Thursday, 5 December 2013

‘My Head is an Animal’: Reality and Performance

Clare Nadal writes

From Shrines. Rebecca Cusworth, 2013. 

This Friday evening is the preview night for ‘My Head is an Animal’, my first curated exhibition project, featuring the work of established artists Linder and Margaret Harrison, alongside nine regional emerging artists. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the experience of curating this project and provide a little sneak preview of what can be expected on Friday.

The ideas behind the exhibition came from a diverse range of influences that have informed my academic and professional practices. These are at once highly personal to me yet also universal, addressing questions of humanity and our place within the world, which naturally reach out to the wider collective imagination. I am interested in our desire to shape a self and control and influence our identity and how this is influenced by society’s constant desire for youth, beauty and success.

A choice of title for the exhibition was obvious: the words ‘My Head is an Animal’(a direct quotation from the Finnish band Of Monsters and Men) kept haunting me, repeating themselves in my head. This fascination with dreaming ourselves as Other and animalistic was something that interested me; the wealth of cultural myths of half humans, fauns, centaurs, talking animals, beavers that have sewing machines, pigs that go to market. It felt appropriate for the exhibition title to be a song lyric, since popular music and culture was a key influence on the show. I like to think of song lyrics as ‘a 21st century poetical form’, akin to the poetic inspirations that have long informed artists across centuries of art history.

Two songs seemed particularly pertinent: Lana del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’ (commissioned for Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby), and Marina and the Diamonds’ Teen Idle’. I would like to take the opportunity here to display them in full as I feel is their due:

~Lana Del Ray ‘Young and Beautiful’

 I’ve seen the world, done it all,
 Had my cake now.
Diamonds brilliant
Unbelieved now.

At summer nights, mid July,
When you and I were forever wild.
The crazy days, the city lights,
The way you’d play with me like a child.

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothin’ but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will, I know that you will,
Will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?

I’ve seen the world, lit it up,
As my stage now.
Channelling angels
In a new age now.

At summer days, rock and roll,
The way you played for me, all assured
All the ways I got to know
Your  pretty face and electric soul.

Dear Lord when I get to heaven
Please let me bring my man.
When he comes tell me that you’ll let him
Father, tell me if you can.

All that grace, all that body,
All that face makes me wanna party
He’s my son, he makes me shine,
Like diamonds.

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothin’ but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will, I know that you will,
Will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?

 ~Marina and the Diamonds ‘Teen Idle’

I wanna be a bottle blonde
I don’t why but I feel conned
I wanna be an idle teen
I  wish I had an insult clean.

I wanna stay inside all day
I want the world to go away
I want blood, guts and chocolate cake
I wanna be a real fake.

Shopping, shopping  a teen teen  idle,
Shopping  a prom queen fighting for the title
‘Stead of bein’ sixteen and burning up a bible
Feeling super super suicidal

The wasted years, the wasted youth,
The pretty lies, the ugly truth
The day has where I have died,
Only to find I’ve come alive.

I wanna be a virgin pure,
A 21st century whore
I want back my virginity
So I can feel infinity.

I wanna drink until i ache
I wanna make a big mistake
I want blood, guts and angel cake
I’m going to puke it anyway

I wish I wasn’t such a narcisst
I wish I didn’t really kiss
The mirror when I’m on my own
Oh God I’m gonna die alone

And then a sense,
A little loss of innocence
The ugly years of being a fool,
The youth until you’re beautiful.

Both of these songs speak of the experience and state of living in the modern world - disillusion, dislocation and ennui. They also have a darker psychological level that speaks of paranoia, suicide and disassociation. It was for these thoughts, as well as her strident feminism and redefinition of self that I was attracted to the work of Linder. Born Linda Mulvey, she became ‘Linder Sterling’ and then just ‘Linder’, a fantastical being living in the mystical ‘Linderland’.

It was for Linder’s critique of gender values that I began to start considering the relationship of her work to that of another northern feminist artist – Margaret Harrison. As two different generation feminists with similar issues of concern, it seemed an exciting dialogue to open up, particularly as their work has rarely ever been shown together before.  With my own cross-historical practice, I was also interested in the way both artists engage with art history as a subject matter to then rewrite and redefine. Linder’s latest body of work has drawn upon her research into her “household god” Barbara Hepworth, which has informed her recent exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield and Tate St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth/ Hannah Bateman as The Young Girl.
The Ultimate Form Study 1
, 2013. Photgraph by Christina Birrer.

Recent exhibitions of Margaret’s work, including On Reflection at Payne Shurvell, London and her work for the 2013 Northern Art Prize have explored the role of the mirror as a composition device in Western European painting and depictions of the male gaze in canonical works such as Manet’s Olympia and Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. Margaret produces feminist reimaginings of these works that subvert the male gaze and question the patriarchal power hierarchy implicit within them.

After securing the support and involvement of Margaret and Linder, I composed an open call to send out to recruit other artists for the exhibition. After receiving over 40 proposals I selected nine artists to work with: Mette Sterre, Holly Slingsby, Samantha Donnelly, Sarah Eyre, Jamie Crewe, Rebecca Cusworth, Elizabeth Hudson, Lorna Barrowclough and Anna Turner. Mette works with costume to create fantastical performances; Holly is a performance artist interested in deconstructing and critiquing religious and classical iconography. Samantha works in mixed media and sculpture, creating pieces drawing on consumer culture and media; Sarah explores cultural definitions of feminity and the uncanny in everyday objects. Jamie uses print and sculpture to examine representations of homoerotic desire throughout history; Rebecca uses sculpture, photography and reinactment to explore female Otherness. Elizabeth explores the cultural significance of ruins and relics; Lorna creates sculptural works that reflect upon the nature of transformation and anthropomorphism; and Anna Turner has a materials based sculptural practice that explores the human qualities of inanimate objects.

It was a fantastic experience bringing the show together – it grew, expanded, mutated and shape shifted. It still is in the process of evolving and will very much likely continue to do so for the duration of its display and in its afterlife also. Many alternatives were explored before the final curated project came into being; processes of dialogue and engagement with artists occurred as works were chosen and alternative narratives were discussed. Works like Lorna Barrowclough’s ‘A bed, a knot, a charm - fanciful coquilles’ (a series of intricate oyster shells that interact with found objects and their gallery location) will move throughout the show to form new formations; whilst Elizabeth Hudson’s 'Can't Wait Till All The World Is Like This' are living plant sculptural pieces that may grow or wither away during the course of the show. In the final week of January the show will be recurated and reconfigured as a reminder of its temporal nature (and that of exhibitions more generally), thus performing itself a new identity also.   

'My Head is an Animal' opens on Saturday 7th December and runs until 2nd February. The opening night is Friday 6th December 6-9pm and there will be a closing event on 31st January 7-9pm.