On Rats Bones
Robyn Maree Pickens
Rats have left their bones behind: thoracic vertebrae and femurs to suspend and shelter art — for now at least. Steel girders have fallen, rebar prongs through large shards of concrete, and weak daylight illuminates the dust. Is this the apocalypse with the lights still on? Are we inside a post-revolutionary moment? Is anyone left?
On Rat Bones curated by artist and Parasite founder Daniel John Corbett Sanders exhibits new work by Tash Keddy, Ali Senescall, and Samuel Te Kani. Keddy’s three poster prints of urban neglect and the artist’s studio desk hang suspended from chains at the rear of the fractured gallery space. The two middle-ground works: a film on a monitor slumped against a chunk of concrete and a poster print on the left-hand wall are by Ali Senescall. Te Kani’s erotic fiction is positioned in the immediate foreground.
These two speculative and descriptive passages suggest that the gallery is the proverbial shell or container for the artworks it displays: that the works are separate from the exhibiting structure. However it is more accurate in this instance to approach the works and space as a coherent, contiguous entity: a (once) furry integument of sorts that connects more than protects. This contiguity registers on aesthetic and textual levels as decay, destruction, abandonment, and abjection. In this late capitalist era, there are many generative narratives contending for the origin story or source of this aesthetic. While no singular narrative can ever be entirely subtracted from the mesh of neoliberal capitalism, it is possible to interpret this booth as a “queer constellation”1 that posits many subsequent and interrelated trajectories. These include post-industrial urban space, gentrification, and what it means to inhabit and navigate hyper-corporate, increasingly privatised, heteronormative cities as queer, takatāpui, trans, LGBTTQIA+.
Following queer theorist Dianne Chisholm, “[q]ueer constellations sight/cite the city in ruins”.2 On Rat Bones is a ruin, a series of ruins, a proliferation of ruins. The “ruin” is what lies beneath the mechanisms of late capitalism: progress, development and redevelopment, gentrification, the loss of diverse communities and their sites of interaction in exchange for monocultures of privilege and stripped back, banal simulacra. A single, fresh, haunch hauled in to hang in the club that was once the meatpackers.
The aesthetics and politics of the ruin deal with the fallout of neoliberal, mono-cultural (and mono-sexual) redevelopment. This fallout includes erasure, absence, alienation, and the struggle to forge liveable spaces. Resistant strategies deployed by artists in this project (the entire booth) include the melancholic and parody. To varying extents, the works by Keddy, Senescall and Te Kani mobilise affective states of abjection and melancholy as an engaged response to the city as ruin, while Senescall and Te Kani in particular draw on parody to disrupt consumerist and heterosexual normative values.
In different ways, these artists articulate two related responses to the city as ruin: firstly, what are the conditions under which it is possible for LGBTTQIA+ to appear (to exist safely, to experience positive recognition) in public space, and does public space provide a minimum of infrastructural support?3 And secondly, is “queer anti-urbanism”4 embedded in LGBTTQIA+ experiences of the city as a result of mono-sexual gentrification and erasure?
Keddy’s photographic works embody this fraught relationship with the city from what could be described as a subjective experience. This interpretation is based on their reworking of Jacques Lacan’s three fundamental dimensions of psychical subjectivity, which Keddy subverts. Although the three registers are interrelated, the trajectory typically unfolds in the following sequence: Imaginary, Symbolic, Real,5 whereas Keddy reorders the sequence to Imaginary, Real, Symbolic. Keddy represents the mirror stage of the Imaginary by jagged, broken glass in a barred window of a post-industrial building (Imaginary, 2020). The opacity of the window suggests ego-formation in a hetero-normative society is interrupted. Lacan’s Imaginary would here be followed by the Symbolic, understood as the norms, laws, institutions and customs that inform society. Keddy’s substitution of the Real, variously characterised as “not straightforward,” “absence,” and “elusive,”6 for the support traditionally offered to (certain) individuals and communities within society by the Symbolic, could point towards a withholding of this support for all gendered subjectivities. Keddy’s Symbolic depicts a spiky-tipped wire fence functioning as a marker of exclusion and inclusion (Symbolic, 2020).
Subjectivity, genre films, heteronormativity, and nihilism are parodied to various degrees in Senescall’s film Bad Manors (2020) with the use of intentionally obvious textual, visual, and audio signifiers, such as a “Doomed” sticker on the back of a cell phone, a Playboy DVD, a poster of the comedy crime film Amateur (1994), “angel of death” superimpositions, a deserted manor, faux-gory murder scene, and dramatic “tension” soundtracks. Moving between domestic, rural, coastal, and semi-suburban spaces, Senesecall’s film, based on location choices, perhaps exemplifies a type of queer anti-urbanism. That said, a murder does take place…
Senescall’s parodic approach and Keddy’s urban decay and alienation are both present in Te Kani’s erotic fiction Daddy (2020), which amplifies the collision between heteronormativity and the domestic sphere, only to queer and make strange any mythologies of patriarchal, cishet domestic bliss. The grimy heterosexuality of protagonists Damien and Cassandra is not as clear-cut as it initially appears, and both characters undergo a transformation. However the capacity of the domestic sphere to contain these transformations is threatened by corporate enticements in the world beyond Damien and Cassandra’s now sanitised flat. If the transmutation of grime to cleanliness enabled sexual transformation, it may, in this instance, also incite invasive capitalist catastrophe.
1 Queer constellations are fictions of space. … they reinvent avant-garde techniques of representing real, historical catastrophe that is veiled in urban spectacle.” Dianne Chisholm, Queer Constellations: Subcultural Space in the Wake of the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 30.
2 Ibid., p. 32.
3 Paraphrased. See Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015).
4 This term challenges the notion that the gay imaginary can only be located and experienced in an urban environment. Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: New York University Press, 2010), p. 13.
5 Adrian Johnston, “Jacques Lacan,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is an art writer, poet, occasional curator, and PhD candidate in ecological aesthetics at the University of Otago. Robyn’s art writing has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific online, ANZJA, Art + Australia online, The Pantograph Punch, Art New Zealand, Art News, and Contemporary HUM. See more of Robyn's work at robynmareepickens.com