Isadora Vaughan: Recalcitrant Bodies

Paris Lettau

Isadora Vaughan: Recalcitrant Bodies 1 Sep – 23 Sep 2017

Isadora Vaughan's practice is synonymous with a certain style of sculpture and installation that has emerged over the past decade amongst a new generation of (usually VCA-trained) Melbourne-based artists. It is a style that emphasises materiality, indeterminacy and contingency, and generally promotes an aesthetic of scum, grunge and clutter. This style is palpable in the 'messy', organic layout of Recalcitrant Bodies, with its focus on formlessness, on inchoate and ad hoc materials, and its self-conscious eschewal of signs of traditional artistic 'skills'.

The room sheet to the exhibition describes Recalcitrant Bodies as a sculptural manifestation of an 'imagined body's interior': 'if the floor is the flesh, these armatures are the bones, and the rest is the fat and the organs and the swarms of information that talk and travel, atmospherically between, breathing in, breathing out. Inside is another landscape.'

It is this metaphor of an 'inside'—the 'great indoors' of an unspecified body, be it organic, architectural, social or otherwise—that begs further elucidation and analysis. What is this 'inside' and how is it illuminated by Recalcitrant Bodies?

Inside the gallery there are individual works and texts by collaborating artists. Clementine Edwards' audio work, Proximity, is played on an iPod Shuffle through iPod headphones that hang on a black cable mobile. The audio is soft and difficult to follow—'thumb prints where somebody pressed, or bite marks across your breasts'—and gently lends affect to a barely spoken violence that is perceptible throughout the installation. Other phrases also stand out: 'against governing ideas'; 'to not be damaged by these regimes'. Pasted up on the walls are three tissue and wheat-paste scrawled pieces of paper with poetic locutions by Aodhan Madden in his work soft boss.

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

In the back room, documentation of a performance intervention by Debris Facility Pty Ltd into a previous work by Vaughan at Station Gallery is projected onto the wall. And the remnants of what I assume to have been a performance by Amanda Horowitz – a trench coat and mop worn by the artist at the exhibition opening of her work, Long John Trench & Mop – are also propped up against the wall, alongside another hanging, mobile-like work by Horowitz, Missy Made Baskets.

The sculptural forms in Recalcitrant Bodies also read as a total installation. Transformations of the gallery's architecture include covering the original floorboard with a heavy 1.6 mm thick black mild steel gridded flooring that recalls Carl Andre's floor work Cuts, 1967, or the local artist Peter Cripps' Above and Below Ground Projects: Model, 1968 (except it's less minimalist and more 'Pierre Huyghe'). Vaughan also re-purposes the existing blinds, removed from the gallery's windows, each blind bearing a thick layer of dust containing traces of the various accumulations that have collected across the gallery's short existence – and, I'm assuming (based on most galleries of this sort), relatively imminent closure.

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

To state the obvious, then, we are also 'inside' The Honeymoon Suite, a not-for-profit gallery directed by Charlotte Cornish. The gallery offers artists a space to exhibit under otherwise precarious conditions of funding cuts and inner-city constraints that make it increasingly difficult for these practices to survive (the gallery takes no commission for sales). Cornish rose in the ranks working at the now closed Utopian Slumps, directed by Melissa Loughan, who recently published her divisive survey of contemporary Australian art, Australiana to Zeitgeist: an A-Z of Contemporary Australian Art (Thames & Hudson, 2017)(controversially employing one of the most conservative categories of cultural history, “Zeitgeist”). Like most spaces of this sort, The Honeymoon Suite reinforces the precarious conditions it also consciously tries to resist by partly operating with unpaid interns (some are students poached from the expensive University of Melbourne Masters of Curatorship as credit for their course work).

Being with Recalcitrant Bodies, however, one thing starts to stand out: that it has become increasingly difficult to read the works of the generation of artist that Vaughan belongs to outside the networks of production, distribution and reception that they have either sought to create for themselves (The Honeymoon Suite, Suicidal Oil Piglet, Y3K, Slopes, Punk Café, White Cuberd, etc.), insert themselves into (the Melbourne-artist's stepping stones: from VCA to TCB to Gertrude Contemporary and on), or reject (through, for example, self-stylised resignations from Australian art). To a certain extent, these artists have sought to step-outside totally regulated spaces of traditional artistic networks and enact their own private competencies, agencies and collaborations.

Amanda Horowitz, <em>Long John Trench &amp; Mop, trench coat and mop</em>, (worn at the opening), 2017. Photography: André Piguet.
Amanda Horowitz, Long John Trench & Mop, trench coat and mop, (worn at the opening), 2017. Photography: André Piguet.

It is this network or 'scene' that Recalcitrant Bodies—as a sculptural manifestation of an 'imagined body's interior', as an installation that occupies the architectural and incorporated space of The Honeymoon Suite, and as a work of art received largely by a relatively close-knit group of insider artists—is also 'inside.' Although this scene consists of a series of independent, often competing projects and spaces, together they constitute a distinct, interconnected constellation, as if a microcosm of the network of powerhouse institutions of the mainstream, such as the NGV, ACCA and MUMA.

This apparent anti-institutionalism, when considered from the perspective of sculpture, seems to recall the artistic transformations of the 1960s and 1970s, except that at that time sculpture left the traditional confines of the gallery's indoors and went outdoors into the 'expanded field' (most iconically in Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, 1970), partly to undermine the public and institutional conditions in terms of which sculpture had traditionally been understood. Sculpture dis-identified with its architectural conditions, even if it appeared in new artist-run spaces like Inhibodress or Gallery A, to give Australian examples. Sculpture was even seen to have migrated to the body in the various post-Cagean and Fluxus forms of performance, in which, again sculpture became transient and migratory, as seen in Horowitz's disappeared performance Long John Trench & Mop.

According to Rosalind Krauss, in her seminal 1979 essay 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', at this time sculpture had become characterised by sitelessness or homelessness because, unlike traditional monuments and public sculptures, it could exist anywhere; its meaning was not determined by any specific symbolic place in which it was permanently sited. Krauss described modern sculpture as having 'an absolute loss of place', as 'functionally placeless and largely self-referential', as 'nomadic' and from this she deduced the 'great outdoors' of sculpture in the expanded field.

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

Recalcitrant Bodies, however, lacks this sense of the nomadic, self-referential and placeless. Rather, what becomes more apparent is actually how much it embodies and monumentalises a specific place—that is, its own artistic context, with all its precariousness, contingency and uncertainty, but also its self-assurances and occlusions.

Arguably, the artistic ventures of this new generation has more in common with the 1980s and 1990s (rather than 1960s and 1970s) artist-led projects such as Store 5, or its various predecessors in the likes of John Nixon's Art Projects Annex Program, Institute of Temporary Art, or V Space. This transforms the nature of the anti-institutionalism of much of the work that relies on off-site, online, site-specific or artist-run interventions; rather than 'foreign adventures', they have a quality of local ventures, often self-styled, independent and self-confident. Like the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s, the scene combines opposition with entrepreneurialism and shock-jock tactics. Unlike the YBAs, however, it deploys an ethic of the understated, 'small' and 'anti-aspirational', embracing the values characteristic of a generation caught between the coolness of adolescence and the squareness of adulthood.

'Debris Facility Pty Ltd', for example, ironically appropriates the language of the corporate form in which responsibility is 'Ltd' (a corporate shareholder's liability is 'limited' to the shares they own). This is echoed (this time un-ironically) in the form of 'The Honeymoon Suite Projects Inc.', incorporated primarily for the reason to secure public funding for a type of art that has struggled to find the solid patronage it deserves, hence the ultimate commercial failure of Utopian Slumps. This generation has often had to rely on crowd-funding (The Honeymoon Suite), public funding (all the above), real-estate developers (Slopes), or the internet ( Yet it is precisely by being the first generation to effectively exploit the combined potential of all these forms – the internet, social media, real-estate developers and public funding – that these 'venture artists' have pioneered a 'great indoors' for their artistic practices to exist within.

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

Perhaps ironically, however, my reading of Recalcitrant Bodies is contradicted by the apparent influence of 'new materialism' evident in the work, a theoretical trend that has sought to treat things like we have traditionally treated artworks, as they are 'in-themselves' independent of their context. Perhaps one appeal of new materialism is its attempted articulation of a 'great outdoors', which the doyen of this philosophy, Quentin Meillesoux, describes as an 'absolute outside' that could be explored 'with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.'

The desire for an 'outside' is palpable in Horowitz's accompanying text to Recalcitrant Bodies, 'The Crawling Floor' (having the cadence and assertive tone of a modernist manifesto), which begins:

So, I moved to a city with no center, thinking it would be so nice to have no dominating locale. It was political, this move. A shift towards horizontality, away from value judgment. Before I left I said, I WANT shapelessness, I WANT the open-end, I WANT THIS PLACE WITH NO CENTER…

This longing for 'no center' could, of course, be explained by the overwhelming sense of a center, of a 'dominating locale'.

If we continue to read Recalcitrant Bodies through Krauss' famous essay, it starts to take on the 'logic of the monument' that Krauss thought was characteristic of pre-modern sculpture. Whereas the modern sculpture described above was anti-monumental and siteless, independent of any particular place, the monument marks a particular place. The monument has a local idiomatic function, dependent on and also constitutive of local (national, regional or social) community: it 'sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or use of that place' (which is why monuments are always up to dispute when their meaning is called into question, as seen with the recent controversy surrounding sculptures of white nationalists in America and British Colonialists in Australia).

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

From a certain perspective, Recalcitrant Bodies monumentalises its artistic scene. It renders sensible the linguistic, sculptural, and architectural operations as well as the social, political and ideological totalities within which its artistic forms are barely able to occur.

This is not to say that these conditions are 'bad', or that they should be avoided for more 'authentic' models of artistic production, distribution and consumption. The point is simpler: that the work encountered within these networks can't help but be inveigled by, and therefore read through, their dependent relation to this context. That despite the diversity, antagonism and even opposition of practices, they constellate around each other, as Vaughan has constellated within Recalcitrant Bodies a series of five different artistic practices as constitutive elements of her own sculptural installation. A subversion of traditional models of authorship seen also in the room sheet, for example, which includes a list of materials (of which I quickly counted forty) barely distinguished from contributing artist, as if objects (materials) and subjects (contributing artists) constitute different aspects of a single artistic substance at the artist's disposal.

Isadora Vaughan, <em>Recalcitrant Bodies</em>, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.
Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.

Yet the bodily absorption, the independent physiological, perceptual and communicative exchanges in Recalcitrant Bodies, also resist my reductive reading. This resistance can even be read into the very title of Vaughan's exhibition. The word 'recalcitrant' has a polemical sense to it, deriving from the Latin recalcitrant-, literally meaning 'kicking out with the heels', as a horse kicks out behind it.

If Recalcitrant Bodies monumentalises a particular scene of Melbourne art, wrought as it is by its own aspersions, bravado, financial constraints, violence and disavowals, then it also casts this scene as a 'great indoors' from which its art is anxious to depart.

Paris Lettau is a writer from Melbourne.

Title image: Isadora Vaughan, Recalcitrant Bodies, installation view. Photography: André Piguet.)

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