A CIRCLE IN A SPIRAL
by Karen Moreland
The words and text of the collection entitled DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? are currently sampled on monalaughs.com. Importantly in this instance monalaughs.com is one of the few gallery-style sites where artists are able to submit work anonymously. It's a small, Irish-based site and all the featured artists are of interest. The collection DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? is introduced with the sparse opening statement: “The creator/compiler has not claimed ownership of the project.” Nevertheless, I contacted the site in the hope of an interview with the artist and was pleased when told I'd receive a return phone call.
A couple of weeks later a call came through and a male voice introduced itself as the person behind DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN?. I thanked my respondent and asked what name I could use. “Freddie,” he said.
The anonymity of his work on monalaughs.com, he explained, was a reaction to his distaste for the usual, obligatory prerequisites of displaying one's art: that one furnishes personal details such as name, age, previous exhibition acceptances, education and other similar information. He deems such factors irrelevant to the appreciation of the work itself, and symptomatic of a situation where curators have become as concerned with a creative's background as the material submitted to them. Because they sometimes eschew this necessity, it was easier for him to get an online platform to accept his material for display than a bricks and mortar gallery, and in the case of monalaughs.com there is, as stated above, no prerequisite for any background information. In fact such details are rarely offered on its pages and even an artistic statement isn't requested.
DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? comprises couplings of black and white photographs, single or multiple, with a section of text. Usually the subject correlation is obvious, as when in a text a lover is jilted by a guitar playing girl. The photographs simply depict the girl, in some of which she is playing the guitar. A peculiarity here I pointed out is that the images are blurred. “This,” Freddie told me, “is because pin sharp focus isn't always the best way to strike an emotion.”
In a further example, a young female is depicted telling a joke to, it appears, the photographer. We witness her self conscious progression to the punchline. The wording of the girl's dialogue with the photographer is redolent of the setting-up of the joke told in Tarantino's Pulp fiction, where Uma Thurman likewise insists, “You won't laugh.” Putting this point to Freddie, rather bluntly, that he put words into his model's mouth simply to pay tribute to the filmmaker, brings denial. “No,” he contradicts, “the girl told me the joke. I did ask her to, but then I recorded the results and printed the transcript.”
In a further example, a female narrates a destructive disagreement she has had with her partner. She's the subject of the photograph, but I'm struck by the paucity of imagery. One small, again blurred, image depicting a scene from early in the matched, bulky narrative. “True,” Freddie agrees. “It's barely illustrated at all. That's one of the questions posited in the introduction to the project. What words do we need? What images do we need? What's the necessary counterbalance when we throw the viewer's imagination into the mix?” I understand this reasoning, although the said introductory text is rhetorical and complex and, what I took from it, is mostly its denial of the possibility that any artist can claim any identity whatsoever. (That's a furtherance I imagine of the earlier argument against restricting an exhibition by stamping it with preconceptions concerning who the artist is.)
The most disturbing image depicts a young woman lying in a makeshift, cardboard coffin on a hilltop, seemingly about to be cremated in a self-styled ceremony by her friends. The accompanying “police” transcript features an interview with one of the youths who has clearly attempted to burn the body. It's very convincing, the text and the image meld well, and the image looks cleverly, perhaps even professionally, taken. I asked Freddie what if anything is real in all this. “Obviously, the picture is not real,” he says. “It's blatantly posed. The artificiality is exaggerated. But an event took place just as you see it.” Did you research it in newspapers? I ask. “No,” he responds. “I got very - surprisingly - close to what you see. I was peripheral to that event through sheer chance.”
What isn't fiction in any degree is the shortest contribution. A reproduction of the signature of Joan of Arc. The text beside it is a clipped notation simply stating as much. That's all the piece contains but it's somehow stark and moving. “You'll notice that her name is not Joan,” offers Freddie. “And it never was. I wanted to bring the real person before our eyes. To show the corporeality that was destroyed; her hand wrote her name. And that we've anglicized her to the point we don't even know her name.”
Fundamentally, of course, each one of these stories and black and white photographs depicts or describes a woman. That is, women glorified, re-evaluated, treated with male contempt, caught in the many moments of existence and death. “Women,” Freddie tells me, “are depicted in many ways today and have been throughout history. Much more-so than men. But I wanted to look at extremes of female representation and all that's in between and to comment on it while actually doing it myself. It's elliptical; it's tautology. I might be a feminist or I might be the problem. This project is how I see society. And we all know a woman is often simply a pretty picture but wouldn't you rather these woman are living rather than smiling for the camera in the usual manner?”
Probably the best piece in DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? is an image of a small, collapsed and distant figure in a graveyard, a victim of Northern Ireland's euphemistically named Troubles. That the Troubles are the backdrop is directly clear in the text, written in pungent and effective quasi-biblical language. It's non partisan, I feel, a pointed indictment of the senseless violence of terrorism everywhere in the world. To Freddie I say this and he responds somewhat phlegmatically with, “Yes, it's my centrepoint too, that image. When you come from the North, you can't ignore all that we've been through. It's virtually always in the foreground or in the background of our art.”
Potential criticisms of DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? do exist. On a piece-by-piece basis, many of the images and texts are of genuine interest. But as a coherent exhibition things become more problematic. A girl telling jokes is insubstantial alongside an exhibit where a female is devastated by killers. A quirky meditation on the functioning of the eye has appeal and its imagery visual charm, but is likewise lightweight, even beside the paucity of the Joan of Arc exhibit. The project's overall, enveloping tone therefore is very broad and the subject matter may appear overly scatter-gunned.
Then there's the focus on female subjects. Is the approach feminist? Anti-feminist? Despite Freddie's acknowledgment of this and thesis on female pictorial representation, why is the gender orientation there at all? I know from my interview that the artist was male but how would things in terms of our reaction change if the creator had been female? Or if the creator had been female and the subjects male?
Then there's the shifting tug-of-war between image and words. Interesting, maybe, such theoretical concerns for the artist but too much for the viewer to tussle with?
I viewed merely samples of DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? online and the full series consists of twenty pieces. I'd like to see them all placed together on a wall, properly curated. That may well permit a more rounded judgment.
I was quickly lured into the project DO YOU TAKE THIS WOMAN? which is multilayered, bold and creatively innovative. And at the end of the day, art invariably raises questions. Here, we also have a bigger and I feel valid question: just how many questions are too many?