December 2014

Subjectify Me

Brown Council, Madison Bycroft, Kate Mitchell, Faye Mullen (Canada), Hannah Raisin & Kawita Vatanajyankur.

I find I am vaguely threatened by an art gallery that has been painted black. No clean white walls, no wash of light to highlight the artworks: it's not what I'm used to. Entering Subjectify Me at FELTspace, I am uneasy, peering into the corners where the reflected glow of the videos don't reach and wondering where's safe. For an exhibition of video art the black walls are possibly a nod to practicality; all the better to see the works if there is little light. In this exhibition the black walls work also aid to heighten the tension already running through these works.

Within each work there is an in-built pressure, though it takes a variety of forms. The audience comes to know the artists through their performances, and there is now more at stake as we become more invested.

Kawita Vatanajvankur's Poured uses the everyday to question society, consisting of a static, tight shot of the artist's face. Her skin is porcelain white, almost to the point of translucency, highlighted by the bright, startling red of the background. A teapot pours water into a funnel held in her mouth, sending the stream directly into her throat, a pink-rubber gloved hand holding it in place. They are comfortable objects that so often represent home and femininity, but I am on a knife edge as I watch the water forced into the artist: waiting for her to choke. How much can she take? Why would she put herself through this?

In the back gallery, a luxurious milk bath, rumoured to be the treatment that kept Cleopatra looking so young, is used to quietly submerge the artist Faye Mullen in her performance to camera On Hearing. She is naked as she steps into the bath, and lowers herself beneath the surface, gripping the sides with her hands and her feet propped on the end. After minutes she raises her head, gasping for air, before going back under. The performance lasts 30 minutes before she steps out. Again, I question how long she can last before she chokes and begs for the performance to end. But in this work she is doing this to herself. The works by Mullen and Vatanajvankur expose opposite ends of the spectrum, taking femininity from the home through to a luxury setting and letting me know that no woman is safe.

Hannah Raisin and Madison Bycroft take their performances out of the studio and directly to the public. Raisin remains impassive in her video Milking, walking calmly into the frame in her underwear and a raincoat before pouring milk over her head on the footpath in front of a theatre. A crowd waits for their show to start, and their reactions draw my attention, rather than the actions of the artist. One woman in particular is vocal in her horror. But why I ask?

Seated in a public park, Bycroft becomes steadily more feral throughout her performance, during which she hacks and tears at a watermelon. She is largely ignored by those passing in the background, but she is captivating: the watermelon flesh, soft, pink and juicy, smears across her face and trickles down to stain the front of her white t-shirt. This image conjures brutality, the ripping and tearing, the pink liquid like pale blood and the flesh that she tears out in chunks. This performance is disturbingly feral, more than the others in this exhibition it seems to be the most violent (though how this act is worse than torture I am also left questioning). I find it uncomfortable to stand and watch, as if I have stumbled upon a private moment in which a starving artist has finally been given a meal. There is no self-control, and no restraint, lessons we are so often taught about manners and etiquette are diminished.

Two videos seem on the surface to use humour as a means of exploration, but they are awkward. Brown Council's One hour laugh is, from a distance, comical. The four women seem like a caricature of themselves, dunce hats in bright colours and large outdated collars; they become the object of our amusement. But as I listen to their forced laughter, their cries getting more and more manic and desperate throughout their performance, I start to pity them. The laugh track tells us to laugh along with them, like we are expected to appreciate a bad sitcom, but it is not enjoyable in the least.

On first glance Kate Mitchell has also invoked comedic tropes in her work, standing in the centre of a hole that she is cutting around herself in the floor. We wait, the tension building as the saw she is yielding comes closer to completing its circle. How far will she fall? Will she hurt herself? And the audience assumes that she will not be hurt, because the Coyote always survived his chase for the Road Runner. But she is not a cartoon, and, as she clearly states in the title of her work, I am not a joke. And the video begins again. She will continue in this circle. But we laugh, an uncomfortable laugh that is tinged with the hope that she is unhurt.

This exhibition plays out in real time, the cameras do not cut throughout the performances rather acting as the audience does, static, impassive, documenting. Tension is thick in the air in this space. I feel closer to these women, now having 'met' them, but this familiarity deepens my discomfort. Each of these artists has chosen to make their performance more personal, in placing themselves inside this world; the stuggle is now theirs and they own it. And this makes me feel bad; my friends are in pain, and subjecting themselves to humiliation and torture, why? How bad was it that this is their reaction? And where does this leave me? But these are important questions and despite my discomfort and unease, or because of it, the artworks stay with me as I leave, urging me to consider the world around me from a different perspective.