Leaving the Rock Stage
September – November 2016
This commission was supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and The Elephant Trust.
They say the all-seeing eye started with the Ancient Egyptians. Thorus, the falcon-headed god, fights his uncle, the usurper Seth, to avenge the death of his father. Thorus’ left eye is gouged out and torn into six pieces. He is still victorious. After Seth is killed, the magician-god – Thoth – manages to re-assemble Thorus’ eye, which is then used to resurrect his murdered father. The idea of a magical, omnipresent organ has since appeared in the symbolism of almost every tradition. The Hindu god Shiva has a third eye, in the middle of his brow; when opened, it will destroy anything it sees. They call the Buddha the eye of the world. In Christian iconography, an eye appears in the middle of an illuminated triangle representing the Trinity in around the mid-16th century. (It’s this eye that makes its way onto the Great Seal of the United States and the dollar bill.) Across the Eastern Mediterranean, blue-pupiled nazar amulets – evil eyes – can still be found everywhere, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire, while in the Middle Eastern hamsa, an eye sits in the palm of the hand. Once charms to ward off harm, in our contemporary era of mass surveillance and drone warfare, these emblems of all-seeingness inspire their own kind of dread.
There are two eyeballs – rendered in super-high resolution, firm and glossy as polished marbles – floating against screensaver-flat backgrounds hanging from the walls at the back of ‘Leaving the Rock Stage’, Anna K.E.’s solo show at Primary. They have the blank but decisive focus of a Pixar character. What they can’t see, because it is angled away from them, is a series of large-scale photographic prints, all with the same crop, framing the hipbones to the top of the thighs of a naked female body. These are supported by metal trusses normally used for sound or lighting rigs at concerts: the allusion that gives the show its title. In many, this person’s hands push, pull or stretch her labia. One hand is encircled at the wrist by a girlish charm bracelet. There is something so unselfconscious about the gesture that I wonder, for a second, if we haven’t drifted into some feminist sci-fi future in which women rule because they have leaned a secret language of vaginal communication. (In this reading, the series would constitute a large up-yours to Lacan’s dictate that women have no access to signification because they lack penises.) Certainly, those disembodied eyes, ancient though their symbolism may be, conjure a coming era in which, after everything else has been outsourced to machines, bodily functions finally are, too. Even scopophilia.
Falling into the kind of psychoanalytic reading that K.E. would seem keen to avoid, I can’t help but think: Didn’t Freud equate castration anxiety with blindness? And isn’t castration anxiety caused by seeing the female genitals? Are the eyes a screensaver rendition of Oedipus’: already gouged out? Or has K.E. turned the images away from the eyes, forming screens, precisely to save them? But all of this relies on a male/ female dichotomy that becomes unstuck when you look closely at the photographed body. The legs are skinny, childlike, the hips prominent; there is no pubic hair. That a close-up of the most visibly and definitively sexed area of the body can read as androgynous is a reminder that Freud’s typologies are increasingly outmoded in a world that is coming to normalize the genderless, genderqueer, genderneutral. Can it still straightforwardly be said that the gaze is typologically male and its object is female? Here, abstracted corporeal fragments repeat and stack like tiles in a mosaic: we have never been better able to construct our own bodies. (K.E., whose labia are the ones in question, ought to know about treating the body as a machine: she trained as a ballet dancer and, although she gave up dancing many years ago, her posture and gait bear the marks of someone used to bending the flesh to the will.)
Social convention – a normalized male-female dynamic – would seem to re-enter, however, in three sound pieces that play from speakers housed in transparent, contactlens-shaped domes hanging from the ceiling. In each, the artist repeats snippets of speech gathered from the streets of New York, where she lives. ‘I can move up if you need … should I move up for you?’ she trills in one, as though giving up her seat for a pregnant woman on the train. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know what to say because it’s you, you, you,’ she crows in another. (The beginning of a break-up confessional?) K.E. plays with her voice and the words themselves as though they were other to her, alien. Word-things. (This is emphasized by her heavily accented English: the artist is originally from Georgia.) A final, more oblique utterance states: ‘You should smell like a garlic, I would love you even more.’ It’s hard to know whether the quirks of phraseology and of grammar are the result of the speaker’s imperfect English or of K.E.’s mishearing. What results is a form of oddly touching, if highly idiosyncratic pillow talk. There is space for weirdness yet in our relationships with one another, and with things.
Everything here is suspended; everything is in-between. Figuratively and physically. Only the eyes cling to the wall, their confusing volume – so objectlike yet so flat – accentuated by the trompe l’oeil frame that surrounds them. It’s almost as though the building were watching: the rendered eyeballs are the digital equivalent of the goofy googly eyes that kids stick on things to anthropomorphize them. I remember doing it with certain, beautifully sea-smoothed pebbles collected on wet seaside holidays. Perhaps that’s another sense in which K.E.’s show is ‘Leaving the Rock Stage’: the scene is set for transition, between it and him or her or them or us, a reminder of our always half-formedness.
– Amy Sherlock
Amy Sherlock is a writer based in London, UK. She is the deputy editor of frieze.