As the art fair parties on Miami Beach raged on ad nauseum last week, I found myself experiencing a much more subtle level of repulsion at the new Seventeen Gallery space on the Bowery in New York, watching artist Marianna Simnett having her voice box injected with Botox in her modern parable titled The Needle and the Larynx. A procedure usually reserved for males with puberphonia or “mutational falsetto,” a high-pitched voice that lingers beyond puberty, Simnett requested to have the procedure in order to have her own vocal pitch lowered and thus masculinized. As the camera pans across the surgery room, Simnett narrates the experience in a voiceover out of sync with slow motion speed, layered with a foreboding soundtrack that culminates into a melancholic melody as the needle enters the frame and slowly penetrates her–the moment of climax.
The voiceover is a montage of her dialogue with the surgeon and a monologue that switches between a short history of Botox and her own personal response to the surgical procedure, layered with echoes of childlike laughter. Simnett describes feelings of betrayal toward the surgeon, in that she experienced a kind of choking: “It felt like someone was holding my throat from behind…” and continues to experience an unanticipated weakness after the surgery. Fitting, then, that this exhibition should fall under the title LIES–the lies we are told, the lies we tell ourselves and the “miracles” we seek out to satiate our desire for an altered body, even if only temporarily. Simnett questions the extent to which the medicalization of gender can satisfy the desires of the patient for an enhanced, idealized body. It is as if capitalism is selling our cynicism back to us through pharmaceuticals, a probing and prolonging of denial.
Perhaps even more nauseating is the audio and lighting installation that precedes the film piece in the front room, titled Faint with Light, in which a pulsating light display flashes in tandem with Simnett’s hyperventilating breaths until she induces her own unconscious state. This work is connected to the story of Simnett’s grandfather who, during the Holocaust, had fainted during a mass execution. While he survived, the horror of the experience rendered him mute, a trauma which resonates in Simnett’s work. While there have been many studies in the theory of epigenetic inheritance and the transmission of trauma across generations, Simnett reenacts this continuum not so much as catharsis, but as a continuum that speaks to an effect of feeling “otherness” within her own body. In a recent interview, Simnett explains:
“The body is how I navigate my way through the world and how I can speak from a place that is authentic to me. It is also the best place for me to talk about violence and a sense of being violated, because the body is hit first. And I always choose body parts that for whatever reason have been written about in terms of orchestrating desire: they’re not just any body parts, they’re all related to the myth of hysteria.”
I couldn’t help but relate Simnett’s breathing and howling in this piece to the sound of a fevered orgasm, in which the body becomes limp, entering a kind of euphoric portal–an in-between state. The body is weakened and vulnerable. This “immobility response” is a state also explored in Sophia Hewson’s work [Delivered] internalising the pervert or rebuilding the body psyche, at MARS Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, in which she suspends herself from a gallery ceiling for several hours while covered in black glitter in a downward cast pose, a dazzling yet banal spectacle connoting the idea of bodily limitations and its failure to arrive at spiritual transcendence. Her body is flaccid and pseudo-sacrificial, mocking the memorialization of faith unfound. Rather than “fight or flight,” Hewson explores what it is to “freeze” as a gesture of resilience and defiance. Immobility is a blissful state, shutting down is subliminal, but not spiritual. Theatrically speaking, this is a display of bathetic pathos. Here, Hewson taps into the familiar feeling of being incapacitated. Fear makes us immobile. And with no imminent danger, immobility is our pervasive state of being.
Hewson’s most recent work explores this notion further, flipping the script of rape as sacrificial ritual performed by a man on an unwilling woman. Are you OK Bob? whichalso premiered at MARS Gallery, begs the question of age-old patriarchy and the myth of white girl innocence by creating what she describes as “a self-orchestrated rape representation.” Hewson instigates unsimulated sex with an anonymous stranger that she finds threatening, a man she fictively names “Bob.” We see Hewson lying down on her back in close up, her gaze locked on the camera lens. Her face is increasingly reddened by the occasional slap of Bob’s hand as he is fucking her. Her unrelenting gaze penetrates the viewer as she is being penetrated. She is exploiting and well as being exploited, while experiencing the trauma herself, she is also reversing the trauma onto the perpetrator. Hewson clarifies her intent in her artist statement:
“It serves the patriarchy to indoctrinate us with visions of looming female victimisation and defeat. In fact, she often rises, and moves forward, despite the trauma she has experienced. Our horrified reaction to the subject of rape isn’t just about our desire to eradicate the epidemic, if it was it would go hand in hand with legal reforms, political prioritisation, and a genuine support for victims. It’s essential to the patriarchy that rape is taboo, because demystifying the act challenges shame and erodes the fear that is required to suppress the majority.”
Hewson questions the extent to which the fear of rape can be overcome and lose its power. The mixed reactions to the work revealed how internalized the patriarchy has become, something the success of the Trump candidacy has only hammered home. There is something more nuanced about Hewson’s work that refutes victimization than say that of Emma Sulkowicz’s work Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (“This is not a rape”), in which a rape is reenacted from a fly on the wall perspective and the viewer is situated as a perverted voyeur from a distance. In Hewson’s work, there is no distance and no pornography to indulge in, just the intimacy of Hewson’s facial expressions. The “damsel in distress” myth no longer holds, the victim rebels.
Both Hewson and Simnett’s constantly situate themselves out of their depth, using their own bodies as vehicles to express ideas that are not entirely logical even unto themselves. They take down white girl innocence with an ever-shifting archetype of woman as cyborg, as gender-bender, as reversor of gaze, as specimens of their own psychoanalytic studies and as agents of free will, drawing attention to our lack there of it.
This ambiguity dismantles gradually, conventions are taken down and their suffering becomes an antidote to sorrow, a means to rebel. As artist Audrey Wollen wrote in a recent interview, our definition of activism has been very narrow until recent times:
“…there was actually a whole lineage of women who resisted the oppressive structures through what has been incorrectly defined as passivity. Sorrow, weeping, starvation, and eventually suicide have been dismissed as symptoms of mental illness or even pure narcissism for girls. I’m proposing that they are actually active, autonomous, and political as well as devastating.”
Devastating times call for new forms of revelation without faith, in that we ought let nausea, shock and trauma linger with us, not to resist its power over us, but to, rather, harness affects as tools for resistance. Carl Jung spoke of trauma in that if it is unresolved, trauma forms a disorganizing complex. This is what I feel artists like Hewson and Simnett problematize. By focusing predominantly on sensations, they abandon the conventional psychoanalytic arc for the body to process trauma, leave trauma wakened and open wounded. In a culture in which we are increasingly disenfranchised and disembodied, these artists invite a kind of embodiment that refuses unity and finds power in discord. Archetypes are formative rather than static. Bodies as such become resonators and refractors of trauma. It’s important to note, that whether or not Simnett and Hewson are using personal narratives to manifest their work is largely besides the broader point, their work finds its empowerment through a resistance to reconcilement or happy endings. All is not well. Trauma lingers, we are never “fixed.” And so we ought sit with it, wrestle with it, let it overwhelm us, and gradually uncover what remains to be embraced in ourselves and otherness.