The Dating Show, ex. cat. (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2008).
KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU Eerily ubiquitous, internet-and phone-dating services have made society far more self-conscious, drawing our attention to the words we use to frame ourselves and our feelings. We ponder who we are, who we could be, what we want from a potential other, and how to put it to them. In creating a dating profile, or responding to one, we describe ourselves in ways contrived to make us attractive—but sometimes reality breaks through. For Various Responses (2004), Mutlu Çerkez made sixteen paintings of messages that women left on his answering machine in response to his phone-dating profile. In transcribing their responses, including all the hesitations, Çerkez opens them up for scrutiny. He puts us in his shoes, prompting us to imagine the women from what they’ve said. However, perhaps it is not only his quarry that he puts under the spotlight, but also himself. For, while we don’t know his actual profile, perhaps we can intuit something of it from the women’s responses. Or, perhaps their replies are more like depth charges, searching ‘shots in the dark’, revealing nothing. Either way, Various Responses becomes a perverse self portrait: a self portrait in the eyes of the other.
HIDE YOUR SYMPTOM Darren Sylvester’s photograph Just Death Is True (2006) looks like a film-still, encapsulating a narrative within a single frame. A beautiful young woman, wrapped in a towel, reclines while on the phone. Perhaps she’s at home, perhaps at a spa. Her expression is blank. Her cracked, grotesquely fluoro-blue face pack is shorthand for that classic female anxiety: the ‘battle against the clock’. The work pivots on two points: we can’t know who is, or just was, on the other end of the phone; and that caller can’t see what we can—her telling symptom, the face pack. Nevertheless, due to its presence, we imagine that the call was traumatic for her, perhaps a rejection. Paradoxically, Sylvester’s photograph permanently arrests time, embalming the young woman so we can remember her like this—suffering—always.
GROOMING Love is a battlefield. On dates we engage in battle, albeit on our best behaviour. We scope out the other, probe them, catalogue their desirable features, but also locate the weaknesses that might make them vulnerable to our charms. At the same time, we work to conceal our own faults, perfecting ourselves as the apple of their eye. This bad-faith ritual is the subject of Robin Hely’s video Sherrie (2002). Hely covertly video-recorded a date he landed in response to his newspaper ad, ’31 y/o video artist seeks adventurous female for casual fun times’. A predator, he pretends to be a nice guy. We watch in horror as the unsuspecting bogan solo-mum falls for it. We are forced into uneasy complicity with Hely, watching the date unfold from his point of view, unable to intervene and warn the poor woman as he extracts her life story, a generic tragedy of a failed marriage. We cringe as she struggles to relate to him as an artist, describing her own creative endeavours in craft. Just when he seems sympathetic, a good ear, he changes course, confessing, ‘I don’t like fat chicks’, perhaps testing her. Then he puts the moves on her—unsuccessfully. Except, of course, this is all part of his plan. His violation of her is only fully consummated later, in the gallery, when he exhibits the recording in her presence, and records her intemperate response. The moral: don’t talk to strangers.
CONSENT In the US during the early 1990s, campus ‘date rapes’ were big news, bringing to the fore that gnarly question: what constitutes ‘consent’? While a feminist lobby pressed for a regime of explicit consent, racy English-Lit professor Camille Paglia argued that the very idea was naïve, unenforceable, and paternalistic. For her, sex was necessarily thrilling, predatory, and dark—a walk on the wild side. With her Relationship Contracts (2004), Gabrielle de Vietri satirises the idea of explicit consent by presenting it in extremis. She had a lawyer draft standard contracts for different kinds of relationships, including ‘Casual Fuck’, ‘Workplace Romance’, and ‘Meaningful’, and leaves them for visitors to take away, as if providing a useful social service. In classifying relationships, de Vietri deprives them of any illusion of uniqueness, turning us all into walking clichés. Her inappropriately explicit contracts speak the unspoken, killing the fantasy. These are contracts that no one would want to sign. Perhaps some lack of (explicit) consent is necessary to keep the fantasy alive.
IT’S ABOUT ME Love may be the subject of endless water-cooler confessions and pop-psychology talk-shows, but new insights from genetics suggest we don’t know what we’re talking about. In fact, our genes tell us what to do, and our brains just come up with the alibis, masking our true motivations. Introspection tells us less than nothing. David Rosetzky’s languid, melancholic video Nothing Like This (2007) presents a sequence of vignettes of young adults at play, perhaps on holiday. The scenes are believable yet tinged with a dreamy, advertising quality (everyone is so good-looking, so middle-class). A series of male and female voiceovers—that may or may not relate to what we are seeing, and that may or may not relate to one another—offer reflections on the dynamics of devotion, betrayal, and jealousy; connection and disconnection. But, as curator Robert Cook cruelly observes, for all the soul searching, ‘No lessons are learned and no deeper state of relationship is achieved; their subjective smarts mean zip.’ A study in self-indulgence and ennui, Nothing Like This suggests that, although love presumes to be about our relation to a significant other, it is always first about how we relate to ourselves. We are selfish not only as love’s villains but also as its victims.
YOU FILL UP MY SENSES Love is a space of archetypes. Doe-eyed lovers play prescribed roles. They say they feel as though they are ‘living in a movie’, as if their love elevated real life to the heights of fiction. Love is a drug that makes everything rosy. Here, there is no gap between the cliched and the profound. Indeed, it’s only in embracing the truth of the cliché that the lover can be authentic. Grant Stevens’s video Really Really (2007) stages a generic love-letter text, scattering its words in a starry-starry night (suggesting metaphors of celestial bliss), accompanied by schmaltzy piano muszak. While the words are scrambled, the text is easy to follow, because ‘we’ve heard this song before’. Indeed, it almost feels hardwired. Is Really Really Stevens’s most cynical work yet? No, he made it for his new girlfriend.
[IMAGE: Darren Sylvester Just Death Is True 2006]