Shaped by hands and words: queer publishing, a visual gesture

Margins and Satellites, Ella Sutherland with contributions by Sean Burn, Laura Duffy, Simon Gennard, Robbie Handcock, Ana Iti, Rachel O’Neill and Aliyah Winter, Curated by Sophie Davis, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington, 5 July – 4 August 2018

Immersive and solipsistic, long-term academic research has an uncanny ability to colour your daily life. Phrases encountered during a day of close reading seep back out into the world in unexpected places. Freed from an academic context—whether on billboards, food packets or shop signage—certain words trigger memories of their previous iterations. I imagine that I see my research everywhere. Aware of this tendency, it took a moment to register that the false sense of recognition I felt upon reading the phrase ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in one of Ella Sutherland’s works was not, in fact, false recognition at all.

Sutherland's exhibition, Margins and Satellites, grew from her recent summer residency at Enjoy Public Art Gallery, during which she spent 21 days researching the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand Te Pūranga Takatāpui o Aotearoa (LAGANZ). Within this specialist archive, Sutherland focused on serial publications produced by New Zealand’s queer communities in the 1970s, 80's and 90s, such as Pink Triangle, Lesbian Feminist Circle and Dyke News. The politics of the archive are, of course, anything but neutral. Founded upon the organisational myth of objective collection and preservation, value is signalled through their lines of inclusion and exclusion. Such politics of power shape the dominant archival histories that we inherit. Those same politics are held to account by the creation of archives such as LAGANZ, which explicitly address the gaps and omissions of mainstream collections. Gathered from the margins, archives such as these contest the reductive power of the centre, the documents held within them rendered valuable through inclusion. Though itself a bounded archive, LAGANZ can also be considered a satellite orbiting the mainstream discourse, the writings within interrogating those around which they circle.

Sutherland’s exhibition re-considers this archive, charting an attentive examination of the design and typography used in the documents it preserves. In so doing, she questions ‘how the voices of these communities are embedded in the form of the artefacts; what is the capacity of printed matter to embody the cultural, technological or socio-political context surrounding their creation.’[1] Margins and Satellites, then, can be considered a sketch, a gesture by which these embodiments are made provisionally visual.

Prior to the opening of the exhibition, Sutherland collaborated with seven artists and writers based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, to produce a free publication published by Enjoy Public Art Gallery, available to visitors throughout the duration of the show. The gallery space was configured to position this publication in close relation to Sutherland’s works on paper. Two partial temporary walls occupied the centre of the space, blocks of printed artist’s pages hanging in grid formation from each. Visitors were invited to tear pages from each of these pads, collecting the individual works made by Sean Burn, Laura Duffy, Simon Gennard, Robbie Handcock, Ana Iti, Rachel O’Neil, Aliyah Winter and Ella Sutherland herself. A workbench spanned the gap between these walls, allowing visitors to compile their publication, placing their selected pages within the cover provided. This process of selection and assembly engaged the viewer both bodily and conceptually. Not only were we given the rare opportunity to tear visual and textual material from the gallery wall, but we were made tangibly aware of the unruly nature of the document we were choosing to construct. Lacking the conventional markers of ordering logic, such as sequential page numbering or a continuous narrative thread, the pages challenged the viewer to interrogate their own organising principles. Should the works be grouped together by artist? By aesthetic similarity? How about trying to maintain the order in which the individual pages were hung? In which case, how do you traverse the two separate grids? Rather than simply declaring the constructed nature of the histories that we engage with, Sutherland prompts the viewer to enact that very construction for themselves. We are reminded that the printed document is not neutral.

Visitors piece together this documentation under the watchful eye of Sutherland’s silkscreen printed works, which are interspersed with closely cropped depictions of numerous pairs of eyes. Suggestive of the heteronormative male gaze, the masculine appearance of the majority of these eyes transforms the space into a sort of patriarchal panopticon. The 10 pairs of eyes pictured are, in face, named after previous Prime Ministers of New Zealand from the mid-1970s onwards. A reminder perhaps that for all the politicised criticality of the writings housed in archives such as LAGANZ, they exist within the structural framework of a society deeply stratified along the lines of power and difference.

Sutherland’s paper works are secured to the walls in their upper corners. Left unframed, their torn raw edges expose their materiality. Echoes of the original publications resonate through this presentation. I am reminded of handling archival documents with similarly imperfect edges; documents created with little or no funding, urgently made in order to connect and mobilise a community. Often photocopied and bound together by hand, such documents were shaped by hands and words fuelled by collective anger, determination and solidarity.

Sutherland has said of her printed works: ‘I have also thought of the Margins & Satellites works as poems (or a visual documentary-poem), a form able to freight meaning quickly and extend the document—hopefully giving a second life to these histories.’[2] Such a comparison is valuable in this instance, pointing as it does to the loaded significance of every mark on the paper. Simultaneously, the poetic form suggests linguistic fluidity and interpretive mutability. This poetic parallel is most clearly evident in After Lesbian Feminist Circle, 2018, silkscreen on paper, which consists of a grid of 40 letter ‘C’s. The systematic rigidity of the layout is gradually eroded upon closer examination. Each ‘C’ is subtly different, beneath each, a short phrase. Reading the text in sequence, de-contextualised phrases offer themselves up for interpretation. Despite the evasion of a clear narrative, or indeed a coherent meaning, the text is infused with a palpable sense of melancholy. An emotional trajectory is traced, opening with optimism and certainty: ‘this is the first… this is the only way to…’ However, by the midpoint ‘we have a long way to go… we worry, lose faith, lapse into…’ Upon reaching the final line, we discover that ‘circle is to be sold’. A note of optimism, perhaps, is struck by the final phrase: ‘dear circle’, so that the text ends with its own beginning. Quoted from the publication Circle and its successor Lesbian Feminist Circle, these phrases, removed from their original context become poetic and evasive.

Rather than standing as separate entities—the exhibition, the publication—these components are entwined by their close proximity and an overlap in their aesthetic sensibility. Sutherland brings the voices of Burn, Duffy, Gennard, Handcock, Iti, O’Neil and Winter into conversation with hers. But the echo of many other voices also resonates throughout the gallery space. Voices known to both Sutherland and myself. For, rather than imagining to see my research in the words around me, I actually do. 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness' is the title of an article written by American feminist Jo Freeman, and republished in a special issue of the New Zealand feminist magazine Broadsheet in 1975—an issue that I happened to have re-read in the week prior to visiting the show. It is not the only phrase that is familiar. They accumulate, calling to mind the people who wrote them, people who actively fought to create a discourse that challenged not only the patriarchy but also the heteronormativity of much of the feminist movement in Aotearoa in the 1970s and 80s.

The shift that occurs when text is isolated from this archived discourse and re-configured in terms that are predominantly visual is fraught with tension. Does such a translation strip the specificities of history and politics from the source material? Sutherland appears to both pre-empt this question and offer a response in the work Hard Copy, 2018, photocopy on paper, in which she displays two pages of index listings from LAGANZ. Marked with notes to request certain items, and titles systematically scored through, these reproduced pages exist as a trace of the archival research process. Perhaps more importantly, they act as a provocation, providing the viewer with sufficient information to turn towards the source material themselves.

Sutherland has said that she is interested in asking ‘how might a visual sign become the material for language?’[3] At its heart, Margins and Satellites offers an investigation into the relationship between the visual and linguistic. By removing words from their context, Sutherland has stripped the clarity of meaning from language. She offers instead a visual gesture towards the limitations of language as a vessel for meaning. Reliant on collectively held understandings of meaning, language is subject to erosion and slippage. Exploiting this, the LGBTQI community continues to challenge the heteronormativity and binary structure within the English language. By unmooring typography from semiotics, Sutherland’s work makes apparent the societal complicity inherent in the signification of language. If our inherited linguistic structures work in service of oppressive modes of power, then their every iteration only enforces them. Read in this light, the exploration of an alternative visualisation of language is more subversive than it may at first appear.

Amelia Jones and Erin Silver have recently argued that if ‘archives become sites for the excavation of queer … histories, exhibitions can provide the interface between lost histories and public understanding’.[4] Margins and Satellites, ranging as it does across generations and communities, between archives and art-spaces, offers a way into such understandings for those willing to do some work of their own.

 

[1] Ella Sutherland, email communication with author, 3 September 2018

[2] Ella Sutherland, email communication with author, 3 September 2018

[3] Ibid

[4] Amelia Jones and Erin Silver, ‘Queer feminist art history, an imperfect genealogy’ in Jones and Silver (eds.) Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist art histories, (Manchester University Press: Manchester) 2016, p33.

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Ella Sutherland, Margins and Satellites, 2018. Installation view at Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, Margins and Satellites, 2018. Installation view at Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, Margins and Satellites, 2018. Installation view at Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, After Lesbian Feminist Circle, 2018, silk screen on paper, 55.8 x 72.6 cm. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, After Lesbians in Print, silk screen on paper, 55.8 x 72.6 cm. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, Comic Strips (Bill English), 2018, laser engraving on acrylic. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, After Bitches, Witches & Dykes, 2018, silk screen on paper, 55.8 x 72.6 cm. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

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Ella Sutherland, Hard Copy, 2018, photocopy on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm. Image courtesy of Ella Sutherland and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

Xander Dixon

Kirsty Baker is an art historian based in Wellington, Aotearoa. Her interests are shaped by the overlapping spaces that exist across disciplines, and the interlinked nature of the political and the creative. Influenced by an enduring engagement with feminism, she is currently writing a critical historiography of the discourse surrounding women artists in Aotearoa. She has written for Art New Zealand, n.paradoxa international feminist art journal, and All Lines Converge: Some Lines Through the Archive for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, among others.