In this ambitious installation, Mary Scott has experimented her way to an unsettling new take on some familiar themes around the body and its relationship to power. These intensely worked surfaces — marked and rubbed and erased — bear the traces of Scott’s own body over time, as she sifts through the cultural image bank and reinvests it with material presence. Significantly, Scott has focused her inquiry on the human face and gesture. That conceptual focus is complemented by her formal decisions that create a powerful dialogue between figure and frame, darkness and light: the faces appear and disappear, tightly bounded at one moment, exceeding their confines at another. Even when the images overflow the edges of the paper, they maintain their formal and, by extension, their psychological tension. Constrained to the point of contortion, it is in the very exertion of self-control that the faces threaten to disintegrate. Yet in the process of disintegration there potentially emerges another face — another surface, another interface between world and subject, another ground for encounter as symbolized by the dense charcoal wall Scott has placed at the installation’s entrance.
Scott asks us to consider the role that gesture and facial expression play in our self-construction and interaction with the world, and to assess the limits of their ability to communicate. For ultimately, gesture and expression are products of social convention and operate within strict boundaries. As Scott’s images appear to suggest, the limits of gesture can force us to contort our bodies, to literally gag ourselves. And yet, can we imagine languages of gesture beyond existing social conventions and all the ideologies that underpin them? And if the face is the ground of inter-subjectivity, the first point of coalescence for the emerging and differentiating human subject, can that induction to culture be more open to alternative, not yet known, potentialities? Scott’s images brings to mind those insights (developed, for example, with such verve by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1)) into the role of the face in human communication and self-formation, the speculation about the political potential of a kind of effacement, to face the other with an other face.
As we know, the human drive to anthropomorphise often manifests itself in the attribution of human facial characteristics to inorganic phenomena as much as to non-human life forms. Human design is inevitably overdetermined by the parameters of the human body, so that we tend to come up with car grilles and headlights, for example, or the door and windows of house facades, that read as a mouth and eyes. The ‘facial recognition’ this allows goes to nurture attachment to these human creations; when that is denied, we experience something of jolt — as is the case with brutalist architecture. Alongside evocations of a face struggling to retain its form, Scott has installed renditions of ‘faceless’ architecture, a style renowned for its betrayal of the humanist ideals that inspired its development in the early 20th century. This style, familiar to us as the symbol of institutional power, attempts to discipline the human body with its mass-produced, rectilinear rationality and efficiency. And yet, the body — our bodies — resist. They elude that formal restriction, leak and slip, break up into particles of moisture and gas and multiple lines of flight — spiritual, emotional, intellectual.
Scott has settled on the perfect material for her investigation: charcoal. With its organic origins, inherently transforming nature, and cellular-level diffusion, charcoal allows Scott to produce a wide variety of effects and meanings. Scott has worked the charcoal like paint, using brushes to push the medium around, achieving a sophisticated range of tones and textures that betrays a full-body, extended engagement in making. Areas of fine gradation and gently figurative line meld with areas of dense, abstract black, and each speaks of its own contingency. Scott relishes the materiality of charcoal, its fine particles that penetrate insidiously, that fade and intensify at a touch, that appear to suck light through a black hole. Her faces and gestures may exist in the shadow of convention, but they are also sheltered from the bright light of scrutiny.
Integral to working with charcoal is the continual process of erasure, wiping back until only the sheerest veneer is left, and working that as a base for the next mark, forever building up and dismantling. The gestures are laid down with assurance, but once there, they are immediately put into question, and the slightest contact can disrupt them. Scott thus foregrounds process and body, recalling what Brian Massumi once wrote about the work of Israeli/French artist Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger:
The traces are of the body over time: the rhythm of the body turning away from and returning to the canvas, bringing back bits and pieces of its experience with it, over a not insignificant portion of a life. The traces record the processual in-between of the aesthetic object and the world. They are of embodied time, of a living in the world continually returning to the surface. Rather than a mirroring of the world, or a memory of a person, this return is a memory of the world.(2)
Scott’s practice, engaging as it does with the body, identity and process, is (like Lichtenberg-Ettinger’s) infused with feminist perspectives. It is grounded in a subtle politics that affirms the materiality of all things human, and hence their mutability, embeddedness in other living systems, and mortality. Such a politics is also driven by a desire to loosen habitual thinking and behaviour, to question what appears commonplace and heighten our awareness of how our everyday environments shape us. In Black Powder, Scott activates these politics through iconography, material choice and spatial strategies. She breaks up the face so that another face might emerge; she coalesces charcoal particles into marks in the knowledge that with the smallest touch they could change; she confronts us with certain agents of conformity that themselves are ultimately as mutable as we are. And she places her own body, over time, at the forefront, to affirm the particularity of her gesture but also to remind us of our own agency.
(1) In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1987
(2) Brian Massumi, ‘Deleuze, Guattari and The Philosophy of Expression: Involutionary Afterword’, Special Issue of The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, ed. Brian Massumi, vol. 24, no. 3 (September 1997), pp. 745-782