Walking Spanish, Turner Galleries, 2015
Double Vision, Turner Galleries, 2013
Harry Hummerston’s Double Vision
In pushing the boundaries of cinema in the heady days of the 1920s, polemical Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein postulated a theory of montage by which ‘each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other’. Eisenstein suggested a radical anti-narrative, an asequential mix of images that requires the viewer to suspend the temporality of the film experience in favour of (ironically given his radical rhetoric) a more traditional way of making sense present in visual art for centuries. The juxtaposition, layering and overlapping of disparate images has been a device for making meaning used by artists from antiquity to the recent posturings of postmodernism with its signature tactics of the appropriation and collision of imagery.
Harry Hummerston employs this tradition of layering in this new body of work, Double Vision, evoking in a powerful way the immediate relationships of his chosen imagery. Eisenstein is also famous for having said that by putting any two images next to each other people will try to make sense of them as a story. This tendency of language (the sort of hidden dynamic Roland Barthes called ‘the rustle of language’) allows for the construction of powerful metaphors and such as the juxtaposed revolutionary leader and peacock in his October (1927). And while this manipulation of visual language can easily construct a strong meaning, and in the case cited in October a cynical narrative, it is subject to the will and direction of the author. However it limits the serendipity or accidental dialogue of images and signs. Hummerston tries to allow this to happen. He works from a bank of images that he has chosen without any particular idea or direction in mind. The images, which he simply likes the look of, are selected at random from sources within popular culture. They are then arranged on top of each other together not for any explicit reason such as building a critique or comment – but for their aesthetic appeal. This is a difference that allows for the haphazard occurrence of meaning determined by an emotional response as opposed to a rationalised and determined one.
For instance a work such as The Kiss brings together two completely disparate images – a hummingbird and the rigging of a sailing ship; two images that seemingly have nothing in common. Chosen to sit together because Hummerston likes the way they look, when you begin to relate them to each other all sorts of ideas come to mind. Both need air to operate, both have a direct and dependant relationship with nature. Sailing ships literally fly across water as they are blown along while hummingbirds nest and live in trees from which the rigging of the ship is made. The combined image is full of air and space accentuated by the complexity shared by the two layers. Hummerston has manipulated the symmetry of the image of the hummingbird, that at first glance stands opposed to the disorganised pattern of the rigging; but of course the rigging is built symmetrically and has to be so for a sailing ship to be able to function.
Hummerston’s nod to Pop Art is evident in several of the works (Andy, Tat) but it is most apparent in China Girl where he has serialised Vladimir Tretchikoff's 1950’s ‘The Green Lady’ (real title; The Chinese Girl) – an image that adorns millions of walls around the world – backed by sailing ship rigging again. While Hummerston has again manipulated the symmetry of the work to give it balance, when you begin to think about the relationship of the two images an inevitable dialogue emerges that suggests nineteenth century colonialism made real in the here and now through the stereotypical image of an other, exoticised woman. I mention these two works; The Kiss and Chinese Girl, to illustrate how the ship’s rigging can, given its juxtaposition, bear a different meaning. All signification is contextual and contingent on relationships. The ship’s rigging moves through meanings depending on what it is in relationship with. What is clever about Hummerston work is that he appreciates this point in particular, allowing him to use of a group of images to combine and re-combine for an almost infinite set of dialogues.
The simplicity of these ‘combines’ can of course mask more serious considerations. M and M also replicates the symmetry of The Kiss but the images chosen quickly evoke a dialogue full of political interest and critique of American pop-hegemony. Mini Mouse and Mickey Mouse are iconic signs of American twentieth century imperialism synonymous with the use of popular culture to sell American capitalist values. The undelayed image of terrorists totting machine guns can’t help but construct a political reading. Is the consequence of American imperialism responsible for worldwide terrorism? Are Mini and Mickey capable of the mass destruction of any culture resistant to American hegemony? A similar reading can be found in Rainmen - the implosion of these two images, a pair businessmen and a helicopter, creates a sinister combination open to an easy assumption of Hummerston’s political intention. But this would be misplaced. For while these meanings do occur, independently these images come without an ethical loading. But this image, like the rest of the work in Double Vision, is ‘cool’ on political rhetoric. There is no real didacticism in these works. They are there without overt messages.
Coolness was a serious move in art in the 1960s. It is all but forgotten that the detached perspective of Pop Art was carefully engineered through the use of pastiche, specifically to evoke a coolness that tried to avoid the everyday of political activism that was so prevalent then. It is not just the style of Pop (block colour, appropriation, industrial techniques of printing, repetition) that Hummerston uses in these works but it also it’s the cool, disengaged and impersonal authorship of the works. There is no moralising in these images - but of course they can be re-used for that. No, these works are driven in the first instance by an aesthetic response to popular imagery and constructed likewise. It’s up to an audience to engage them however they will.
Julian Goddard July 2013
Unrealised, Turner Galleries, 2011
Harry Hummerston’s work threatens the viewer’s experience of the world with a new relation to the familiar and the everyday. He does this through a systematic process of opposition.
He opposes our sense of ease with images and in doing so destabilizes our condition of wellbeing, as his work unsettles and rattles our sense of comfort and familiarity. With the frenetic energy of a bird his eye settles upon and traces a relation between disparate and unwieldy images. These works lure us into a space where we think we know what we are looking at only to have our certainty displaced by a remarkable and irreverent imagination forged in a spirit of disobedience.
There are familiar images here juxtaposed with others that seem to struggle and resist their new association. The images already known to us as shapes easily reconciled to our memory and use, seem here coerced through a creative process of rendition into a new captive relation. As a result a sense of disquiet permeates these images and they are threaded through with a careful, if dark humour, a darkness not at the edge of town, but as a presence operating perpetually just at the edge of our optical frame. These images speak to a sense of foreboding within our capacity to combine visual forms into binary relations with the world. Hummerston’s work seems to oppose our unconscious acceptance of the speed of images, as an increasingly histrionic force field of streaming bits of information, where Art is reduced to a mean communication and our polluted perception is returned to us as a mixed, mashed and digested reality.
In opposition to this hysteria these artworks resist our mania for predicted action, they dart about, deflecting the control of our attention away from the drone and hum of the familiar and towards the incessant cry of the unsettled. They remain paused at the edge of an apprehension that returns memory to perception and raises the possibility of transfer. The transference of sufficient memory from one object to another was an ancient ambition of Marcel Duchamp, canonized in his studio notes but left unrealised in his practice. Hummerston tracks this passage in thought from one thing to another. His approach towards both his materials and the iconographic images he appropriates and uses make for a type of resistance towards our enforced expectations.
In these works we find Hello Kitty lost in the red grass of the imagination and jumping with the jellybeans of our accelerated material ambitions. Origami games come to envelope the anthracite silhouettes of suicidal gunmen, metallic floor panels and galvanised iron swim with lace doilies to meet our visual scrutiny. These objects are rendered beyond the conventions of familiarity and stereotyping, for Harry Hummerston is also a collector of cultural detritus and these objects constitute a known and lovingly observed reservoir of images from which his imagination draws. These works don’t seek to reconcile difference to our engagement but to acknowledge its perpetuation within the giant thought machine of our contemporary culture. Brash collisions of images occur seemingly at random within fields of magnetic opposition in these works, producing flips back and forth between the analogue and the digital, the saturated hue of colour and the stark black of the silhouette, the antique and the newly found, the lost and the barely remembered.
As works of Art they are constructed in such a way that they elude easy definition. They remind us in their complexity that we are in the presence of a mature and experienced artist, a master printmaker, amongst many other attributes, and they remind us that the inscription of the undecided is an essential part of the artist’s operational strategy. Printmaking as a discipline is a significant sign here because as a creative practice it is by definition procedural and strategic.
As a practice it demands a sense of commitment to a particularity of process, to an imaginative field of possibility, that will stubbornly only reveal itself through the stratagem of making. The rhythm of a creative process here produces an imaginative leap of its own construction, an engagement with what already exists acting as one of its own extensions. This sense of the actions of a creative forcing of an imaginative act to occur pervades all these images. At work here is a type of intelligence impossible to predetermine, an active perception that can only be arrived at by way of memory and exchange.
Harry Hummerston’s thinking, like thought itself, is unbounded by obligations to space and matter. We can think faster than the speed of light, we can ordinarily demand the impossible and leap the improbable with impunity. Hummerston’s creative thinking is founded on a refusal, a refusal to constrain his imagination to convention and in particular a hostility to the operation of any kind of visual stasis. His images remain virulent and active within a field of possibility and like the determinations of a dancer he refuses all material constraint in order to set new forms to flight. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra he identifies the great enemy as gravity and in opposing such a seemingly universal imposition creates an aspirational metaphor for thought as a form of mobility unproscribed. The terrible obedience that such an absolute as gravity represents is challenged in these works through the reclaiming of the unrealised potential of a childlike innocence capable of forgetting limitations. (1)
At times in his creative struggle with the seeking of a truth fixed within an opposition to mere knowledge, Hummerston subtracts a new form of iconic resonance from the always already made. The suspended animal, a prone horse hanging in front of the Apollo lunar vehicle, slices into the imagination as a profound image, an icon for desperate times in an age of decline. Laminated within an airless vacuum, one silhouette pressed into another, slices of time compressed like scientific slides prepared for a microscope, they destroy any human sense of scale and proportion and practice a mode of perception that functions as a form of erasure. They disappear in their appearing and can only elaborate to our mind an impossible character like that of the museum, a process of repetition removed from capture and our grasp. (2)
In an important sense the physical presence of these works acts upon the viewer as a visual trap and our wandering perusal is brought into an abrupt and confrontational closure. As the magnetic poles of meaning are displaced in these works Hummerston uses colour as one of his oppositional polarities. Deeply saturated hues are made to crash against dark silhouettes of a space occupying and occupied by matter. A multilayered space of great compression squeezing the light out of the intensities of images caught within its apparatus. If clichés are linguistic analogies for black holes then a type of super density ensues here rendering the familiar into a terrain where even meaning is incapable of escape from the overwhelming immensity of functionality. These works attempt the impossible, of transitioning our familiarity outside and away from our conventional associations and into a new and dangerous relation.
Dr Donal Fitzpatrick 2011
(1) Badiou, Alain. Handbook of Inaesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2005, pp 57-58.
(2) Meillassoux, Quentin. ‘Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence, and Matter and Memory’, Collapse 3, (ed.), R. Mackay, Urbanomic, Falmouth, November 2007, pp 72-75.
Necromancing, Showcase Gallery, Central Institute, 2009
Necromancing the Tableau Vivant
A tableau vivant literally translates as “a living picture”; traditionally vivid representations of history these living pictures tell frozen narratives of victories, anointments and great journeys. Bound up in sweeping gestures and cultural signifiers these tableau inspire pride and nationalism in the public and turn history into something alive, useful and politically negotiable. Interestingly tableau is also the name for the curtains at the front of the stage which open and close, initiating the separation of scenes, each bound up in a dominant setting. The tableau then, as a cumulative definition, in essence represents our desire to retell history as a theatrical construct. They can shape and reshape an understanding of our essentiality, how we act and will react, told through the use of universal symbology dictated by our subconscious cultural memory. The tableau’s legacy is that of a symbolic narrative structure that at once promotes ethical and symbolic understanding.
Although perhaps not immediately bringing to mind the photographs of Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman I think Harry Hummerston’s Necromancing engages this history of the tableau.(1) Not immediately imitating the apparent aesthetic structure of tableau vivants, Hummerston’s story boards never the less etch into the cultural understanding of symbolic narrative on another, extended level. Read separately, as if the curtain were opening and closing over different scenes, Necromancing provides a look into the symbolic tableau that is popular culture, a culture built on floating imagery, loosely exchanged as seemingly random, seemingly incoherent, yet equally meaningful currency.
If the tableau vivant gives us a look back at historical events, it does so to use these events as contemporary currency. Today however images come to us from the past, the present and the future in a tableau that reacquaints us with our presumptions of time and space. It is within this maelstrom of symbolic (dis)order that Hummerston finds the space to present his floating images, garnered from all forms of mass media, as less a soliloquy, less a staged photograph, and more an invested transferral of the inherent possibility in (post-pop) imagery as a language of seduction and slippage. The currency of imagery today, the contemporary tableau vivant, is based on just such an aesthetic exposure of this ungraspable, or rather just out of reach, meaning in the random mixture of not opposing, nor even unrelated (because nothing is visually) but diffused imagery that constitutes a narrative in popular culture. No longer will the stagnant restaging of a moment invest all that we understand about time and place, today the tableau must sit at the intersection of a multitude of possible, variant stories.
Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of semiotics and ethics, phrase regimens, Lyotard’s term for “language games” (which he “borrowed” from Wittgenstein) denotes just this multiplicity of communities of meaning, illustrating the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created.(2) Lyotard’s micro-narratives break down the coordinated meaning in something like a tableau vivant, giving it the life it defines itself by through framing significant minute sections and re-presenting their previously acquiescent relationships. Post-Lyotard, we have become alert to plurality, difference and incompatibility in our concerns with universal aspirations of truth, yet, equally, if we no longer engage with grand narratives then we have come to believe with greater currency today in the more causal notions of habit and re-occurrence… which ultimately lead to more comfortable zones of self-knowledge. Underlying Hummerston’s floating images is a sense of narrative derived from war, violence and fear and the anxiety we might feel at the always immanent dispersion of our comfort zones of entertainment and consumption. We give these things names but here, in Hummerston’s work, this anxiety is acknowledged as a fact, a seeming underscore to being alive. It seems in Necromancing that through fear of acts of violence toward our self (harm is everywhere and can happen at anytime) our own tableau vivant comes alive. Being of duplicitous nature today we have become defined, our culture has become defined, the currency of popular culture has become defined, by fear, violence, and ipso fact acts of extreme cowardice and its counterpoint; bravery.
This though is a narrative I have made up from these images, this accumulation of chapters, and the slippage between their layers. That I have invested my narrative making skills into these works illustrates two points; one is that despite the best efforts of post-structuralists I think human nature desires a coherent script; and the second is that Hummerston’s ability to play in the fields of phrase regimens is successful in that the end points of his image assimilations don’t disintegrate into nihilism; this is no end game.
Hummerston’s images live despite (or because of) their best efforts of sous rature, they refuse to sit still, exploding meaning rather then imploding it.(3) How is this achieved? By understanding the power of proximity, by providing simultaneous positive and negative messages and by utilising iconic imagery through a seductive (if not slick) sensibility; in short by giving us the communication constructs of a good story. Particularly relevant to Hummerston’s Necromancing are those genres that give us stories bound up in love and hate, good and evil and the bonus of a moral to carry us through. The tableau vivants were popular forms of entertainment before film and television, indeed they where precursors to it, educating the public as to how to extend their reading of the still image into a live entity. Through the tableau vivant we came to understand iconography as a living entity, and icons slipped into our collective subconscious. In time the tableau became the magic lantern show, that uncanny dramaturge and theatre of necromancy, which in turn continued to educate us in readiness for film strip and, more importantly I think for Hummerston’s work, the simultaneous rise of the comic strip; both increasingly mobile incarnations of the living icon. Hummerston’s use of comic book characters, bold text, a comic strip aesthetic and the displaced, non linear and overlapped design of comic books delves into this history of being educated to read iconography as a live entity. The understanding in his work of the relationship between icons, moral attitudes and narrative dichotomies to our collective subconscious social self-knowing is an informed and flirtatious one.
Hummerston’s contemporary and innovative tableau vivant essentially tells us about ourselves, what is important, what makes us tick and what makes us emotionally respond. Necromancing is a humanist drive toward our humanity; it is a search through the duplicity and vicarious nature of being human…the good and the bad and the small gap in between. At its heart Necromancing illustrates the implausibility of trying to pin down human nature, but more so the creative drive which responds to, and comes from, our complexities, our desires and our inherent knowing (cultural memory). Necromancing is a collection of living, breathing pictures; a collection of chapters which reflect our lives, our fears and our hopes in a constantly moving, shifting and evolving story.
Dr Ric Spencer
(1) The tableau vivant is commonly associated in contemporary art with “staged photography” as an extension of the traditional use of the tableau as a standing still re-interpretation of old paintings by actors. Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, along with other photographers such as Sarah Lucas and Darren Sylvester are sometimes categorised as this type of photographer.
(2) See Au juste: Conversation, 1979 (translated as Jean François Lyotard, Jean-Loup Thébaud, 1985) and Le Différend (The Differend) 1983, which develop a postmodern theory of justice and, through the micronarrative, suggest a collapse of ethics. For this concept Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Malden: Blackwell, 2001
(3) Sous rature is a strategic philosophical device originally developed by Martin Heidegger. Usually translated as “under erasure”, it involves the crossing out of a word within a text, but allowing it to remain legible and in place. Used extensively by Jacques Derrida, it signifies that a word is “inadequate yet necessary”. See Derrida, J 1967, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
PORTENT, Fremantle Arts Centre, 2003
Harry Hummerston and The Gallery of Fear
‘People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach you that in Sunday school. But it is true’ Richard Millhouse Nixon
There is an awful lot of fear about at the moment. It is palpable at all levels of our society. From our leaders to our children everyone seems to be worried that something terrible (no one knows what exactly) is about go down. This is nothing new.
The beginnings of the third millennium bear remarkable similarities to the end of the first when the Church put it about that the world was to end as the clock ticked over into the next thousand years. It did this as a perverse way of raising membership. People were scared - really scared - that everything they knew was about to be extinguished and only pious redemption could save their wanton souls. It worked well for the Church for a while but the let down was the beginning of the end for religious culture in Europe and ironically the birth of a new secular culture founded on reason and not fear.
The ancient Greeks kind of liked fear. They understood it not as a debilitating quality but as a motivating, moral and socialising force. According to Thucydides honour, interest and fear were the three strongest motives for human action. But of the three It Is fear that is the most immediate and powerful because it is deeply natural and driven by the most simple and direct of all desires. To avoid death. To the ancient Greeks death, while inevitable through aging, was always pending because of the constant threat of war and anarchy. This threat the threat of uncontrollable anarchy and violent death, is at the heart of all cultures. Indeed our modern society is based on what its greatest theorist, Hobbes, saw as the wish for 'immortal peace'. The ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides was among other things Hobbes' most favoured writer but Hobbes disagreed with Thucydides on one fundamental point. The Greek saw war and anarchy as inevitable, uncontrollable and even natural, while Hobbes saw it as the reason for social contracting. Basically we need to form social alliances to protect ourselves from the threats of lawlessness and despotism. It is through fear of our very lives that order is required to allow for what Hobbes called 'commodious living'.
So what has all this got to do with Harry Hummerston's skulls and roses! Well it is pretty obvious really. The skull is the ubiquitous symbol for death. It is fear made visible. Without going into a massive listing of the use of this symbol it is suffice to say that no other image has the capacity to elicit as powerful an evocation of the fear of death as does the skull. It permeates the history of most cultures amid is deeply present in our day-to day transactions with our social environment. The rose on the other hand stands for everything that is cultured and beautiful. The binary these two signs construct reflects the oppositions imbedded in Hobbes’ social contract. The fear of death drives us to construct its opposite, namely the benefit of an ordered society.
By juxtaposing and then morphing these two signs, Hummerston is able to point us to the deep dichotomies and fragility of our social order. Nowhere is this more explicit than in Rose Skull, his short animated video where a human skull morphs into a beautiful red rose. This bitter/sweet image is a perfect reminder that out of ugliness beauty can often be born and vice versa. Similarly By Any Other Name conflates these two seemingly irresolvable images into a hybrid object trapped between two poles. While being neither one nor the other it is its own new image that suggests not a hiatus but a third space - where opposites collapse into a new possibility.
There is another beguiling aspect to Hummerston's imagery that is apparent when we consider what can be a fine line between high art and kitsch. So much of the history of art has been over reproduced to the point that it has lost its original meaning and has taken on iconic status within pop culture. The Mona Lisa is probably the best known example where the image has been drained of any of its original intention to become an empty Signifier endlessly reproduced on every conceivable piece of consumer product. In a number of the images in this show Hummerston has pushed their reproduction to the point of saccharin excess. The large rose digital prints look like they are about to explode with an over supply of dramatic effect reminiscent of some kind of neo-Rococo wallpaper. This is most obvious in Rose Field, which has the power to completely envelop the viewer. You almost drown in this overly rich field of blood redness. This experience is meant to reflect the power of religious imagery. Here Hummerston is rightfully Critiquing the power and history of religious propaganda.
The religion Hummerston is aiming his barbs at is not that of Christianity as such, although there is plenty of room in this exhibition to examine that if one wishes to. No, it is the religion of globalised pop culture. A culture in which Minnie Mouse replaces the Virgin Mary as the object of devotion and veneration, and our new Astro Boy takes on the role of redemptive saviour, In Minnie, another digital print, the bleeding heart of the Madonna is replaced by the very scary image of Minnie Mouse, ghost-like, appearing to wave at us in a gesture of staged friendship through a veil of skulls and sugary sweet roses. This image is terrifying. It suggests all the weirdness and bizarre beliefs of an American global capitalist culture hell-bent on replacing any sense of moral perspective with the perverse pleasure of consumerist gratification. Minnie becomes some kind of 'grim reaper' inviting us to play with her in a game of life and death.
Much of the imagery in this show reflects the rhetoric of religious iconography. There is a deeply unsettling effect in many of Hummerston's images that not only replicates the fear of religious damnation but also underlines our mortality in the face of meaninglessness. By using parody Hummerston is able to emphasise the lack of any sustainable belief system by which we may be able to conduct our daily lives. $10 Skulls illustrates this point with powerful pathos. These are off-the-shelf skulls, throw away consumer skulls, that can be bought for ten dollars and then chucked into the bin after they have supplied us with ten seconds of thought. This is a life where entertainment and distraction have replaced the necessity of making sense. Sit back and watch the show (Party).
Forty years ago advertising agencies would surreptitiously air-brush skulls into advertisements in a not too subtle attempt to dare people to buy goods like alcohol and tobacco which we knew were bad for us. This heavy handed Freudian tactic has given way to a practice today where a product like Death cigarettes has no hesitation in sticking its taunt right in our face. Today we are constantly being reminded of our vulnerability and possible eminent mortality by a culture that demands us to live while we can. To buy now and pay later. This is not that far from a culture obsessed with its own sense of decay and decline. Hummerston seems to underline the ridiculousness of this condition. In Self Portrait MinusViscera Hummerston emphasises the veneer of our obsession with death. This grotesque image of an oversized cut-out model is so exaggerated it loses any possible ability to frighten us. It is rendered benign by its artifice, resembling something more like a toy than a memento mori.
Hummerston has learnt much from Hans Holbein's most famous painting The Ambassadors (1533) in which an anamorphic representation of a human skull sits smear-like across the bottom of the picture. One can not read both the picture and the skull properly at the same time. When you do see the skull it is at the expense of being able to see the painting of the two gentlemen in its correct perspective. This was not some kind of subliminal message that Holbein was trying to slip into the image. It was a tactical move to acknowledge that the awareness of death and its inevitability comes through a realisation that it is just that – something natural and normal. While it is to be feared, it is fear itself that is the real power. Hummerston knows this and by making light of death's signifiers he has made a show full of playful and enjoyable images that do much to deflate our pretensions and self obsession.
While Hummerston's imagery alludes to death it is his willingness to extend its significance into its appearances in everyday culture that gives his work a subtlety and menace that makes the usual and expected readings of this symbol even more powerful. This ability to remind to us that the languages we make and use underpin our everyday existence is a strength in his oeuvre that is the mark of an art that is engaging and articulate.
Julian Goddard December 2002
The West Australian, 15 February 2003, Robert Cook
Public Objects and Private Parts in Harry Hummerston’s Recent Assemblages
It is curious that, in a time when the body has emerged an artistic and theoretical reference point, we as audiences have become more anxious about the objectification of the body. We find ourselves surrounded by simplistic advertisements and mass-produced objects that are gendered representations, reduced to the biological body. Just what role the 'object' plays in revealing the gendered body and how we interpret it is revealed in Harry Hummerston's recent assemblages.
Harry's recent work illuminates how we, the audience, choose to interpret various objects to reinforce our own inherited views and suspicions about gender issues. He adapts everyday objects, placing them into contexts which serve to imbue them with other meanings. In the process he reveals how, in a visually oriented culture, the ordinary object can become extremely powerful. Because his work delves into the visual construction of notions about gender and masculinity, Harry's assemblages and objects are scrutinised for their adherence to or deviation from the order of ' political correctness'. In what follows, it will be shown that Harry has a fondness for skating the thin ice between political correctness and the non-representable.
Harry's work immediately identifies 'the object' as a site of meaning. Although they are diverse in manifestation, all the 'objects' in Harry's work have great symbolic potential and they are loaded with associations. Harry has always been interested in the significance of icons, and their central place in the (particularly Catholic) belief system. Brought up within our rich and powerful iconographic tradition, he is fully aware of how the presentation, representation and context of an icon are vital to its status and meaning. Harry's own work replicates the way significance is attached to the physical presence of icons and objects, manipulating the power of the visual symbol through context.
In an installation for the 1992 Artist's Regional Exchange (ARX) in Perth, Harry fully exploited the mystique and power of the religious icon as interpreted or read into the icon by the viewer. The installation comprised tiny, evenly spaced statues of the Virgin Mary (approximately 7000 of them) that had been hand cast in plaster, an intentionally cheap medium, and left unpainted, unadorned. Viewers were invited to walk across the statues along the axes of a cross to get a close look at three decorative icons elevated on plinths. Whilst large boots were provided for the task at hand, it was anticipated that the tense reservations people held about walking across an icon would override the curiosity to see the three other icons. In this piece, Harry questions the power of the icon and the power of the object.
The installation can be interpreted as an invitation to walk over images of women, revealing that the presence of gender can be a vital component of the power of the object. Thus gender issues become a vital consideration for the artist when representing a 'gendered' visual object. Harry's position as a male artist and his 'authorial' intentions become scrutinised.
It is fair to say that Harry is strongly opposed to any restriction or taboo upon what he may represent, particularly from the arena of representing the female 'object' or gender. There is some indignation over the issues of representing the body as the basic foundation of one's own experience only, thus in later works he confronts the segregation of gender and sexuality to separate male and female experience. Yet for Harry, the way that masculinity is constructed in our culture is never entirely distinct from the way the feminine is constructed. Both are the product of a continuous barrage of objects from which we derive an image of gender. For him, both genders suffer equally from a false set of reinforced assumptions about gender. Thus his later works deal specifically with the reduction of gender to a corporeal level. In his installations, he consolidated his emerging interest in the issues of gender, expressions of masculinity and positioning as a male artist. The shift to a focus upon constructions of gender in visual culture led Harry to produce several works that were intentionally controversial and almost defiant in the way they represented gender. De-powering Objects #1 and #2 (1992) and 1=0 (1993) reduce gender to its lowest possible bodily denominator, sex. In fact this process of 'oversimplification' is so complete, that a kind of disembodiment occurs in the sexual forms. They show no physical attachment and no association to other physical entities, they are descriptive unto themselves. These pieces reflect a great deal of anxiety in the viewer about the power of the object, especially when they represent sexuality and gender explicitly. In 1=0 and the De-powering Objects male and female genitalia are the basic principles behind the shape and form of these works.
De-powering Objects are the most blatant example of gender objectification that Harry has produced. Both pieces consist of a double-ended dildo made from wire structures covered in latex. This has produced an alarming ugly pair of sex accessories. Whilst they are pleasure instruments for two women to use simultaneously, signaling female sexual independence from men, they are displayed in dark, heavy, close-fitting fur-lined 'boxes', and therefore placed in a context of heterosexual co-dependency. The De-powering Objects represent the male phallus in terms of the female orifice; they examine women's sexuality and arrange it in terms of penetration. This 'co-dependence' reveals a limitation in Harry's work by representing the way the (sexed or gendered) object works in a visual world, these pieces risk being construed as a closed representative system of two sexes and two genders in sexual co-dependency.
Within the objectification of the phallic and vulvic images is Harry's intention that no concept of gender, particularly no notion of masculinity, can be derived from these dismembered objects.
The presentation and arrangement of the De-powering Objects is central to their disempowerment and 'emasculation'. They are hung horizontally to minimise the 'erection' concept. They are tactile, and apart from the idea that one does not pick up art in a gallery context, their tactile quality is largely left unexplored due to their appearance and obvious sexual nature. Thus like the 7000 statues of the Virgin, the De-powering Objects do not achieve any physical interaction with their audience.
1=0 creates a visual metaphor between the numerical symbols of its title and the formal characteristics of the work. The title also exactly describes the meaning of the work; one equals zero, or, rather, the phallus alone represents nothing. Alone, it has nothing (no opposite) from which to derive its meaning, thus when we finally regard it in isolation, it can be seen as an empty symbol. Harry intends to theoretically depower the phallus. This meaning, however, is deliberately contradicted by the visual impact of 1=0. 'One' is an erect penis made from sardine can openers, with sharp edges pointing up and out - it epitomises the viscous phallus, cutting and dangerous. Opposite a heart, a quasi 'equals' sign, is an open vagina, a blank gaping zero made of dark satin and imitation fur. Intentionally or not, this bizarre equation is a twist on the meaning behind Luce lrigaray's This Sex Which is not One, where the woman is not 'One', the phallus, nor is she 'Zero'.1 Again, in this piece, both genders become trapped within simplistic representations of the body, where the body and gender itself is narrowed down to the 'lowest' denominator, the genitals. Thus both genders on each side of the equation are suffering in this ironic play on the shape and visual impact, always referring back to the corporeal.
It is fair to say that harry is strongly opposed to any restriction or taboo upon what he may represent, particularly from the arena of representing the female ‘object’ or gender.
In 1=0, the visual symbology of the artworks negates the meaning implied by the title despite the shared formal image, as the visual component seems to carry stronger associations than the implicit connection of the objects. This is dependent on the way humans group' or identify visual data against what we already know about it; the repetition of a shape or image connects us instantly to all the meanings we know it can be applied to.
Thus the visual object/symbols function in a circular system where their strong visual associations are very difficult to break. Harry attempts to recontextualise the objects by representing them in a new context. The discrepancy that exists between what the objects in his work look like and what their context means highlights the lasting power of the visual object. Harry acknowledges that they are, more or less, something old in a new package, and in works such as 1=0 and De-powering Objects it is hard to disassociate the visual forms (rom the deeply engraved genitalia that grace the library desks of education institutions.
Harry's exceptional talent for depowering symbolically powerful objects is complemented by his ability to collect what appear to be more or less innocuous gizmos or objects, and tum them into something much more meaningful by providing them with an explicit context. In Work It Out For Yourself (1993), forty four individual objects are amassed into a large scale assemblage in which their referential meaning or significance extends far beyond their semi-degradable lifespan.
Work It Out For Yourself was first assembled for a survey exhibition called Visualising Masculinity, in1994. It is made up of two parallel rows of twenty two small boxes. Each box features a letter stenciled onto the glass cover of the box and an object inside. The lettering contains two hidden messages alluded to by the title of the piece whataloadoffuckingcrap and whatacrappyfuckingload.
Encasing is vitally important to the function of the objects. The clinical boxing, like museum casing, invites scrutiny, and dignifies these trashy objects into a realm of near scientific significance. The stenciled messages provide the overall context needed to tie the objects together, yet simultaneously create an interference in the process of studying the objects in detail. The objects are divided between masculine (on the top row) and feminine (on the bottom row). The dividing factor between them has much more to do with their shape and texture than their 'meaning'. For example, an umbrella handle is seen to be as masculine in shape as it is 'unfeminine'. And when placed in a row containing such objects as a beer can and a knife, it adopts some of the 'shape constancy' of a phallic object. It is contextualised amongst shiny, sharp, pointed or cylindrical objects, drastically contrasting with the round, circular, soft objects contextualised in the feminine row. Thus, very object reflects some aspect of a gendered body, and derives some meaning from a gendered body.2
This piece comments unemotionally on the way we read objects and on the way they, in tum, come to possess a power and meaning that extends beyond their futile form. It is an ironic representation of things as they really are, a mixture of gender equality and gender discrimination, revealing the world as a place where meanings are transmitted to the viewer on the smallest of scales, on the level of the individual objects of everyday life. Work It Out For Yourself describes a situation of gender stereotyping that has fully permeated our visual culture, an inescapable reduction of the objects surrounding our everyday life and the alignment of our genders to the level of the body.
Harry's work reveals the power of the object in the interpretations and minds of viewers. The offence we take at one object is, for Harry, as arbitrary as the reverence we hold for another. Harry places objects in connection to the body to create an uncertainty in his audience about the visual associations that the objects hold, and his intended use of their power. By dividing the world of objects by gender and reducing them to traces of the sexualised body, Harry simultaneously offers an ironic commentary on existing constructions of gender and challenges the viewers' reactions to his use of the gendered object.
Anna Herriman, Artlink, Vol 16 No 1 Autumn 1996 pages 58 - 61
(I) Elizabeth Grosz Jaques Lacan, A Feminist Introduction, Routledge, London and New York, 1990, p 146.
(2) Robyn Taylor Tickling the Male Psyche, Visualising Masculinities’, Artlink, Vol 14 No 3, p 84
The West Australian, 23 September 1995