Critical Proximity: The Allegory of The Gift Horse or I Trust You

The Gift Horse / I trust You: jake moore
September 9 – October 1, 1994

a response to the exhibition by Lisa Gabrielle Mark

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
(I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts)


* * * “I trust you,” she said. Immediately I felt a profound sense of responsibility. Would I prove myself worthy of her trust? I felt honoured. Her trust: a gift, given without scrutiny, offered whether or not I deserved it. An act of faith. “I trust you.” With those words, she placed a beautiful black stone in the cup of my hands. She: an oracle; a spider spinning a web of seduction; a weaver of exotic silks.
I was not used to having things asked of me. I had come from a land far away and hoped to remain anonymous in my explorations.
Me: a raven; a traveller; a thief in the night.
I had been implicated.
“I must clutch it gently to my breast,” I thought, “and not let it break as I pass through the labyrinth..” The stone was warm, or maybe it was just that my hands were cold.

Ideally, the Gift Horse begins before you enter the gallery. It begins as you stand outside the gallery door and look upon the words “I trust you.” Written, like a note to a lover, they have been hand-embroidered onto the shell pink organdy which covers the window. This fabric of delicacy set against the proletarian cotton muslin which covers the rest of the door. All the fittings have been removed to stretch the muslin over the door. As though the cotton material had become a structural element.
The artist has entrusted you with whatever you find beyond that door. Your presence has, in a way, been registered, marked. You are not afforded the Gaze of Omniscience, free from all accountability. You, person, are addressed, made accountable for your visitation. It is a strategy which, despite its simplicity, splits apart the traditional Art/Audience relationship by rendering explicit a contract between the object and one who looks upon it. And yet, it is a gentle one. The timid looker is coaxed in with a confession. “I trust you.” — daring you to trust right back.
In you go.I had come by ship to this place, hoping to discover riches to take back with me. Rich bolts of the finest fabrics, silken threads in unimaginable colours, spices to tease and tantalize the palette, jewels with a lustre to rival the Madonna’s eyes. I had hoped to stir my sleeping heart in the arms of a lover. Someone whose skin would smell of cinnamon and musk, whose hair would wind itself around my fingers like tender shoots sprouting from the dark earth. Someone whom I did not know.
In short, I was seeking transformation.

You enter a corridor and move through it. This corridor draws you in and spits you out. It is how you pass from outside to inside. It is constructed from standard 2×4’s in 8-foot lengths and covered in the same cotton muslin as the door. (All dimensions are based on standard construction units.) You walk along, turning corners, disoriented, barely conscious of the inaudible breath which separates you from Bigness… The walls are luminous. Now you are there, inside, facing the west wall of the gallery and a radiator — and you are faced with a practical decision. Do you shift experiential modes and hang a left, (taking you to the gallery’s administrative offices); or do you turn and face what is looming in your peripheral vision.

I was seeking transformation.

You turn around, (of course), and confront the Gigantic. A Horse. An animal of monumental proportions, constructed by means of a (seemingly) unending number of joints. These joints create little box-shaped niches, tiny reliquaries. (Another visitor exclaims what a fantastic spice rack this would make). A collision of wood, simultaneously effecting both the Miniature and the Gigantic.
You are struck by the awesome mass of this silent beast, but also by the quirky asymmetry of its stance.
So… horse…-like.
Horse: Friend to Napoleon. Strong back. Quick in battle. Faithful servant.
Horse: First Lover. Strong back. Musky piss. The smell of freedom, exhilaration.

Conquest. A Voyage of Discovery. That’s what I was on. I did not know what to expect. Love or fear. I had hoped to touch down lightly on the earth; take what I could; and set sail for home. A scentless trespasser. Stranger in a strange land.
When I disembarked, she was there.
I had wandered the city all afternoon, through the markets. Soon enough, I was hungry. I continued to wander, until I smelt the rich odour of honey and vanilla. I had wandered into a slum. Yet there was this delicious odour coming from inside a tattered shack. There was no door except for a thin sheath of frayed fabric. Beside the entrance was an old woman.
She sat, spinning crimson threads, dispensing her wisdom to passers by, to those listening or not.

Horse, Wooden: (see Vergil, Aeneid) Hiding place of the Greeks prior to the mythic Trojan War against Sparta.

You are also struck by this manifestation of labour. If nothing else, you respect the work that went into making The Gift Horse. Carpenters (functional kind) might find themselves befuddled. “Jake, why would ya do all that… for a horse?” (A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse.) But the whole notion of labour in this work goes far beyond the construction of the horse.
The side of the horse which faces towards you at this moment, the windward side if you will, is covered by a ‘skin’. The skin is made of tautly stretched fabric which appears to be woven directly onto the horse, (or unravelled directly from). The strings which form the warp extend from the horse to the adjacent wall and through it. They puncture the wall and are then looped back in, falling to the floor, bracketed by spindles dangling from the ends.
A quick consideration of this set of visual metaphors and you conclude that this is reference to the made-ness of the horse. The Gift Horse is asking you to see it as a thing-in-process. It is asking you to think of labour as the moment during, not the moment prior to, its presentation to the public. Think of it as perpetually unfinished. As well, it is re-engendering the theoretical consideration of labour implicit in the horse’s construction. The masculinized signs of carpentry meet the feminized signs of weaving. The discourse of production meets the discourse of text. Quick Jake, build me a story.
An unexpected discovery you make, (with the help of your pal who is visiting the exhibition at the same time), is that, if you walk along the wall, beneath the warp, the strings create a kind of perspectival illusion, with the ‘horizon line’ along the spine of the horse. Perspective construction is a device, invented during the Renaissance, to represent (ie. create a 2-D visual illusion of) three dimensions. Even the three-dimensionality of The Gift Horse is a representational construction, a choice the artist has made. One that encloses you, where you are within rather than without. One that makes of itself a labyrinth.

There are two kinds of labyrinths, she said, one that takes you straight to the centre, without choices, puzzles or confusions, without treading the same path twice; and the other which intentionally teases and confounds, beckoning you towards blind paths, dead ends. With your first step, you make it one or the other. There are no accidents.
(Why do these prophetic types always sound so serious?)

You pass beneath the warp strings, marvelling at the thrust of perspectival illusion, as if you were standing beneath a hundred thin bridges. Bridges connecting structure (sign) with allegory.
“Allegories are always allegories of metaphor and, as such, they are always allegories of the impossibility of reading…”
You turn, your nose drawn to the smell of beeswax oozing from a crack in one of the gallery’s columns. The wax is being melted by heat from a hot light which shines on it. Beside the column, leaves of fabric are stacked. Each leaf is saturated with the beeswax, making it appear stiff and yellow, like pages of an unbound book. The top leaf is illustrated by means of a photo-emulsion. The image depicts a hand inserting it self into an ambiguous-looking crack (the same shape as the one on the column). You feel disconcerted, not because of the obvious resemblance between the crack in the column and your own vagina nestled between its labial folds. No, your disconcertedness is derived from the close proximity, in this case, of the metaphoric to the literal. The hand penetrating the crack is a metaphor which presses dangerously against a literal, sexual reading. In other words, the image is erotic, not in a philosophically disinterested, culturally mediated way. It is actually physically arousing. Surely, this is the internal tension of the allegorical sign. The literal function of the sign, (the image of hand in crack, its literality emphasized by the presence of the actual crack dripping with beeswax) and its metaphoric capacity, (in this case referring to a sexual gesture). The reading is then frustrated by this fork in the road, so to speak. The making of meaning involves a negotiation between these two aspects of the sign. And even then, it is open-ended, tentative.

I wandered the labyrinth, my hand clasping the black stone, until I became delirious with hunger. All was frayed and tattered veils of fabric. The walls were torturously thin so that I could see the other path, the path I might have taken, during every step of my journey. A curious light seemed woven into the very threads of the fabric.

You are uncertain.

Suddenly, but without a feeling of eventfulness, I stumbled upon what must have been the Centre of the labyrinth. I could only discern this from yet another dead end by the presence of three small dresses. They were black and stiff and made of material so porous you could blow through it. There they stood like children, just staring at me.

Question: How do you tell the wanderer from the path? Answer: I trust you.