The Theatre of Innocence
Sadie Chandler’s Nirvana Office
Adam Geczy 2005
There are two ways in which we can regain innocence. The most preferable and auspicious, and the one told of by poets, mystics and priests, is the enlightenment of old age that experiences the world again with the unjudgemental fascination of a child. It is a genial acceptance that is borne from a release of the will, where one has finally made pace with all the imponderables of the world; it is the patience earned from the knowing acceptance of worldly ignorance. Paradoxically, this state leads to the experience of all knowledge, a state called by several names, including nirvana.
The other route is more germane to commodity culture with its penchant for the quick fix. It is also tied to the concept of psychosis in which the subject retreats from the real world while assuming traits that are more suitable to a personal fantasy. For children, it is natural to build a fantasy world which they can negotiate and ultimately make sense of their world and where they place themselves within it. This phase is seen as a necessary stage in the child’s adjustment from the womb to the outside world. But when this transitional stage is carried on into adulthood, then its role is no longer that of healthy acclimatisation, it is becomes a perversion that is paranoid and hysteric in nature. The hysteric is constantly focused on the things it lacks, and the paranoiac erects a series of suprasensory fortifications that fend of the threat of violence, real or imagined. They are defensive mechanisms which revolve around the two instincts that drive us as human being, the sexual will and the instinct for self-preservation. Once the fantasy is set in motion, apart from death, there is little that can stop its evolution. This is a psychic bureaucracy which responds to outside stimuli as threats and combats them with elaborate scenarios intended to defend and palliate the subject through creating some form of escape, an alternative to the world perceived as aggressive. Hence the second term in title of Sadie Chandler’s installation, ‘office’—it presents an enclosed loop of fictions, a feedback loop desire.
Let us now go down a different path to elucidate this work. In the movie, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Bette Davis plays a landmark Hollywood role that is addressed at the void created from neglect after a brief coruscation of showtime success. Known in her heyday as Baby Jane Hudson, the once child star is now a haggard crone made all the more memorably grotesque because of the disavowal of her past. She feels that her past has been swindled from her, and combats this with an aggressive reassertion of everything she has lost, in short, her girlhood. The more she feels that past denied her, the more she takes recourse in the past; her redoubled efforts only serve to emphasise what it is she has lost. Victor Hugo’s famous definition of the the grotesque as the collision between beauty and ugliness comes into full force here: the decrepit Jane is hideous in appearance and in act; her only pleasure is mistreating her lame sister. The more Jane exaggerates the traits of prettiness the more vile she becomes. The tragedy of the film is the way in which Hollywood is only interested in appearance, especially of innocence. When Jane attempts to regain innocence through its reenactment, she becomes the dupe of her own contrivances, and the very opposite of the innocence she thinks to represent; she is culpable, calculating and sinister, the opposite of the ingenuous child.
Now to the philosophical antecedents of the theatre of innocence. They wind up once again in two opposites, Rouseeau and de Sade, the latter purposely sticking his claws into the former. If there can be said to be one source for the socio-philosophical concept of innocence, it must be said to lie in Rousseau. It is from him that we get notions of noble savagery, nature and the natural and the corrupting forces of society. More than in his philosophical treatises, it is in his two didactic novels, Émile and La nouvelle Heloïse that his ideas became popular. Both are centred on the education of the eponymous children. Emile is the archetype of what Rousseau thought all children to be—good-natured and honest— before they were perverted by the self-interested world of adults. These books, and Rousseau’s personal reflections of his experience of nature gave birth to the ‘nature experience’, that of listening to nature’s goodness and beauty, and, by extension, the ‘natural’ goodness and beauty of within. For spiritual development it was nature that should be listened to, warned Rousseau, not the voices of religion which had grown tired and corrupted.
De Sade discerned that the child was not necessarily innocent. Innocence, he propounded, was already something moulded defined and moulded by the hands of culture; the child was pre-eminently malleable. With perverse glee, he turned Émile’s education on its head and, in The Philosophy of the Bedroom, the child becomes an instrument for all sorts of crimes which are carried out without remorse. Remorse and conscience, counselled de Sade, are taught and are what impede humans from the free expression of their will, which is to build only for the greater purpose of destruction. Although Sade went a little too far,he did lend a prescient corrective to Rousseau’s philosophy, which was to point out that if innocence becomes an ideology, and is pursued too fervently, it dangerously broaches all that it seeks to avoid. If the Terror of 1793, then the various calamities leading into the 20th century have something to teach us, it is that anything that denies and represses all the depredations of the ‘real’ world will find itself on a campaign of purification whose methods and outcomes are anything but pure.
It would seem that by now I have strayed from the mark. But I have wended my way through these various issues in order to introduce the notions which underpin Chandler’s Nirvana Office. It is an installation which looked at strategies of psychic escape from both vantage points of outside and in. It is what the artist calls a utopian space, but it is a utopian space in which she is shrewdly conscious of its impossibility. It is simultaneously cynical and ingenuously hopeful. It is ironically conscious of the odd effects of taking fantasy too far and the disconcerting outcome of when child aesthetics are used by adults as a way of shielding themselves from the outside world. Across the space were a series of kermit-green surfaces that are like coffee-tables cum lily pads. They were supporting television terminals containing various sequences of cartoon footage. Above, at irregular heights all around eye-level, were white cages containing one or two inanimate objects, also white, such as a wheel or a ladder. One got the overall impression of a childhood dream gone awry.
Given the oneiric atmosphere in which the installation was steeped, the cages, of various sizes and heights, littering the space bore an uncanny resemblance to Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at 4 am (1932), a sculptural dreamscape of amorphous interlocking cage-like structures with several equally amorphous shapes suspended helplessly, menacingly, within them. Chandler’s work here was a visual testimony to entrapment in the same vein. The use of technology, in the television terminals, added to the effect. It is as if the whimsical fairytale figures, objects and scenes are imprisoned within the black frame of the monitors. While the cages remind one of Giacometti, the cartoon images seem lifted from the off-kilter fairytales during the Rocky and Bulwinkle show. The images blend in to one another and seem to be taken from an animated sequence: a lily pond, a dog, flowers, a pile of books, an odd looking princess on a divan. For now, they are suspended in animation, in cartoon limbo waiting interminably for cartoon heaven.
Chandler’s initial motivation for Nirvana Office was to create a space much like one which a little girl creates as a buffer to the outside world. Typically girls develop earlier than boys and their less aggressive sexual makeup causes them to seek outlet for their changing desires in a series of benign fetish objects which then assume the role of talismans for the promise of that desire’s future fulfilment. The catch to this adolescent scenario is that the girl has only a very distant and abstract idea of the shape, nature and motivation of this desire. The manner in which this desire manifests to the girl is not according to causal flow of desire before object, but rather the reverse: the desire comes to light through the object which is the result of a cathexis; whereupon the girl is then able to contemplate upon her desire. The object-choice of the girl in the early stages of sexual development is almost always coy and laced with the potential for escape into another world. Horses, pegasi, unicorns and fairies feature prominently within the girls’ fantasy lexicon. Often with the attributes of movement and escape, they are both metaphors which promise a better world and the embodiment of that world coming to realisation. They appear at the same time at which the girl comes to grips with her sexuality; her sexual caverns become the receptacles for her interior life and the protective enclosures which seal her still highly abstract and partial emotions from the ridicule, misinterpretation and contempt of the external world of the father.
Since the object of the girl’s desires are meant as alternatives to the outside world, they run a course to counterbalance the world of what she perceives as indifferent or even aggressive reality. The girl gradually builds a small empire with these aesthetic elements, and can at times become an extended and intricate universe of hybrids and metaphors. They eventually dissipate with the assumption of young adulthood, when the woman assumes greater control over her body. Healthy sexual maturity arises once the young woman is comfortable with the fact that the outside world will not harm her, and she will not be violated.
But if the fantasy universe does not gradually erode with the adjustment to reality and adulthood, then it becomes increasingly aggressive as a mode of resistance, as an alternative to what the more plentiful and less controllable, and potentially harmful world, offers her. And, like our unfortunate baby Jane, the aesthetic goes from cute to horrific, and assumes the very role of danger which it is the aesthetic to ward against. Hence the sense of uncanny that permeated Nirvana Office. Predicated on a fierce attitude of self-protection and containment, the net effect was maybe the opposite: self-divulging, uncomfortable, unstable and maladjusted.
The formal success of this work was the way in which Chandler achieved a balance between an ambiguity of both form and attitude. It was impossible to tell whether the entire work was complicit in the aesthetics and strategies of ‘cute’, or whether it was formulating a commentary on them. Likewise, it was hard to discern whether the artist was genuine or ironic. On such occasions it is always best to conclude that it was both. The installation was overrun with the ambiguity between irony and earnestness, between hysteric paranoia and clinical detachment, without giving full credence to either. And it was this indecisiveness which gave the work its tension.
Where to position this work? First formally: Chandler is best known as a painter, but to say that this installation represents a departure, or some kind of change in her oeuvre would be a mistake. For her painting has for a long period been preoccupied with the aesthetics of cute. Here Chandler has investigated an unconventional language of kitsch; it is a debased and innocent kitsch rather than the kitsch effected through commodity representation spun out of control. And it is painting that is not overly concerned with painting per se, rather it is more interested in simple comics, childhood representations and drawing. At their best, the strength of Chandler’s paintings has always resided in the unease that comes from giving such a ‘small’, diminutive and inevitable benign subjects such a large cast. So, while her painting could be said to be ‘about’ something external, or ancillary to painting, when she is not painting, it seems that painting comes into sharper focus. The simple animations arose from an extended fascination which the artist had with the way in which a machine could make certain decisions which were deemed ‘personal’ and ‘intuitive’ when executed freehand. And indeed this work cannot be divorced from a whole series of practices, from Damien Hirst to Guy Benfield, where painting is neither wholeheartedly accepted nor exceptionally challenged, but just accepted as an inevitable channel through which certain artistic ideas take their course. Even the elaborate panoply of cages throughout the space could be read from a painterly perspective: as metaphors of enframing and containment.
And how is this work positioned in the broader reach of its commentary, its allusions, and its ramifications? As I have suggested already, the rhetoric of closure that this work is steeped in is deceptive, for this rhetoric of closure is indeed the work’s politic. It is a politic, I would add, that is particularly strong, because it is neither declamatory nor overconfident in its ability to effect change or change people’s minds. The work says: this is my mind, my mind protecting itself.
In all kinds of essays and commentaries these days writers of all kinds are enumerating the world’s current depredations, from dramatic climate change to the continuing escalation of HIV/AIDS in Africa to the perpetual dynamic of Muslim pride and US bullying, to draconian totalitarianism in North Korea. By the implication, the ‘cold’ Cold war meant that the events were obscured from view like the movement of water under a frozen pond; by distinction, the malaise of today is much hotter and closer. Or is it?
For the more that is transmitted to us, the more we become suspicious of what has been omitted; indeed it seems that the media’s service is one of omission rather than inclusion. Yet the dregs and residues, the oversimplifications and half-truths, with which the media feeds us are still adequate to addle our minds. Living today with any semblance of normalcy entails the radical repression of the myriad facts and threats which circulate around us. Otherwise what do we do with the warning that in 50 years time, if the polar ice caps keep melting at the present rate, the water level will rise to up to 80 metres? What do we do with the prediction that in the same 50 years we will have less than half the surviving coral reefs in the South Pacific? What do we do with our frustration and confusion when we are told that we have the technology to convert energy sources away from fossil fuels which are nevertheless still the principal source of energy because they are among the factors that knit together the world market?
Since the late 90s, there has been an acceleration (or resurfacing, depending on how you wish to look at it) of attitudes in the arts that are directed to world issues, sparking countless debates as the the nature, worth and durability of the political in art. What I want to emphasise in conclusion is that Chandler’s work is also a response to political circumstances, and striking because of the way it does so through individual psychology as opposed to direct engagement. One of the debates that accompanies the notion of the political in art is the degree to which such messages are effective in what is for all intents and purposes an elite form whose audiences are thus already largely sympathetic. When the work of art is distrustful of solipsism and hermeticism and has ambitions to overstep the beautiful, it does so in an effort to relinquish certain qualities which art is said to own, namely what inspires contemplation and what transcends the verbal, everyday responses to things. This relinquishing, the sacrifice of the(easy) access to the transcendent, is with the desire to open up discourse while still hoping that it can also be durable and engage in discourses past and present.
Chandler’s response to the world is both specific and general. It can be read as any woman’s response to a socially aggressive world, or, in a wider ambit, the feeling of fear at what you think is happening in the world, and the your lack of individual agency. Nirvana Office was the office of the contemporary spin doctor to multifaceted world threat. The solution? Close the doors, forget the world for a while, watch a video, arrange the furniture, sleep and descend into your own dreamy comfort zone. How many of us are guilty of that? Anyone who at least has a home and television I daresay.
The Long-Suffering Ordinariness of Glamour
Adam Geczy 1999
Anyone viewing a smallish painting entitled Portrait (1998) could well be excused for feeling baffled: a square panel with a symmetrical five-by-five check of blue, pink and black. A portrait of what or whom is far from clear. The vexed viewer might then be reminded of the many non-figurative experiments from Klee and Kandinsky to the present which sought to depict - though today more ironically - an essence of someone or something through non-depictive devices … but this explanation is confounded by no further example of the kind accompanying work since 1993. All the paintings and photographs entitled Portrait dating back several years, are figurative. Yet these figurative portraits hold little more than the checks. One Portrait, a bust of a man, is chilling in its feckless, hard idiocy. With his curled mouth, his hair coiffed in a rockabilly bouffant, and the empty sincere stare of his eyes, he appears alarmingly confident, suggesting he does not know how stupid he looks. But of a day how many images do we take seriously? We must, lest we go mad.
Sadie Chandler’s work is a gallery of anonymous or part-absent figures. When not figures, there are these funny static spat-shapes, as formless as the portraits are characterless. Whoever views these portrait works in succession - the effect is incremental - is cast adrift into a limbo of ersatz-personality, a place where superficialities reign, where identities are exchanged or cast-off, in which the perceived essence, the quiddity of a person or thing, is a labile and arbitrary lie, the fault of the viewer’s gulibility. In Chandler’s works the viewer is brought close to the all-too-human guilt of raising expectations and forming narratives out of things which for this, the Portraits have to be viewed as more than revealing the base undercurrent of consumer society (a term which has been used too long - is it now hyper-consumerist society?) as vacuous and pointless. In a Single Man Christopher Isherwood commented that the Europeans hate the Americans because the Americans ‘have retired to live inside […] advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.’ (He wrote this long before a Disneyland was built on the outskirts of Paris.) Americans, he wrote, ‘sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained.’ Isherwood’s words could not be more apposite than here.
They keep yelling out, ‘These people are zombies!’ They’ve got to make themselves believe that, because the alternative is to break down and admit that Americans are able to live like this because, actually, they’re a far more advanced culture ? five hundred, maybe a thousand years ahead of Europe, or of anyone else, for that matter. Essentially we’re creatures of spirit. Our life is all in the mind. The hollowness of Chandler’s Portraits is suffused with our original sin, to make more of what there is. It is the sin which both condemns us and keeps us happy. In this respect Chandler’s paintings have more to do with an artist such as Richard Prince, who made his earlier reputation quoting flat jokes, than with the bona fide Pop of Warhol or Rosenquist. Another square panel, the same dimensions as the chequered “portrait”, spells “DELUXE” on a bright red ground. Just as before the question was, ‘portrait of whom?’ this is ‘deluxe of what and where?’ since relatively little is forthcoming at this stage. Another series of Portraits consisted of photographs on shaped panels, where, within tromple l’œil frames were hands, denuded of body or face, beneath a colour. The danger of Pop, as its continued popularity rightly or wrongly attests, lies in reconfirming the traits of contemporary culture it seeks to criticise or ridicule (Warhol was exceptional in this respect by being a shallow celebrity and critiquing that shallowness all in one). Chandler’s works are too eerily bare to be coopted easily; Rosenquist isolated fragments and rearranged them into visual narratives which flowed and were discontinuous all at once. Chandler’s fragments are more like empty shells of self-improvement, and in which the modernist flattening of classical distinctions, such as portraiture, history painting and still-life, is all-too present.
This is the very ordinariness of glamour. Since 1993, Chandler has executed two other series of portraits, both photographs, neither have faces. The earlier are framed portrait ovals of what seem, by the way they are dressed, dignified presences from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, except their faces are obscured by the whiteness created by a flash. The second, more recent series, are again manipulated appropriations, this time recognisably from a masters of the English Renaissance such as Holbein, yet this time only the hands are present. Although in one a hand fondles a ring, there is little notion of the accoutrements of power. The only elevating factor is the genre it aspires to, that it is a portrait, and therefore must stand for something. The real appeal here is in the portrait-ness of a thing; the language of painting plays an important role. Unlike photography, which is haunted and beleaguered by the portrait snap, in the painting the portrait exists as a juncture between the artist, the sitter and the sitter’s immediate circumstances. A painted portrait is commemorative in the way that most photographs are mostly fleeting remembrances, for the extra effort taken to make a portrait means that a portrait from the past sees the subject at a moment of youth or prosperity such as the acquisition or inheritance of property; it may show signs of recent victory or celebrate a recent marriage. There is a mnemonic and interpretative strength - for portrait paintings can be manipulate to flatter and emphasise the sitter’s importance - in paintings for which photograph has to work harder. But Chandler’s “portraits”, which in this case are photographs derived from painting, attempt to remove the advantage of painting. She makes a painting have the prosaicness of a snap.
The bride is stripped bare once again. Importance and glamour in Chandler’s work is shown to be a set of recycled signifiers used to advance a message about a person deemed particular and specific. The uncanny aspect of her work is the argument that importance is shown to be based on consensual signifiers and signs; it is a violence of the interchangeable into which anyone can step like an upright painted board with face-holes at a fun-park. It reflects an aesthetic where everyone can play a part in the language of prosperity and allure. By the mid-nineteenth century in Paris, it became difficult to distinguish class according to dress: all men wore black frock coats, and from a distance a courtesan could look like a lady. Now, we are shown on television, how, with the help of a professional photographer and make-up artist, anyone can be made to look glamorous. Glamour is glamour by virtue of its rarity. It is what the libido hankers after ? rare beauty. Yet the flattening of taste of mass-culture has made glamour potentially accessible to all. In short, the paradox is that everyone has the chance to be envied for what only few people have.
The busts of women with generic faces and absurd hairstyles tell of how the open attributes of acceptability and desire coalesce into identities which we convince ourselves are owned by only one person. Or an animal ? Chandler paints a benign and fluffy shitsu dog against a white ground, an unremarkable work in itself, but apposite to the series. Pets are attributes of domesticity, who come to become essential integers of the family unit, complete with a name and personality. It would be too painful for pet-owners to accept that a pet’s personality consistes of traits cathected onto it by the owner. For pets are unlike children in the crucial respect that personality traits can be added and subtracted with greater ease; the pet is a group of traits from the owner’s person and immediate environment, expressed as part of an animate body. The pet has no other use than this. And it is a common truth that what has gone from utility to non-utility relies on its decorative power, its surface qualities, otherwise risk destruction.
Chandler’s work is from a world in which most things are non-utilitarian but are made to seem utilitarian; where everyone can briefly become their object of worship; where the specific is also a generality; where the meanings which we read into to the shape of a mouth or a hairstyle have their basis in little more than poetising; where everything is deluxe; where the perfect love is everywhere if you look for it; where a colour or a shape or a shirt is really “you”. Behind these wishes are empty vessels, but the narcissism which shapes things into much more than what they are is the juvenile weakness which saves us, the need and willingness to keep the spell of substance, uniqueness and value alive is what makes a vacuum the condition of love and happiness. It is also the condition of art itself, odd objects made of non-precious material, prised because they are catalysts for wonder and curiosity have long had their content drained white.
Chandler’s works, which have of late largely consisted of paintings, are not mere vapidity. Rather, they are things consciously stripped bare of the falsities with which we clothe them. Her work is both positive and negative in this respect: we complicate and make conundrums and dreams of blood-drained shells, yet it is our very ability to tell stories, to expect things of what holds little real potential, literally to give things a clothing, which is our consolatory strength as beings; the greatest storymakers are what are called visionaries. Chandler’s work makes one consider that humans have embellished and ennobled dead matter: we call this culture and language. Judeo-Christian culture has clad itself in a very thick and elaborate garment which has borrowings and inheritances from a great many other foreign ones. Thus encumbered, it has spent its time trying to see underneath this clothing, to an ever-elusive something whichpromises to be more durable. But Chandlers is not shaking her head in the manner of an dour existentialist like Jean Genet who once remarked, ‘What is not futile in this world? I’m asking you: what is not futile in the last analysis?’ What Chandler’s Portraits show is that what is durable is in fact the ability to clothe, to name; to transform transient into concrete value. That of course is love, which as Oscar Wilde said, is the illusion which makes things real. Authenticity is a hungry and imaginative sense of the outlandishly unauthentic.