Playing in the master bedroom: Claire Lambe at ACCA

Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 8 April - 25 June, 2017

The title of Claire Lambe’s recent exhibition at ACCA, Mother Holding Something Horrific, appears to be an invitation into a psychoanalytic space: a place of bad and monstrous mothers. The work is made up of screens, burials, desires, and abjection. The first room is a mise en scéne that leads to an open-mirrored corridor. As you enter this space a spectre approaches you—one that turns out to be nothing more than your own reflection, seen askew. At the centre of the mirrors is a reconstruction of Sigmund Freud’s chair. The reference to the father of psychoanalysis is an unavoidable invitation to a particular frame of examination. Despite all these signs of the subconscious, the work is composed of conscious and deliberate references. Lamb’s work is made up of components that are cultural and historical, rather than compulsive. Here, I propose to treat the work as a series of documents, all of which serve to re-insert the artist’s body into a particular history of art and film.

I am hesitant to analyse Lambe’s work through the frames of psychoanalysis despite the work’s apparent context. To demonstrate this hesitation I will defer to an earlier case. In her 1995 essay, Bad Enough Mother, Migon Nixon used a Kleinian model of psychoanalysis to read the works of Louise Bourgeois.(1) Klein’s theoretical model sought to account for the aggressive qualities of childhood compulsions.(2) Klein argued that the child divides the mother into ‘part objects’, such as the good and bad breast, so that they can act out their aggression on the ‘bad part’. For Klein, aggression is part of the process of separation from the mother. In her practice she encouraged children to displace their Oedipal dynamics onto therapeutic objects.  As Nixon writes:

Klein asserts that it is through infantile oral sadism that the subject experiences the destructive effects of its own aggression, in effect, subjectivity forms around an experience of loss enacted through destructive fantasies.(3)

Nixon evokes Klein in order to incorporate the aggressive dimension of the subconscious and repair what she saw as the overemphasis on pleasure and regression within the feminist adaptation of psychoanalysis, at least in 1990s North America.

Nixon uses Klein’s theoretical model to analyse Bourgeois’ work, Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), (1989-93). She begins by quoting the artist’s recollection of a dream. In the dream, the artist and her family devour their overbearing father at the dinner table. Bourgeios’ Cells work can be interpreted as a re-staging of this scene. The wire mesh contains the family unit, the dull, looming, spider-like eyes represent the mother hovering in the background. Biting, devouring, and sucking are typical of the aggressive compulsions of the child. Nixon argues that Bourgeois’ sculptural outcomes are a displacement of her aggressive drives, and she details Bourgeois’ methods of production as evidence. Nixon writes, ‘the sculpture comes into being as the object of aggressive fantasy’.(4) Nixon frames the work as if it emerged directly from the unconscious of the artist. We do not learn anything about Bourgeois work as a cultural, historical, or aesthetic object. Nixon also elides the institutional and social supports of the work’s production and display. Her analysis is compelling, but it produces an irrefutable diagnosis—one that over-determines the work as a therapeutic object, or a symptom.

The process of making art differs from the process of becoming a subject. While Lambe has wrapped her family in plastic, this is not an act of aggression but an act of reconstruction: the image is drawn from Dusan Makavejev’s 1974 film, Sweet Movie. I want to experiment with what I can say about Lambe’s work if I avoid repeating the story of castration anxiety: that is, if I sidestep the terms, jouissance, abjection, fetish, the image screen, and the gaze. Lambe’s process involves exorcising images and objects that have lodged in her memory: there are subconscious associations at work. In drawing from films and museum objects, the work is also speaking back to culture. In this way, Lambe’s work attempts to re-possess earlier forms of transgression. Lambe has strategically occupied a number of different sites of sexual exploitation and perversion, including 1970’s sexploitation cinema and the works of Marcel Duchamp. Lambe’s occupation is neither a celebration nor a critique, but something has shifted through her re-possession of these forms. 

Sweet movie is a colour saturated pornographic experimental film by the Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev. The film follows two central female characters. It is the source of a number of images and ideas in Lambe’s exhibition. One character in Sweet Movie is a ‘perfect virgin’, when inspected her hymen is not only intact, but omits a warm glowing light. This character represents woman-as-commodity: after winning a quiz show she is delivered to an oil tycoon who celebrates her virginity as a form of hygiene. The other woman is a failed revolutionary, the captain of a large tug boat called ‘Survival’ adorned with the face of Marx. She accepts her lover only because he is a true proletariat: a sailor from the Potemkin. The film is notable for its use of visceral material. At one point the leader of an artist commune, played by the Vienna Actionist Otto Muehl, slices and distributes his cock among his retching followers. At different points in the film both women are covered in melted chocolate, sugar, eggs, and piss. Lambe draws from this film in order to extend the transgressive qualities of her own work. 

The figure of Marcel Duchamp looms over Lambe’s exhibition. The prone woman in Duchamp's final ‘secret’ work, Étant donnés (1946 -66), is cited in a number of Lambe’s images. A tiny tear in the nostril of one of Lambe’s photographic models appears to echo the off center slit of the woman in Étant donnés. This particular photograph also quotes from Pier Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), a scene in which a saintly housekeeper buries herself. Another large photographic work by Lambe titled Waterfall shows a golden phallus pissing; Waterfall was the alternative title for Duchamp’s last work. The golden phallus in Lambe’s image is a direct quote from Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie. Lambe brings these authors together through her appropriation. In one room in the exhibition three screens create a spatial cross-section that aligns with both Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or Large Glass (1915 -23) and Étant donnés. The frames reference the Glass, echoing its form, while the position of the frames could take their cue from the assembly diagrams in the instruction manual that Duchamp left behind for his final work. As with Duchamp’s works the audience is invited to look both at and through the screen.

Interpretations of Duchamp’s works are numerous; the Large Glass can be read an allegory of desire. The work separates the masculine and feminine elements into two suspended realms.(5) The chocolate grinder, in the bachelor’s realm, is a mechanical portrait of the pulse and circulation of production. Duchamp was preoccupied with this sort of mechanical substitution: a car for a woman, a headlight for a child. The two moments in Duchamp’s practice are conflated in Lambe’s work, as if they were before and after scenes in a narrative film. The violence of Étant donnés is evident: the woman has no visible head, she is exposed and corpselike in the landscape. In The Large Glass, the violence is more repressed, but when read as ‘before and after’ texts, it becomes a prelude sexual violence.

Duchamp uses the image of the female body to indicate desire, but he takes the liquid of the body out of his equation. In Étant donnés the woman is exposed, but her sex appears to have healed over. Lambe returns the flesh to the body. In the small photograph of the artist giving birth, Lambe presents her body, bloodied and reversed, as a direct inversion of the aesthetic corpse figured in Étant donnés. Lambe’s response aligns itself with a lineage of other feminist exposures: VALIE EXPORT’s Action Pants/Genital Panic (1969), Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), and even Lynda Benglis’ 1974 Artforum advertisment. Lambe’s response is not anti-sex but it shows a consequence of sex, birth and its potential horror. The viscera of the body is also indirectly represented by an abstract floating form in the center of one of Lambe’s screens. This intervention is beautiful: the light playing through the yellow glass casts shadows around the frame. But the colour palette is drawn from bodily excretions: piss and shit. The resulting form is like a cross-section of rotten bone. Maybe this is what happens after the woman in Étant donnés is found, at the autopsy.

Chairs and stools populate the exhibition Mother Holding Something Horrid. These object are both physically present and recorded in the documents of the exhibition. A small white stool was a witness to Lambe’s labour, it can be seen in the corner of the photo-document. The real stool is also present on the same platform as this photographic image of labour. In the exhibition the stool has become older, its deterioration is a witness to time. In Lambe’s work Freud’s chair is presented as a reconstruction, pieced together from photographs and plans. The object is a product of Lambe’s desire to posses the chair, a desire enacted by proxy. The presence of the replica brings Lambe closer to Freud, as if she could sit on his knees.

Lambe’s process appears to be additive rather than analytic. The mirrored corridor performs as a passage, a stage set.(6) When I was there I had a strange feeling that I was being recorded: I tapped one of the microphones and it appeared to be on. 

 

(1) Migon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, in October, Vol. 71, (Winter, 1995), pp. 70-92. 

(2) Nixon draws primarily on Melanie Klein, ‘The Importance of Symbol Formation in the Development of the Ego’ (1930), in The Selected Melanie Klein, England: Penguin Books, 1991. 

(3) Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, p. 74. 

(4) Ibid, p. 75.

(5) The heteronomativity of this work is curious, give Duchamp’s appearance as Rrose Sélavy and his insistence, in a letter to his sister Suzanne, that the work Fountain was made by a woman. See Francis M. Naumann, “Affectueusement, Marcel: Ten Letters from Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti,” in Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1982), 2-19. 

(6) A series of beautiful performances by Atlanata Eke took place during the exhibition, they would require another article to do them justice. 

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne.

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. 

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. 

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne.

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. 

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. 

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne. 

Andrew Curtis

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Claire Lambe, Mother Holding Something Horrific 2016–17. Installation view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2017). Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne.

Andrew Curtis

Tamsin Green is an artist and writer based in Melbourne. Her work is informed by histories of photography and performance practice. Recent solo exhibitions include Covers at Bus Projects and Theft: Prints and Drawings at the Eildon Gallery, Alliance Française, Melbourne. Tamsin’s work has been supported by grants from the Australia Council for the Arts, and the City of Melbourne. She currently lectures at Monash Art, Design, and Architecture.