The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.(2)
Ernest Hemingway wrote these words as Europe was recovering from the horror and mass brutality of the First World War, and this historical watershed inspired his attempt to find meaning – and even ennoblement – in death. A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s first bestseller, presents humanity’s plight through an indifferent (or, more often, downright hostile) world, and human life is depicted as a perpetual struggle that ends only in death. However, this struggle also represents an interval through which the manner in which one faces the crisis and endures the pain inflicted by the uncaring universe is ultimately of great importance. Although they might not always understand the complex world they inhabit, nor the particular dilemmas of modern life, Hemingway’s protagonists invariably find some solace in beauty and order when it does appear, thus leading lives of existential authenticity.
Indeed, existentialism was the key philosophical doctrine that influenced Hemingway’s writing, and significant existential concepts (such as authenticity and dread) are manifest throughout the work of Lucienne Rickard and Joel Crosswell in this third iteration of Shotgun.
Lucienne Rickard notes an enduring interest in Hemingway: the simplicity and rhythm of his writing, ‘the deliberateness of everything he wrote’.(3) Qualities, of course, that are equally evidenced in her monumental yet pared back drawings, collectively titled I thought I had paid for everything; work that shares allegiance with Hemingway’s interest in the corrida (bullfighting) yet also transcends its literal meaning. Hemingway presented the corrida as an idealized drama in which the matador faces death and whereby the existentialist moment of nada (nothingness) is broken when he conquers death by killing the bull. Rickard depicts the subjects of her drawings, the bulls themselves, in a state of suspended animation – one that must inevitably lead to destruction, of course, as the corrida is literally of life and death. (And there is intrinsic existentialist truth in the notion that those who face death with dignity and courage, therefore, live an authentic life.) However, although she sources imagery from original photographs of the corrida, Rickard removes her subjects from their context and presents the bulls, instead, as archetypes (the fierce destroyer is clearly evident, and so is the hero, the martyr…) for the viewer to project their own meanings and desires. With the title of the work, I thought I had paid for everything; she offers further layers of ambiguity, and suggests all manner of philosophical uncertainty inherent in the individual’s struggle to come to terms with being in a material world: from Faustian contract to existential impasse.
It’s significant that Rickard came to Hemingway’s writing as she was completing her PhD thesis (the subtitle of which, ‘An Exploration of the Interconnectedness of the Body, Space and Time’, articulates several of her ongoing concerns), and she unconsciously highlights the critical correlation between Hemingway’s spare, existentialist prose and her own process-driven practice when she asserts ‘... to me, the stories describe life as wearing, as taking a toll.’(4) A central component of Rickard’s practice at the time was a series of durational actions by which she slowly (and painfully) imposed her own bodily presence into massive cast plaster blocks; she literally wore away at the blocks, the force of her body creating a ghostly void (and evidence of the act) in the otherwise solid sculptural forms. The intense physical duress she experienced made the process unsustainable in an ongoing way but through this work Rickard was particularly interested in the possibility that the viewer might begin to see (and feel) physical qualities such as weight, pressure, existence inscribed in the actual space inhabited by their own body. These new drawings epitomize a similar bodily experience, both for Rickard (as the labour has resulted in recurring stresses and strains upon the artist’s body) and in the viewer for whom the physicality of the bulls provokes a bodily self-awareness.
Rickard renders these great beasts in pencil, using controlled and repetitive strokes on large sheets of drafting paper. She captures the velvety textures of animal flesh and creates surface highlights through layer on layer of graphite and nuanced directional shifts. And, rough highlights appear in certain areas where she repeatedly wears into sections of the drawings with her fingers. Rickard realizes the work painstakingly, and durationally, with intense physical bursts of reiterated actions that double as she mirrors the bulls – by pressing and rubbing (transferring and essentially erasing) sections of the original forms directly from the drafting film onto sheets of thick black paper. Repetition, as Freud argued in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), is essentially linked to the death drive, and Rickard has placed her subjects in a suspended moment preceding their inevitable propulsion toward annihilation or transcendence (or, possibly both). In making these works, Rickard engages the notion that we seek to manage – through repetition – the primal trauma of our very existence. The intense physical process also reflects Rickard’s need to invest bodily in the work, signalling her desire for an authentic mode of practice. The work, from its intent through process towards realization, recalls the wonderfully lean poetry of Charles Bukowski, who shared Hemingway’s interest in man’s enduring potential for violence – as Rickard herself elegantly notes, they wrote with ‘… the same simplicity, same ferociousness.’(5)
It has been a beautiful fight. Still is. (6)
Where Rickard’s practice might represent an ongoing quest for authenticity, Joel Crosswell’s work embodies a quite different existential theme – that of angst, or horror. It’s not that Crosswell is fixated on death – although the titles of two solo exhibitions from last year, Ashes to Ashes and The Little Show of Existence might suggest otherwise. Rather, he is a keen observer of both the horror of living, and the possibility of what might come next. Analyzing the Lacanian extrapolation of the death drive, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek posits a space that might be filled by either manifestations of the monstrous or the beautiful.7 This fictive and temporal space – which Lacan identified as a juncture ‘between the two deaths’, that is, between symbolic death and actual death – is Crosswell’s fecund terrain.
Carnival of Souls presents a series of ad hoc sculptural forms populated with human remnants and mysterious totems. Deriving its title from the 1962 film directed by Herk Harvey – a cult horror classic that relied on atmosphere rather than effects to create its mood of foreboding and dread – Crosswell’s work engages a similar psychological space. Using a broad range of raw and found materials (wood, string, woolen balaclavas, human skeletons) and processes (casting, drawing, stitching), Crosswell has created forms that reflect the complexity of everyday existence. Each sculpture holds skulls or skeletons, carefully shrouded and tenderly arranged by the artist – and each contains one life, or more – but presented together, these works speak of a collective spirit. Crosswell conceived Carnival of Souls around the notion of what constitutes a human soul and, even more vexingly, what a soul might look like. This inquiry signifies, more expansively, a search for a common consciousness and points to a decisive relationship between Crosswell’s work and that of Polish artist Pawel Althamer, whose figurative sculptures have been described as ‘bodies in wait for souls’.8 The macabre figures that comprise Carnival of Souls, however, seem rather more like spectres waiting to be brought back to life through Crosswell’s shamanistic means.
Crosswell’s interest in mythology and shamanism has manifest across his practice, with works such as Let the truth be told and The mourner and the magic tree (both 2007) depicting recognizably shaman-like figures. In Carnival of Souls, the forms have been encased in structures that are suggestive of shamanistic ritual – or, certainly those depicted in folk horror films like The Wicker Man (1973) – and propose shamanism as a natural human tool for connecting to our inner selves; an alternative to rational interpretation. The shaman – and, by extension, the artist – heals through a process of emotional catharsis, identification, release and subversion of limiting beliefs and, thereby, restores balance to both the community and the individual.
An individual life, of course, can be seen a span of time between the two non-existences before birth and after death – between two deaths – and Carnival of Souls engages a notion of existential horror wherein existence itself is the horror. (And, the classic existential dilemma is that of standing at the edge of the precipice: the anxiety is not the possibility that one might fall; it’s the possibility that one might jump.) However, Crosswell underpins the work with an absurdist view of loss and disappearance, and even allows the sculptures to veer towards satire: with their bright red pop art hearts and angels’ wings, their tragi-comic balaclava faces and votive candles, they gesture towards a camp revision of religious art. He uses shadows and lighting (as much as the forms themselves) to allude to death, but conceives a soundtrack (recordings of the artist’s domestic meanderings emanate from the work) that introduces an element of the banal. As such, the works oscillate between the beautiful and ugly, the elegant and clumsy, the fluent and flamboyant. Ultimately, though, Carnival of Souls proposes a glimmer of light in the dark:
A: There will be a better world than this one.
Z: How can you know that?
A: Because it’s everyone’s wish. (9)
Philosophers have long noted the emancipatory potential of art – in his lecture ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art’ (2003), Alain Badiou called for art to be ‘a demonstration, an ambush in the night, and a star.’ It’s axiomatic that dark and difficult times produce visionaries, and that it’s often artists and thinkers who depict light in the darkness and offer alternative ways of looking and thinking in the everyday life of an increasingly violent world. The works of Lucienne Rickard and Joel Crosswell, in their various explorations around death – the unnamable, the ineffable – do not necessarily ambush the viewer but they certainly provoke a meditation on life, its passing and thereafter.
(1) The title of this text is borrowed from an exhibition of the same name, curated by Ellen Blumenstein and Felix Ensslin presented at the ZKM (Centre for Art and Media), Karlsruhe, Germany in 2007. Between Two Deaths reflected on the curators’ observation of a social and cultural trend toward ‘melancholic retrospection’ and posited a remarkably open-ended proposition that encompassed history, allegory, sexuality and psychoanalysis. My first studio visits with Joel and Lucienne took place immediately following the tragic death of a close friend of the artists and, while much remained unsaid, our meetings were conducted under its dark cloud. This first encounter with the artists and their work, and our discussions – which swirled inevitably around Port Arthur, skeletons (both real and metaphoric), the corrida, MONA’s iconic themes of sex and death – left me reeling with conflicted imaginings around annihilation and transcendence. I returned to Melbourne to the sad news that a colleague had lost a family member in similarly dreadful circumstances, and this title took on an obvious literal significance.
(2) Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929.
(3) Lucienne Rickard, email correspondence with the author, July 2012.
(7) Slavoj Žižek, ‘You Only Die Twice’, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 1989, p.135.
(8) Monika Szewczyk, ‘Pawel Althamer: Inspiration, Incarnation, and the Dream of an Inspired Corporation’, www.db-artmag.de, accessed 10 August 2012.