Mazdas

In which, eventually, the reader will encounter discussion of Isadora Vaughan’s Gaia Not the Goddess, Heide Museum of Modern Art, March 2 – June 23, 2019, and FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, March 9 – 11, 2019

My parents bought a Mazda. Now I see Mazdas everywhere. Someone told me poetry was on the up and I said maybe, or maybe you’re just reading more of it and told them about my parent’s Mazda. They clarified it wasn’t a personal hunch and quoted a statistic. I acquiesced to the good news.

I haven’t read much Mary Oliver but when she died I thought it appropriate to listen to an extended interview with her. At one point the interviewer played a recording of her daughter reciting a well-known Mary Oliver poem, ‘The Summer Day’. It features a grasshopper eating sugar out of her hand. After complimenting the reading Mary said,

‘One thing about that poem that I think is important is that the grasshopper actually existed…and yet I was able to fit him into that poem…’ [1]

Earlier, while vacuuming a primary school’s multi purpose room, I listened to the same interviewer interview a different poet. This one was David Whyte. Just from hearing David speak you could visualise him perfectly. Once home, I image-searched him. Sure enough he was smarmy, had a devastating cowlick. But he did say, ‘The only place that things [are] actually real [is] at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you…that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you would like it. But […] whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier.’ [2]

To my mind, Mary suggested her poem contained a reckoning with something real, that the grasshopper interfacing with her hand via the sugar proxy was an authentic in-the-world moment. It possessed a flicker of objectivity before being shot through the inherited prisms of selfdom. David, though aiming in the same direction, finds his real in the more oblique terrain of a conversation between competing fictions. The real doesn’t operate here in a fundamentalist role, I don’t want to frame either poet as seeking the base turtle of the stack. Instead, the real exists only in opposition to prevailing knowledge systems. Call the real whatever you want.

Mary’s take on the grasshopper positions the senses as a viable means of maneuvering away from dominant systems of interpretation. Which is to say, the moment of contact between her and the grasshopper is observed and documented, yet that specific grasshopper retains agency completely outside any locus(t) we can imagine. We integrate our tangled familiarities onto the grasshopper. Narratives are utensils of power working to obscure possibility. Mary doesn’t go on to implement the grasshopper as a device, instead a moment occurs when the grasshopper inhabits total possibility. She attempts to grant the world a sovereign moment and in so doing provides the reader with choreography to puncture what shrink-wraps every interface. David and Mary both home in on methods of deconstruction. If poetry is on the up, maybe the people around me that are increasingly seeking out similar methods of deconstruction have something to do with it.

Metaphor is a dangerous and vital tool if we are in the practice of deconstruction, of diversification of knowledge structures. If within that project lies liberation, then a similar liberation must also be sought for our metaphors, which are never passive. There is an argument that all of earthly life is concerned with domination and power, and that liberation is simply allowing another power into prominence. This might be compounded by turning to nature, by theorising that other species and plants develop defense systems to oppress and out-manoeuvre competitors. But this is an antiquated analogy, drawn and corroborated from a historical canon that depends on violent binaries. The obverse, or perhaps the real that works in opposition to this interpretation, is a nature that nimbly avoids conceptualisation. A fabric in which the modus operandi of each spectacle is not neatly integrated into any available narrative/strata. The particular grasshopper distilled in Mary’s account is important because of what it is making available to her. It’s similar to Donna Haraway’s pointing out of Jacques Derrida’s lapse in rigour when ‘…he failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning.’ [3] For the moment I’m not so interested in Jacques’s little cat, or his failings that morning in the nude, but rather in what that space is that Donna is shooting for. The one in which we consider the cat’s feeling-thinking a pose ‘that understands the absence of the name to be something other than a privation.’ [4] For the most part this is a knowledge-state that is not achievable on familiar terms. It is not reachable, classifiable or outcome oriented, but in any case, requires movements to get there, meaning the movement, to put it crudely, becomes the desired state. It’s like trying to imagine a new colour. Metaphor can provide a blueprint for what that movement is, it can enact and expand. It can also be violently reductive as in the case of nature at war with itself. Naturally poetry affords a method of forging new zagging relations (movement) through its inherent bending/binding of language (think Julian Randall’s ‘Flex’, think Paisley Rekdal’s ‘Assemblage of Ruined Plane Parts’, ‘Vietnam Military Museum’, ‘Hanoi’, think Claribel Alegria’s ‘Summing Up’, Jennifer L. Knox’s ‘Pimp My Ride’, John Shoptaw’s ‘Near-Earth Object’, Ishmael Reed’s ‘The Diabetic Dreams of Cake’). It’s the transport network to David’s frontier.

I feel that much of the conversational art criticism I engage with or offer lately is centered on symbolic relationships. That is, less time is spent with the thingness of the work, and more drawing ties between its components and other objects and phenomena. It’s to be expected, but demonstrates a lack of imagination. What might have begun as a basic means of evaluating/integrating work has evolved into the default mode of engagement. Many artists of varying levels of institutional sanction, myself included, at times find themselves constrained by the question of how their materials fit into a wider network of relationships that is addressed and revered as though it is fixed. The question seems to be what are the semiotic properties of this material, not how can I subvert those properties, forge new ones, or propel the material into a space that is continually doing and undoing itself. Obviously willing it doesn’t make it so. In some cases it can be easier to do this with poetry. In the West, the English language is such an established and pervasive system, which we encounter primarily with the expectation of instruction, it can be easier to detect (within reason) when we are antagonising/liberating it from within. Image-based symbology can be harder to subvert. Again, a clue to the claim that poetry is on the up?

Perhaps what I’m circling, or trying to collect in the mind’s talon, are practices that demonstrate movement in time with David’s frontier or Mary’s independent hopper. I encountered a recent collision of poetic unravelling and establishment corset tightening at Isadora Vaughan’s show Gaia Not The Goddess. A pleasure as always to be beguiled and delighted by Isadora’s ever more inventive and devoted experiments into material limits, although the work and the space (the small annex to Heide’s ticket desk) were by no means at ease with one another. Granted, Isadora covered the entire floor in bitumen, but I felt it had more to do with the assimilation of the elements of Isadora’s practice that pose the biggest threat to the institution. The moments of most zag. The show is presented as part of CLIMARTE 2019. You enter and immediately the beeswax concertina form that divides the space calls to mind coral, and, apart from a baby blue sculpture slumping nearby, the palette of the entire show is in keeping with the dismal tones the Great Barrier Reef will soon exclusively sport. Aside from the bitumen, most of the materials in the show are organic. I overheard Isadora herself pointing to the second largest form of the bunch, a freestanding hemplime obelisk, declaring it’d be in the compost in three weeks. A few bulbous mycelium orbs litter the floor, as well as a few ceramic wedges, oddly geometric in relation to the scree and splatter of her past works. Isadora casually picks one up and explains the substance to a curious gallery-goer.

Talking with a friend at the opening, we discussed the rising price of beeswax in correlation not with the falling number of bees (jury’s out), but with its growing status as a desirable eco product amongst the (upper) middle class. I was reminded of a line in Nick Laird’s poem ‘Feel Free’,

I can be persuaded fairly easily to initiate immune responses
by the fake safety signals of national anthems, cleavage, family
photographs, country lanes, large-eyed mammals, fireworks,

the King James Bible, Nina Simone singing ‘The Twelfth of Never,’
cave paintings, coffins, dolphins, dolmens. [5]

The term ‘fake safety symbols’ can be thought of as encapsulating the articles that parade as benign, or even uniquely positive, but actually have the distinct capacity to operate as enforcers of a system, depending on the consumer’s participation with/integration of said article. Some more for the list of safety signals: any food-travel show, making fresh pasta, architecture blogs.

In Alice Springs over the past weekend (March 9 – 11) the inaugural FabAlice festival ran. The brainchild of the cartoonishly malevolent local casino, Lasseter’s (great name), and the NT tourism office, the festival coincided with the 25th anniversary of the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Billed as a yearly pride festival, it was produced with minimal consultation with the local queer community and no invitation to participate was extended to any queer traditional owners. It featured an exclusively male line-up on the poster, while being held on International Women’s Day. The organisers also saw fit to add their own ‘A’ onto LGBTIQ+. It should be noted ‘A’ is already part of the acronym, representing the a-sexual community. In this case, however, it was to stand for ‘allies’, which it turned out referred to the police, who led the parade. This is a police force that continually perpetrate acts of brutality against marginalised communities and have repeatedly proven they have little interest in behaving in actual alliance with said communities.

The festival included a float parade. A contingent of locals under the name Mparntwe Queers organised a float to participate in the parade and midway through it unfurled hidden banners in protest of the event. [6] On one side of the float the banners read PRIDE IN -SOVEREIGNTY -LOVE + DIVERSITY -Sg Bb LGBTIQ+ -SURVIVAL -QUEER CULTURE -OUR COMMUNITIES and on the other, PRIDE AINT -POLICE BRUTALITY -TRANS WOMEN IN MEN’S PRISONS -MEDICAL ABUSE OF INTERSEX BODIES -HOMOPHOBIA AND TRANSPHOBIA -REMOVAL + IMPRISONMENT OF ABORIGINAL KIDS -COLONIAL PATRIARCHY. Speaking to some of the protesters after the parade they described the mainstream public’s reaction as, at best, confused. This is reaffirmed in an SBS article about the event in which the only mention of the Mparntwe Queers is that they ‘came out to take part’. [7] Below the quote is a photograph of their float with the protest banners unfurled, yet no mention of what their content might mean. The symbolism and currency of a pride event within the dominant white, heteronormative system seemed to absorb the protest. FabAlice lived in the mainstream imagination as inherently progressive despite the severe missteps in its management and execution. It utilised its subject to consolidate a stereotype that requires no cession on the part of NT Tourism or Lasseters and works directly to benefit them. While the way in which symbolism here works to empower the already empowered and dampen alternative voices is obvious, it is effective in demonstrating that progressive causes can still be hostaged by neo-liberalism. Arguably, progressiveness is in itself obsolete, functioning as it does in most cases either economically or to reaffirm the system that conceived of it in the first place. So, the fact that beeswax’s demand is increasing amongst a particular socio-economic demographic is not as innocuous as it might seem.

Isadora raises this very concern within her show. The title alone provides a nod in that direction. Punching Gaia into Google results in Gaia Inc, Gaia—Conscious Media, Streaming Yoga Videos & More, What is Amazon Gaia, How can I cancel my Gaia membership, Gaia Retreat and Spa, Gaia Skin Naturals, UFOs: the Evidence No One Is Talking About, all before the Greek goddess, personification of earth, is mentioned. Isadora offers another alternative to the goddess in the exhibition’s wall text, ‘…the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes Earth is an elaborate, self-regulating ‘superorganism’.’ The wall text closes suggesting ‘…Vaughan’s project proposes a mode of sitting with the complex question of how the environment is managed and monetised under capitalism.’ There is a certain levelling alluded to in the text that I detect in Isadora’s works. I overheard someone ask whether the beeswax concertina was mycelium, another what the wedges were made of. There was a sense that a threshold could be reached where the objects supersede their material web and begin to occupy a similar isthmus to Mary’s grasshopper. That’s what I identify as the mode of sitting, a radical space beyond the snares of progressive ecological discourse.

The show orbits a democratisation of material objects. Bitumen possesses a cruel character, a symbol of planetary pillaging, but it is made from rock, petroleum; organics inflected by the Midas touch. Interestingly, the show doesn’t cast aspersions or request allegiances, materials attempt to be presented impartially. Perhaps it understands that blaming bitumen for our planet’s dire future is as much to do with class as with environmental sympathies. What I was left trying to understand was who or what was responsible for the insistence on solidifying the work, petrifying the portal to David’s frontier, to Mary’s bug, by tugging it back into a single-track environmentalism. Which is to say, an environmentalism that understands itself only by terms of currency. A symbol that subsumes its adversaries.

The easy target was Heide itself, its principal clientele, myself included. The gift shop being visible from inside the show contributed to the strange tug of war between what I felt the work straining to do and what symbols were restricting it from doing so. It was only later that I encountered a suggestion by Gaston Bachelard in his introduction to Poetics of Space,

‘…the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for an object, but to seize its specific reality. For this, the act of the creative consciousness must be systematically associated with the most fleeting product of that consciousness, the poetic image. At the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.’ [8]

Just as the metaphors we choose to implement are never passive, neither is readership. I’d been neglecting one of my myriad duties as an active component within Isadora’s show, and the world at large. If poetry is on the up it’s because it can offer creative works that ‘…are bolts of pent-up energy that break through the cracks in a system of control and shoot off in the diagonal. By the light of their passage, they reveal the open spaces beyond the limits of what exists.’ [9] But, in addition, they provide opportunities to sharpen poetic readership, to learn from the trans-subjective space that that makes available to us. The alternative is passivity to a dominant symbolic catalogue, under which alternative streams are appropriated, and, as with FabAlice, protests absorbed.

So my issue, if there is one, isn’t with relating forms or their integration into narratives (I’m not immune, I compared a sculpture to coral). It’s with allowing prominent ones (narratives and metaphors that reduce possibility) to maintain airtime unchecked, unchecked through creative production and readership. So to paraphrase Mary, one thing about Gaia Not The Goddess that I think is important is that the work actually existed. With diligent readership, it reveals itself as less constrained, more iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions. It can deliver the heady buzz of realising you’re somewhere you have no business in being, of seeing something at once familiar and unrecognisable and knowing it’s not a hint, of walking an earth that is not, never has been, a machine.

 

[1] ‘Mary Oliver-Listening to the World’, February 5, 2015, in On Being, interview by Krista Tippett, podcast, mp3 audio, 51:26, https://onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world-jan2019/

[2] ‘David Whyte-The Conversational Nature of Reality,’ April 7, 2016, in On Being, interview by Krista Tippett, podcast, mp3 audio, 51:50, https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-the-conversational-nature-of-reality-dec2018/

[3] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 20.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] Nick Laird, ‘Feel Free,’ The New Yorker, November 17, 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/17/feel-free-2

[6] Many thanks to Mparntwe Queers for sharing their thoughts on FabAlice with the author in personal conversation.

[7] Ross Turner, ‘FabAlice begins in fabulous style in central Alice Springs’, NITV, March 9, 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/03/09/fab-alice-begins-fabulous-style-central-alice-springs1

[8] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (New York: Penguin, 2014), 8.

[9] Tim Raynor, ‘Lines of Flight: Deleuze and Nomadic Creativity’, Philosophy For Change, June 18, 2013, https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/lines-of-flight-deleuze-and-nomadic-creativity/

Boys Shoes

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Isadora Vaughan, installation view of Gaia not the Goddess, 2019, mycelium, hemp and lime, beeswax, steel, vegans pig's ear, ceramic paper clay, vitirifed crushed rock, Mt. Gambier limestone, glazed ceramic, epoxy, bitumen, thermoplastic.

Christian Capurro

19-3_Heide_Proj_8acr.jpg

Isadora Vaughan, installation view of Gaia not the Goddess, 2019, mycelium, hemp and lime, beeswax, steel, vegans pig's ear, ceramic paper clay, vitirifed crushed rock, Mt. Gambier limestone, glazed ceramic, epoxy, bitumen, thermoplastic.

Christian Capurro

19-3_Heide_Proj_12cr_0.jpg

Isadora Vaughan, installation view of Gaia not the Goddess, 2019, mycelium, hemp and lime, beeswax, steel, vegans pig's ear, ceramic paper clay, vitirifed crushed rock, Mt. Gambier limestone, glazed ceramic, epoxy, bitumen, thermoplastic.

Christian Capurro

19-3_Heide_Proj_21.jpg

Isadora Vaughan, installation view of Gaia not the Goddess, 2019, mycelium, hemp and lime, beeswax, steel, vegans pig's ear, ceramic paper clay, vitirifed crushed rock, Mt. Gambier limestone, glazed ceramic, epoxy, bitumen, thermoplastic.

Christian Capurro

19-3_Heide_Proj_4cr.jpg

Isadora Vaughan, installation view of Gaia not the Goddess, 2019, mycelium, hemp and lime, beeswax, steel, vegans pig's ear, ceramic paper clay, vitirifed crushed rock, Mt. Gambier limestone, glazed ceramic, epoxy, bitumen, thermoplastic.

Christian Capurro

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

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Mparntwe Queers at FabAlice Festival, Alice Springs, 2019.

Gabriel Curtin is a writer and artist. His novella, Forced Rhubarb, was published in 2018.