Review: Stephen O’Malley, Brighton Apr 13, 2014

•April 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Scenario One:

A man walks beside a wide stream at night. He wears no shoes and dry scratchy blades of grass poke between his toes, and are crunched underfoot with each successive step. The hem of his dark jeans is turned up above a pale ankle and he walks lugubriously, occasionally casting his dark, unkempt hair back as he glances up at the trees that crowd the bank, stretching their long skeletal silhouettes across the pale disc of a moon above.

 

Scenario Two:

You are standing in a wide, shallow stream. Your feet are cool but the rest of your body is feverishly warm: the climate here is stifling – hot and heavy as Florida on a July evening. But the water swishes around your ankles, weaves through your toes and it’s refreshing, if not entirely comfortable. So you decide to walk ahead, water lapping with each step at the hem of your black jeans. The stream winds and your path is not straight. You become acutely aware of the current – its minute alterations of speed, strength, and intensity, its minor rapids and eddies, the way it exerts constant pressure on your quickly fatigued legs like an ineluctable humming.

 

Scenario Three:

The orgasm doesn’t end; instead it becomes intensified and prolonged indefinitely. Your body collapses and admits the convulsive rhythm that washes it in continual waves rippling down your chest, your thighs, over your ankles and between your toes. It doesn’t end and you think, “I’m beginning to panic.” You become aware of your pulse, throbbing in your ears with extraordinary insistence and, because it’s not as frightening as the other, you decide to capitulate to its alternating drone. As you attach yourself to its sound, however, other things start to fall away: the thin pale form beside you; your limp, leaking penis; a dim lamp on the nightstand; the floral bedspread. Last thing to go is your hearing and suddenly you’re claustrophobically alone with an endless throbbing mass that you suddenly realize is and has always been inside you. The epiphany only momentarily assuages a quickly mounting terror.

 

Scenario Four:

I try very hard to climb onto a platform made out of shiny, black marble, which stands about eight feet above the ground. My fingers grip its edges and I pull myself up by straining muscles, toes pressed against the cool stone. I hoist myself up and see my prize in the distance: a gleaming something or other flickering like lightening above a white altar. My hand reaches out towards it but it recedes from me. The air vibrates, the rock shimmers, and I am back where I started, faced again with the obsidian surface of the platform’s edge.

 

Scenario Five:

All previous scenarios are attempts to hem the outlines of an abstract form that has neither shape, nor colour, nor smell, and which is monstrous or transcendent in part because it resists such enfolding.

 

Scenario Six:

Moonlight shows the dark figure of a man step lithely from a slowly coursing brook, onto a bank covered in shadows of spindly, reaching trees. He will walk away through the thicket, out through the fields, far from the stream, getting smaller and smaller until finally he is lost to the black.

The Void Looks Black

•October 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

Vincent_Como_Paradise_Lost

Sth I wrote a while ago in response to my friend Vincent Como‘s show at Minus Space, BK this summer. This is not a review.

Vincent Como: Paradise Lost

May 10 – June 15, 2013

Minus Space, 111 Front St, Suite 226, Brooklyn, NY.

Down under the Brooklyn overpass, it’s hot, it’s sunny and I don’t know where I am. Drawing out a phone, I peer into the screen. The tip of the right index finger depresses the phone’s ON button as the right thumb types into the map application “M-I-N-U-S – S-P-I-C-E [sic] F-R-O-N-T-S-T”. I appreciate the phone’s reassuring weight centred in the palm of the right hand; the bevelled edge around which little, ring and middle fingers curl. It’s too bright to see the results, however: rounding a street corner, reveals a wall of midday sun and suddenly the obsidian surface reflects only a dim face in the glare; my features sheened with sweat, my brows drawn together, my lips pursed in irritation.

At Minus Space I read that monochromatic artist Vincent Como’s show, “Paradise Lost,” takes its title from John Milton’s seventeenth century account of Satan’s fall and biblical man’s banishment from Eden. Como’s paradise appears to be a world in which idealism or univocal signification held sway: thus, the artist contends that his works are vectors of a post-Edenic era, “manifest ideas with multiple meanings.” Yet it seems to me that the blackness perceived by Milton’s blind eyes while envisioning paradise in his epic poem, also intrudes upon the fringes of Como’s pieces.

Eight rectangular black canvases are evenly distributed along three walls of Minus Space’s rectangular gallery. A black shelf two inches beneath each varnished canvas holds between three and nine black candles, protruding at irregular intervals from dark stalagmites of mounting waste wax. Excrescences of hardening wax cascade over the shelves, casting dark, reaching shadows on the wall below. Here and there a dark pearlescent glob haltingly descends from the lighted tip of a candle; some of these have dropped splattering onto the floor. It’s an imposing, somewhat sepulchral scene, made more oppressive by the intense heat generated by so many lighted candles in this small space.

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I snap a photo with my phone that I’ll post on Facebook later. As the candles’ flames bounce and flicker, reflected in their shiny black backing, I’m five years old again, golden-curled and uncomprehending, as my mother places a Christmas candle in the window of our home in rural Ireland. “To guide the baby Jesus on his way,” I’m told, so: a messianic ritual. Wind moans through our house on a hill in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing: outside it’s pitch black and I imagine a figure stalking towards the winking flame. I remember that I haven’t been home in a while.

The phone’s camera doesn’t pick up tones well, however: the candle flames are fuzzy orange smudges, black is washed out to the miserable charcoal of an old band t-shirt and, in the canvas, a spooky human shape in darker grey. After “Paradise Lost 006,” whose nine candles have together excreted a monstrous but seemingly immobile accumulation of waxy detritus, comes “Paradise Lost 015.” Another trinity of candles erected before another jet black window, it initially seems indistinguishable from works like “Paradise Lost 007,” which has attracted three other visitors – all now gazing into its glassy depths.

It is different, however; or rather it shows its difference more plainly: here the surface is slightly scorched in two places, dull teardrops tarnishing the burnished coating of the canvas. My reflections are quickly interrupted: the flames are slowly burning these artworks, imperceptibly cooking varnish, oil and, eventually, linen. Incremental and almost imperceptible, too, is the coagulated accretion of wax created by them. Their evolution or devolution as artworks proceeds regardless of a viewer; changes in size, shape and shadow occur behind one’s back. The epiphanic effect is more than disconcerting: looking around the room, all appears as it was, but a vague unease has imposed itself upon the scene. My engaged appreciation is quickly supplanted by an indeterminate, but palpable sense that, all around, these artworks may be alive, partaking of an organic but inhuman vitality… The sudden bleep and throb of an incoming text message is a welcome distraction, and I depart, eyes locked upon the screen.

Issue 11 of One+One Filmmakers Journal out now!

•July 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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My introduction to the eleventh issue of One+One Filmmakers Journal, available to download for free here

Introduction to the Issue: 11

11 – its form familiar and predictable, but alien to the work of this magazine’s writers: one, one. Its repetition, that of the same without alteration, a recurrence without modulation. Without affirmation: not a Derridean yes, yes but a “yeah, yeah” (whatevs). So predictable – is this a re-run? No invocation of the monstrous outside, no addition of something new through the middle: no conjunction here. Just two parallel lines (of thought, behaviour, creativity) that never intersect, carrying us, swaying, toward some known destination, determined in advance.

Put the eyeball on a dolly though; come around and a little below, and the two bars of 11 look like they intersect (the left one is in fact tilted back at an angle of about 30 degrees and is much longer than it appeared from the front). Better: just shove them together, spin them round so they’re perpendicular. The articles assembled in One+One Filmmakers Journal do just this: approaching their subjects askew, turning old ideas around, combining them with new ones.

READ MORE…

Édouard Levé – A Night at the Strip Club

•October 26, 2012 • 2 Comments

Given recent interest in the work of French writer, photographer and artist Édouard Levé and the acclaim which followed the publication of his Suicide (Dalkey 2011) last year, I thought I’d share this. It’s my translation of short piece by Levé called “Un Soir au Strip-Tease,” which was originally published in Mouvement: l’indisciplinaire des arts vivants from early 2007.

 A Night at the Strip Club

Y., a dancer who acted in my piece Pornographie suggested that I come to see her some evening at her day-job, the S. She worked as a stripper there. Being interested in the swinging scene a few years ago and having visited Les Chandelles, l’Overside and the Pluriel Club for research, I decided to accept her invitation, hoping that this spectacle would turn up a found object I could one day recycle in my art.

The S. can be found in the 17ème arrondissement, not far from Porte Maillot. The entrance looks like that of a New York nightclub from the 50s, but erected upon the dull [terne] Avenue des Ternes. Two colossal guardians are planted outside the door like the obligatory accoutrements of somewhere that wants to appear exclusive: considering the ease with which the gentlemen in front of me enter, I gather that their purpose is purely decorative, like the red cord which hangs between two gilded metal posts. We leave our clothing in the great foyer, presided over by men the size of wrestlers. Taking the stairs down, we spill out onto a bar. This is what the S’s website says: “Upon purple walls and absinthe-coloured stairs which lead down to the main room, a patchwork of fans offer a foretaste of the venue’s subtle tones. A few steps beyond, the cabaret exhales the aroma of the boudoir, reminiscent of Shanghai in the 20s. Bathed in distressed reds and gold, the sofas all bear different motifs and details, harmonizing perfectly with the fabrics, curtains, and the orgue à parfums, an illuminated array of bottles containing every sort of feminine accessory.” It takes a little imagination. 260 seats are available for patrons. There are no female patrons here. The only women are waitresses and dancers. The latter are distributed between two or three podiums spread out across a huge room, where low ceilings try in vain to create some intimacy. The dancers follow, one after another, onto the podiums, from the center of which protrudes a metal pole which they hold, around which they wind and from which they dangle themselves. This accessory is necessary for the choreography but above all serves to flatter the ego of the spectators who take it for their penis: the size, hardness and brilliance calls to mind their wildest dreams.

I write “dancers” rather than “strippers,” because it seems to me that a stripper disrobes slowly, and the act’s appeal lies in the suspense of a gradual unveiling. Here, however, the dancers appear in g-string and bra, and it takes at most a few seconds until they remove the top part. For the bottom, one must go into a room at the back, where one gets full nudity either in public or in a private lounge. In the largest room, “modesty” seems to persist.

I seat myself in front of a podium, and behold an enormous woman. It’s perhaps an effect of the low angle: the podium rises far above seated spectators. She gives herself over to a fixed routine. She turns around the bar, hangs there by her arms or her legs, rubs herself against the immense cock, sways obscenely, dances a little looking a spectator in the eye and leaves. The operation lasts five minutes. A moment’s beat and another one takes up the baton, offering pretty much the same choreography. The aim of this show is to whet the appetites of spectators and entice them to get themselves a personal “striptease.” For a few ten euro notes, the client can ask the stripper to give him a dance up close. She then contorts herself a few centimetres away from him, caresses his face with long hair that she flicks at him while she bends in his direction, before straightening up all of a sudden. The tresses follow. Her breasts bounce and shake at eye level. Some dancers have the chests of professional wet nurses. Their breasts surround the client’s face. I admire the precision of the ordeal, as never does a nipple make contact with the face. Yet it is a few millimetres away. The dancer doesn’t touch the client, who is not allowed to touch her. Everything happens in this suspense and this distance, especially as the scene is played out in public in front of friends or colleagues from the office. One doesn’t come here alone. This is the paradox of the S.: we have come here together to enjoy a show we would rather be conducted in private.

For a heftier sum, one may also ask a dancer for a performance in a private room. Private? I guess. The room is illuminated by weak light. Some one-person tables have been set up; a half-dozen dancer/client couples are busying themselves at the same time. The dancer does pretty much the same work as in the main room, but out of the salacious eye of the public. Main purpose of the procedure: the client can triumphantly return to the table as if he had conquered the dancer and, for his colleagues’ benefit , make up what could have happened in the mysterious room.

Like VIP rooms that have now become widespread at professional events and selected attractions, the interest lies not in that to which we have access, but on the contrary, that which we are denied. It’s better to fantasise about these rooms than get into them: they are “de-phantasmagoric” sites.

As for dance: would the S benefit from the guidance of some choreographers? You can believe it, judging by the mediocrity on offer. But is inventiveness compatible with arousal? I asked myself this question during my research into pornography. I had the greatest difficulty finding inventive examples. Pornography is pavlovian: desire is roused by a coarse rod. We need to see sex, not art. Ideas and their expression are dislodged; our attention is turned away, toward the physical shape. Yet what is interesting about pornography is its substance – depth, even. Striptease adheres to the same specific codes as pornography.

But it’s more puritan. It is only the first step towards mental adultery. Does one cheat on one’s wife while masturbating in front of an image? You would have to ask a priest. Anyway, at the S. you’re definitely not cheating on anyone. Nothing is consummated, no substance discharged. There are witnesses, colleagues or friends. We touch only with our eyes. Honour is intact. One may return home and relay an account of the evening to one’s wife. Though the S. advertises a Stag Party special on its website, looking around at the assembled clientele, I see the harts of no future husbands. Instead, the crowd comprises forty year old men, in well-made suits, buying themselves a break having signed some contract or other.

Has dance something to learn from striptease? Parody, perhaps. As for what it might appropriate [détournement], however, there isn’t any more to be learned here than in the observation of contemporary gestures: assembly line, telecommuting, or fast food jobs… Striptease is a contemporary phenomenon among others.

I stayed an hour at the S. Y. is the only dancer that bothered me: flat chested, slim, economical not lavish gestures, she hadn’t the same body as her sisters. As she danced above one of the dozen Japanese men seated around an oval table, her distant, almost cold, demeanour frightened me. I forgot to ask what her stage name was. I looked on the website. Amidst the Venuses, Wildwests, Scorpios, Chanels and Bambis, I couldn’t find her.

Back in 5

•August 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Schoolboy Errors is on vacation but I’m still blogging over at the new One+One: Filmmakers Journal site. Recent popular posts over there have included One+One editors’ response to Sight and Sound’s top 50 films, an ode to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and my piece on Ai Weiwei and political dissent. It also features a new column called Eyeblaze. You can also download previous issues of the journal from the last few years for free! Check it out and I’ll see you back here soon.

212 words about Sunn o)))

•June 26, 2012 • 1 Comment

9pm, Sunday 10 June 2012, Brighton UK.

An hour’s anticipation and then, incessant thrum breaks in waves upon bodies too vulnerable not to receive every frequency and modulation. All around, smoke-cataracted sight fosters horripilation, a kind of corporeal tightening and unfolding, buoyed by tidal swells of sound. Faces flushed in distorted sonic undulations until a gradual aural loosening delivers them onto a plane called loud: no more beer stink and cloying aroma of warming, closely packed hair and flesh, but a seeming-infinite auricular space over and under, its edges burred only occasionally by faintly discernible chatter. Otic orientation suggests sheer cavernous walls hewn from vibration; distributed rhythmic textures offer exquisite marbled cornicing, arabesques which bear down from all sides. Sudden whining drone and subsequent alteration in the auditory atmosphere of this palatial shadow-place intimates movement but what towards? Low rolling chants, and voices raised in invocation indicate an inner sanctum. Organic vocals electrocuted and flayed upon a mesh of artificial timbre coil around we, the inhabitants of loud; penetrating whispers knit, incantatory, through consciousnesses already divorced from that and this. A screech high above implies a tear in the sonic fabric, radiating ripples of fear and hinting at the approach of some as-yet-unperceived, immense aural menace.

At which point: you’re lost.

Repost: My doctoral research in plain English

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

For many reasons, usually I try to separate the stuff that goes up on this blog from the work I undertake as part of my doctoral research. However, I recently contributed to the University of Sussex Research Hive‘s “Research in plain English” initiative, where I wrote a brief blog post about my PhD thesis, and thought I might repost it here. Sorry to disappoint those who came here looking for stuff on The Big Lebowski, Claire Danes’ cry face or tattoo ideas (and you are legion!)…

Passionate destruction, passionate creation: art and anarchy in the work of Dennis Cooper

["The passion for destruction is a creative passion too." Mikhail Bakunin, On Anarchism]

What is anarchist art? Can an artwork express the convictions of an anarchist artist? Is there a literary form which might be most appropriate to an anarchist writer’s experience of contemporary American society? My PhD thesis tries to answer these questions by considering the role of anarchism in the work of experimental American author Dennis Cooper, locating the evolution of his artistic sensibility within the context of American literary history and anarchist politics in the US.

Cooper is a brilliant and controversial poet, playwright, novelist and blogger whose work is most often associated with 90s “Queercore,” a current of transgressive literature which sought to interrogate conventional taxonomies of sexual identity (gay and straight). Critical assessments of his work, therefore, have largely attempted to determine the primarily sexual politics of his work, e.g. how his writing challenges us to think differently about the way sexual identity is constructed and urges us to consider the implicit connections between sexuality and power. My research builds upon these studies by demonstrating that Cooper’s iconoclastic encounter with the subject of sex is symptomatic of his ongoing adherence to an anarchist critique of contemporary society. His novels, poetry and collaborative theatre, I contend, offer various artistic responses to the multifarious forms of control and domination (sexual, political, technological…) which characterise life in the modern world.

The ideas and arguments my doctoral research engages with are particularly timely, given the recent resurgence of interest in anarchist ideas in the United States, the emergence of quasi-anarchist collectives like “Occupy” across American towns and cities in 2011, and widespread disillusionment with an American political establishment which failed to protect its citizens from the sub-prime mortgage and credit crisis.

 
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