Remembering Bookmann geocites 2004 – Joscelyn Gardner

How much time is needed to fully grasp an artwork?

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Video A – a projection of a female serving in the background and the ghostly consequences of a master fornicating White Skin, Black Kin, CCA7, Trinidad, West Indies, 2005, the armchair on the right.. Video B, video C of children playing

For the Barbados-born, Artists in Residence, Joscelyn Gardner, you have entered the world of “Conceptual Art.” Three large video projections, an armchair, a child’s doll, a hung portrait, and more including a number of audio devices placed throughout CCA7’s InterAmerias gallery, Trinidad, West Indies.

The two primary video projections are of a motionless mother (the patriarch male figure absent) with two young children seated and standing respectively in a sterile re-enacted eighteen-century Caribbean plantation’s drawing room. And as time lapses, the video projects three ethereal female figures who drift into the frame and commence with the domestic chores of serving and sweeping. On the adjacent wall, a second video projects two children of an inbred kin playing together with a doll.

Ms. Gardner’s video converges quite amateurishly by the quality. Her repetitive projections disorients the viewer and the audio track of Patois sung to accompany the second video is exasperating. A public not exposed to this type of “slick and fashionable” installations projecting a “larger than life picture,” may be fooled. An properly orchestrated installation can integrate the video seamlessly to submerge the viewer within the work itself. Ms. Gardner’s attempt is commendable to say the least, but not to standards of an international level. She is still Caribbean in her thinking.

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Readymades, a portrait, chair and black doll

Produced in 2003, “White Skin, Black Kin; A Creole Conversation Piece,” is time-based, and the mechanics of the installation relys entirely on the viewer’s patience and his acute observation to be interested in the work. Ms. Gardner uses three-dimensional props as metaphors reassuring the viewer than the “Objects” seen in the video’s décor are a tangible omnipresence that translates to a type of historic truth in the physical. But who are the owners of the chair, doll and portrait? This is unclear and the deployment of these devices suggests that the artist knows a bit more of Barbados’ colonial history as the work is supported by a text which clarifies her meaning and contextual placement. But is she trying too hard? Should a work speak for itself without having antidotes or aids ?

Beneath these niceties of the owners and ownership, whispering voices heard through small speakers tell the truth, Gardner herself narrates a transcript of the perverse and sadistic exploitation of slaves, and encourages the public to assembly and nuzzle against the walls to eavesdrop, if you will. To the ears of those who obliged, they are given a descriptive chronicle of whose “doing”, spoken with an anthropological droll.

Connecting the dots to this puzzle takes some patience, “White Skin, Black Kin” finally concludes by suggesting that the perpetrator of these cruel delights is physically present in the installation. His portrait, along with the chair and doll are a haunting reminder of his past inequities, and that his offspring spawned from “those” common kin encounters interweave onto the projection as the core of his family nucleus.

In 1999, Ms. Gardner took part in the Big River International Artists workshop, and there, she performed by embodying herself (cocoon) in a hull across the mouth of a river. Oddly enough, on the opening night of the exhibition, “White Skin, Black Kin,” individuals walked around the room as if they themselves were a theatrically part of work. Joscelyn Gardner supported by the Canada Council of the Arts / Conseil des Arts du Canada / Artist in residency programme 2005

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Plantation Poker; “The Merkin Stories”

It’s a difficult thing for as artist to review the work of another artist. We all know how delicate our egos are and how easy it is to feel affronted and hurt by criticism, especially the criticism of another artist. Lifelong grudges, wars have evolved out of these encounters, and lives, really, have been changed, on both sides of the divide. So it’s not without, as they say, great trepidation that I accepted this assignment, even though I knew (and was flattered to think) that when Richard asked my to review Jocelyn Gardener’s work at CCA7, the main reason was that he knows the importance of eroticism in my own work and thought I’d be the best man for the job.

(The other reason, of course, is that Richard likes to push fire and knows I’m not going to go to the trouble – free of charge! – of doing this if I have to be anything less than honest – but we won’t go there.) Richard also knows that I feel eroticism is not only much neglected as an artistic medium or conduit for societal exploration in this island, but that it has been actively avoided and rejected and suppressed (in which way I suppose we’re not so different from most other societies in the world, after all). But the world changes, and Trinidad with it, even if we have to be dragged along behind it by the scruff of our necks.

Actually, in fact, eroticism is here – the work of Irene Shaw comes to mind, Bosco Holder (but exhibited abroad, not here) and Harold Jemminez. Adele Todd, myself and Richard have seen the direction Jemminez’ work has been taking, and what the reaction to this has been in the local press – negative, to say the least! So that, to the three of us at any rate, Gardeners work is pertinent and timely at this juncture of our (Trinidad and Tobago’s) artistic development, and can be seen as part of a growing body of work from artists of like preoccupation. It’s true, she’s not Trinidadian, but the collective West Indian experience is sufficiently similar, even with Trinidad and Barbados, to make us one and the same people, despite whoever don’t like it so. And, although I suspect Gardener may underplay its importance in her work, the fact is, it’s charged with intense eroticism, whether intentional or not. I’m not talking about the audiovisual installation half of the exhibition – I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak to that kind of thing as I feel I’m still learning its vocabulary, traditions and symbolic paraphernalia, etc., and anyway there’s nothing I can add to what Richard has already written. I’m speaking rather to the lithographic installation, which, as I see it, fleshes out (or attempts to) the themes and obsessions of the video in the next room, these being, among others things, the societal tensions/prejudices between blacks and whites dating back to slavery, and the suppression and sexual exploitation of women by men.

For this, we are presented with a series of lithographic images of what at first appears to be elaborately coiffed human female pudenda, interspersed at random with quotations from the journals of a planter/overseer, ostensibly highlighting the genital mutilation of a female slave. Not only are there these guideline-quotations accompanying the images (in the manner of texts accompanying illustrations), but, stuck on the adjacent wall, is an exposition and explanation as too how they are conceived and – by inference – what we are supposed to see. For they are not pudenda, after all, but pubic (vaginal) wigs (or are they images inspired by the idea of pubic wigs?) and, accoutred as they are with instruments of torture and servitude, this is not the realm of sadomasochistic and lesbian eroticism, as you very well might think, no, this is more serious business – female exploitation by men, female genital mutilation by men, black female enslavement by men ( but surely not only white men), female exploitation and persecution in general by men, and so on and so on.

In other words, female victim-hood. History will not be seen here as the unfolding of unspeakable human savagery in which all are culpable, male and female alike. ( For indeed, who is guiltless? Are we not our brothers’ keepers? For were not slaves sold to slavery by their brothers? And is it not the mother who colludes in silent witness to the murder by her siblings of her violated daughter, or takes the filthy dull-edged razorblade or stone to the atrocity of her teenaged daughter’s circumcision? And does not Africa itself, male and female, look on with indifference at the bloodbath of Somalia? So let he who is without sin cast the first stone.) No, here is all female lamentation, and, ultimately, female accusation.

Well, O.K.. As far as it goes, I suppose men deserve it. But I’m afraid the images, of themselves, and for all their exquisite rendering of every single curling hair, platted, pulled or shaven, ultimately, upon prolonged perusal, inspire, not the sorrow or outrage or even guilt that Gardener seeks of us, but a smile, perhaps even a little chuckle. The word jokey comes to mind. And despite the earnestness of their purpose, these pubic triangles really do begin to suggest the erotic dalliance of the sadomasochist, rather than the sufferage of female slavery and womankind.

Perhaps it is the obsessiveness of the delineation of every plat and row, the relish with which they are rendered, not to mention the accoutrements, shining and perfect, that heightens the erotic aspect of the work And does not the Christian Cross so carefully snipped out of the middle of the field carry us into the realms of religious sexual ecstasy – that blasphemy! – or even the joyful highjinks of some naughty monk and nun, not the religious persecution of women? Which might be better served by association with somewhere other than the pubic field, the flesh of the breast or buttocks, for instance, where pain and bloodshed might be more acute. And that snake coiling out of the bottom of the bush, is it Eve’s serpent? Or obea? Or is it there to bite off, to repel that other snake that seeks to penetrate, to violate the sacred grotto (its nursing place?) underneath? Or is it…well, what is it? For surely it=s not there in fun, or tongue in cheek. We are too serious for that, by far – or are we?

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Lithographic prints on Vellum

So what am I saying here, really?. Perhaps it,s best to put is as a question – is there not a problem of miss-judgement here, a kind of mixing of metaphors and purposes?, Is the erotic arena as manifest in female bush, the place to be heavy with the burdens of protest and outrage? Is it not rather a place of joy and pleasure – even of the sadomasochistic or lesbian kind? Has Gardener here out-clevered herself with cleverness?

Now, far be it from me to recommend anything to anyone, I mean, who do I think I am, but it might be interesting in this context to take another look at the work of Harold Jemminez, if only for its unfussed and direct nature. No histrionic highjinks here. And where he may lack for academic/technical accomplishment, he makes it up for it with sincerity and raw passion, not to mention the courage to just call a prick a prick, even with a smile.
If Gardener’s work is erotic (and it is), then be erotic. After all, the vagina, bewigged or not, is the vagina, there for pleasure (and not for female pleasure, only), bringing forth the race, surely no mean thing to celebrate, a thing of beauty for men who make its adulation their raison d’etre, who treat it, dear I say it, with religious reverence. And, for the last, a thing of… well, fun. Must we lay upon that lovely place this awful weight of feminist protest and white racial (slavery) guilt?

One more point. If the greatest gift that art has to give to us, it’s practitioners, is the gift of self-knowledge through its revelations to ourselves about ourselves,( surpassed only, I suppose, by -the icing on the cake – the sight of someone we’ve never seen before, weeping or laughing, with our work), then it might be seen that this work reveals a saddening fear of, even revulsion to, sex, subliminally so, at any rate. These devices – snakes, shackles, bombs, ball-and-chain – might well be seen as weapons of defence against intrusion, invasion, since penetration through their barrier could never be achieved without, at the very least, castration. Could anyone possibly fuck through these things? And if you can’t fuck, then how does the human race perpetuate itself? Am I taking all this too far? The deadly weight of the images themselves, the way they sit on the surface of the page, like deathly scientific or medical encyclopedia documentations, does not tell me so. This surely is the stuff of annihilation itself, deadly wrought, deadly consummated.

I’m going to this place, writing this,( with seeming lightness, i know, but it’s not so) because I see these things, like wounds, and have to say it, (or what is the purpose of writing this piece at all?). Please understand, I see these the holes (causal holes, according to Barry Pierre) in Gardners work in the full knowledge that she is not alone, we all have them. But it seems they go particularly deep in her work, and self-destructively, and completely unawares, and it’s painful (and ,yes a little funny, too, I have to admit) to see her like Alice falling down down down this hole of confusion. – Stuart Hahn 2005

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