Critical Distance

On the Skin: Diana Thorneycroft and Michael Boss
April 26 – May 18, 1996

a response to the exhibition by Tom Lovatt

Time and fever burn away individual beauty
And the grave proves the child ephemeral
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie; naked, mortal
But to me entirely beautiful.

Auden

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Michael Boss and Diana Thorneycroft approach the task of art making from a complex of perspectives, differing in the points of entry they offer the viewer and in the separate sometimes paradoxical terms of emotional engagement implicit in their work. Both artists, however, share a preoccupation with psychic displacement and the decentering of identity, even if the aesthetic of each artist and the process through which they voice their arguments differ significantly.

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The conventions of installation usually involve guiding attention away from singular objects onto relationships structured within the viewing space itself. Although Boss works actively with this idea, Thorneycroft’s photographs subvert the minimalist aesthetic by introducing the body and traces of a personal iconography within the confines of conceptual theatre. Yet both artists work to effect the viewers way of being in the world. To characterize their differences more specifically, I might say that Boss works to produce meaning directly through his interventions, while Thorneycroft’s work reflects or dramatizes meaning. These shifts between a material and metaphoric perspective give the installation as a whole its particular dynamic, imparting a richness and complexity not often found in this context.

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Begin then with the blue magisterial “I” suspended above our heads, so attenuated in its claims to our attention as to be almost overlooked on first entering the gallery. But the centrality of the “I” as the point of consciousness can hardly be underestimated. Distinguishing between self and other is the primary distinction in the process of individuation and becomes the point from which all subsequent distinctions evolve. But it is a relational term with authority over a prescribed psychic and linguistic area more or less defining itself through opposition or affinity. Its position at the entrance to the installation signals its status as the locus of identity but also its function as player in a perceptual game of Snakes and Ladders, i.e.. the advances or retreats occurring in the definition of its boundary.

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The curtain wall of polyethylene divides the width of the gallery to a depth of eight feet. Within the barrier of plastic the words “will refresh” in neon shed a pale subaqueous light throughout. Penetrating the wall is initially a mild pleasure. The yielding plastic and the diffuse light induce an easy sense of submersion with none of the discomfort. But the sense of ease is gradually eroded as Boss prolongs the experience past the point of psychological comfort. Ease gives way to discomfort; discomfort to mild (if absurd) anxiety and disorientation. The “I” we began with, centred, intact, is placed in jeopardy as the wall begins to assert a kind of resistance to its authority. The resistance mounts progressively as we move through the wall until the anxiety we feel alerts us to the realization that the usual relationship between subject and object, center and periphery has been inverted. The object begins to move against the subject, the wall threatening to overwhelm the authority of the subjective “I” collapsing any distinction between the two.

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We reach the other side and see “YOU” against the far wall. The message “I WILL REFRESH YOU” suddenly coheres. The phrase (taken from Matthew) with its message of spiritual rejuvenation, seems plain. But beyond the message meaning resides equally in the size of the text and the syntax stretched beyond reach of fluent apprehension. Initially we read the parts as wholes. Only gradually, as we move through the installation do we experience the text as a complete thought. In the process the space between words and the intervals of time through which they are gradually linked, take on a presence of their own. The series of relationships linked over time dramatize a process: for Boss this is the evolution of meaning over time. In manipulating scale and distance he draws attention to how rhythm, fluency and what might be described as “inflection” shape understanding. Meaning is not immanent in the text, hence not fixed, but something that is porous and subject to change without notice.

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Boss addresses not only language but experience generally through an examination of its structure and how the various interrelationship of parts contributes to our understanding as a whole. At the same time the artist works very hard to determine the position of consciousness within these structures, examining–as a way of narrowing the scope of argument–a series of linked ideas: subject/object; reader/text; figure/ground; self/other. We can’t reduce the different meanings of these terms to a single unequivocal pattern but they are all somewhat analogous to one another. If they designate separate realities they generate a plurality of meanings linked by Boss’ examination of the position of consciousness and its boundaries.

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Diana Thorneycroft’s photos constitute the other component of the installation and their subject might constitute another in Boss’ agenda of linked ideas: body and soul. It’s difficult to remain unmoved by the work. Inevitably we are left to speculate as to the work’s meaning. Are the works a grim record of actual events, a ritualized drama of past events, the intention being to master actively what was suffered passively? The artist denies this, stating emphatically, “I was not bound, I was not burned.” Without autobiography to anchor them, the works become more troubling and more mysterious. If not a record are the works then a desublimated narrative of the artist’s wish to hurt or to be hurt? The poise with which the artist examines drives latent within all of us is perhaps the root of the work’s riveting authority. The mixture of discomfort and denial the photographs induce is in some sense a recognition of the complexity of the issues they address.

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In the widest sense Thorneycroft has been preoccupied with the body’s capacity to feel. These photographs continue the interrogation of this idea at the same time reframing the argument in more unsettling terms. The photographs are significant by the directness with which Thorneycroft addresses issues of “knowing”. “What is the body permitted to remember?”, she asks. How complete an account of itself is the body permitted to render? Who is asking this second question? Is it my voice or your voice re-framing my question? That the body in question is that of an infant/doll rouses the inhibitory fears and moral censure hovering behind our perception of the body generally but here is heightened to the insistency of an alarm. An infant surrogate bound with rope or wire, its genitals burned, mutilated or excised altogether is a profound affront to our notions of the permissible. The assumption that the social order is rooted in the safety and protection of the young is radically challenged. Thorneycroft’s determination to alter our way of knowing the world is here dramatized by her choice of ground on which to effect this transformation. The doll/infant is shocking because it is the site of one of society’s most precious ideals: innocence. It’s as though this were an ideal Thorneycroft no longer believes in. I think it would be overstating things to say the artist doesn’t believe in innocence per se. If anything, her work suggests a poignant awareness of its fragility. But I do think she rejects the idealisation of innocence. Why?

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In part because the artist may view such ideals as restrictive of what the body is permitted to acknowledge of its own history, particularly when ‘what is permitted’ is a patriarchal construct extrinsic to female understanding. What the body knows of itself is essential to the formulation of identity. The process inscribed on the dolls is one of recognition, of beginning at the point of origins to rediscover the process through which the feminine “I” is constructed. But the issue is defined not only by what is remembered but how. Thorneycroft is careful to place the experience outside of a language complicit in the denial of the feminine. If the structures of language are inimical to feminine understanding, how then can experience be recognized for what it is and accurately named?

A Digression. In Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ O’Brian says to his victim, “You will be hollow. We will squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves”. This is the voice of the masculine predator and I use it in this context to illustrate the psychological agenda of certain forms of abuse. I use it because it is eloquent of a process of psychic evisceration to which women have been subject. This process involves the imposition of masculine codes of feeling and experience and the derogation of feminine modes of understanding, particularly the de-centering of the feminine “I”. Thorneycroft asks, “Does this process begin in the uncontested state of infancy?”

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But I think the doll/infant has a double function. Within its fractured boundaries it contains not just the social but the private self as well. In the breaks and dislocations of the infant body Thorneycroft examines not only the social construction of identity but simultaneously articulates a private experience of loss and emotional disembodiment. Here the trauma of loss is enacted over and over. Here the vulnerability and innocence of the infant body is made manifest; here a conflicted mortality is rendered visible. The play of light delineates the porous boundary of the violated self. The grave-like space becomes the place of eroded consciousness to which such loss consigns us, a place of compression and rigid confinement signifying if not death then a psychological anguish so intense as to feel like death. Consigned to this place of damnation beyond reach of memory the doll/infant enacts the psyche crucified on the burning cross of the senses. The photographs do not so much narrate (although their arrangement might suggest this) as they document the compulsive reexperiencing of the fragmentation of loss as well as the struggle to regain consciousness, i.e. completeness. Sometimes the doll is presented as a collation of fragments–as though to remind us of the impossibility of reconstituting the irreparable past. In other photographs the doll/infant appears as an ironic vision of curdled sublimity, a mocking commentary on our wish for wholeness and the transcendence of loss.

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References to smell (sulphur) and to sound (lamentation) as well as the visual and tactile components of the installation narrate a kinaesthetic logic of the body and emphasize its capacity to feel. Thorneycroft’s work confirms this continually even if paradoxically her photographs catalogue the dislocations visited on the psyche in consequence. This much we know: the body is both a repository of pleasure and a reliquary of pain–but such knowledge is empowering. Fire burns but it also purifies. Contained within the dark heart of the installation, between twin extremes of despair and irony, is the wish to affirm a faith in the body’s instinctual and emotive power over the transgressions to which it is victim. And that is a kind of resurrection.

Tom Lovatt is a writer and critic living in Winnipeg.