of being asleep. In both instances our inner selves are set free. We are able to switch off the external world to a certain degree. We then turn on our inner self which enables us to be more focused, and perhaps more expressive and productive.

Doa/Zoe is hypnotized, allowing her to focus on the task of the impossible walk. The twins are sleeping, but yet are still able to see her and her walk. It is in this state of hypnosis/sleep that the twins and Doa/Zoe meet.

Doa then turns this parallel onto the audience. Are we hypnotized? Or are we put to sleep (dreaming)?


Doa Aly at Townhouse

The Girl Splendid in Walking, courtesy of the artist

The Girl Splendid in Walking was on view at Townhouse Gallery from 31 January to 17 February.

Doa Aly describes her practice as an exploration of movement, and how we think and feel in view of this movement. As we walk through the layers of references in her exhibition The Girl Splendid in Walking, it becomes evident that Aly’s most recent work has stumbled upon a more layered exploration of the idea of movement: how it transforms us and how we transform it. Such an assessment can be drawn from the experience of seeing her two films in tandem (The Girl Splendid in Walking and Sequence One in Four Movements). We as the audience are forced to confront our own transformation, how we see these transformations, how we see ourselves, and how this metamorphosis ultimately affects our being.

The Girl Splendid in Walking is based on Wilhelm Jensen’s 1903 novel Gradiva. Infatuated by an archaic Roman frieze of a girl in a peculiar walking motion, Jensen wrote a story about obsession and delusion. While the sculptor and inspiration source of the frieze remain unknown, it has gained status as an icon of desire and delusion, mostly on the back of the novel’s plot and has been appropriated in art and popular culture. Notions of obsession, appropriation and authorship are investigated in Aly’s video. She continuous to explore the physical and mental processes related to movement; in this case Gradiva’s walk. There is a repeated attempt to re-enact and recreate the walk, but more importantly, what is represents, especially in the scene of the twins recreating her silhouette on the large metal disk, which they later contemplate at to realize their dream.

Following you will find three different responses to Doa’s recent video installation at the Townhouse. Instead of building off one another, they view the works from different angles. It is not a conversation in the traditional sense, but from these three interpretations, a more encompassing image of the dense, meaning-layered installation becomes evident.

Sequence One - In Four Movements, courtesy of the artist