Monday, April 8, 2013

Sideshow to Sidelined.

With this exhibition I've got lined up for November, exists an opportunity to extend on the work I did for the my graduate exhibition "Escape Artist" which is really exciting as one of the hardest things about last year was refining the work down to it's conceptual bones. Now to flesh it out so to speak. I have a new visual diary, lots of visual inspiration and now some macquettes - not of the work I plan to do but just giving some concrete form to early conceptualising. I've returned to the idea of Circus Freaks as my re-entry for a couple of reasons. First making the polymer freak for the graduate work was fun and I wanted to make more of them. Second the idea of a circus freak was central to the conceptual basis of the work - it tied together ideas of nature and physicality with ideas of absurdist existentialism. That is in circumstances that involve an enduring and meaningless form of suffering, as is often the case with the body, absurdist existentialism - accepting the absurdity inherent in meaningless suffering - can offer a way out of the suffering. Which is to tap into an unrelentingly bad and dark joke  - something I think the whole freak sideshow of a vintage circus does perfectly. For me the circus freak sideshow is the visual and conceptual manifestation of absurdist existentialism,  posing the threat we all live with (nature can be cruel) and asking the question how would you cope if dealt the bad hand? 

In times past this sideshow would give viewers the vicarious opportunity to experience that threat, testing their own strength along the way. Now (of course) that option no longer exists. A few years back while taking my kids out (to see Circus Oz of all things) there was a man in the ticket queue behind us suffering from, I assume Proteus Syndrome (elephant man disease). I kept trying to keep my kids looking ahead or engaged with talk so they wouldn't look back and be shocked/horrified or loudly voice their curiosity and embarrass me. Later we walked by him unexpectedly and I saw my little boys face as he caught sight of the man. My son was only three and at first he did seem shocked but then you could see him trying to make sense of what he had seen. For my part I didn't say anything but only because I had no idea what was the PC thing to say or do. Moreover I suspect whatever I'd said would only have served to project my own fears.
So in effect I ignored what my son had experienced. All of which made me feel quite pathetic and cowardly. And I guess that is why people are sometimes cruel to those who are different, out of anger at being faced with their own fears and pathetic nature. Someone who is supposed to be the vulnerable, inferior one just made you feel vulnerable and inferior.

With my graduate work I argued (with the help of absurdist philosopher Albert Camus) that the freak had the last laugh. That embracing the absurdity, transcending the fear of what nature is capable of, offers a transcendent kind of freedom and the opportunity to connect most fully with what it means to be human - subject to nature's caprice with all its entailing fragility, vulnerability and transience - those things we find most frightening.
So this is where my thoughts are heading: As evolved as we may be to no longer parade those misfortunate souls around to satisfy our curiosity and vicariously face our fears - and with science  demystifying physical deformity and disability (guess what? Your virtue wont protect you) and eradicating much of it - what has become of our fear that one day we may be the sidelined one?

I would probably argue that we are more now, than at any other time, beholden of our fears (and thus less tolerant of) the unfortunate individual who simply by their existence threatens both our sense of immortality and our modern entitlement to the 'good life'.
Moreover, and I'd say most importantly, our sense of belonging too. For I think there is actually less public space available to the afflicted than there ever was. We might tell ourselves otherwise as we put handrails up in public toilets and ramps around buildings but all that tells me is that we are okay with the wheelchair. Down with the complexities of useless legs. It's such a narrow interpretation of disability and inclusion it could be a joke  (insert bitter laugh here).
Worst of all the modern 'freak' who nature has rendered so useless as to be unable to contribute to economic growth - let alone simply support themselves - threatens us with our biggest existential fear of all - complete invalidation. For whatever point of existence could be attributed to them now? No wonder is our need to have them completely out of sight.
So without the benefit of the circus side show freak where might someone these days get the opportunity to confront those kind of fears? Unless you are given to lurking the corridors of hospitals (those particularly sanitised environments which evoke a telling sense of the surreal on entering) eavesdropping on all the human misfortune being played out within it's walls - or visiting a region beset with entrenched poverty - then it is unlikely the un-afflicted (that's not actually a word, sorry) need be confronted with the afflicted. At what cost to them/us I wonder?

Here's another thought: Can you imagine someone in a Medieval Europe as the Black Plague was devastating their village, noticing the first signs of illness in themselves and thinking "why me?". Would the village hunchback prefer to be transported to now where he might get a disgnosis and an uncomfortable metal brace to wear in public or prefer to stay in his medieval village where he could continue mixing it up with the village madwoman (undone by her endless grief), the village consumptive (an immune deficiency) and the village idiot (bad case of infantile measles). Okay, maybe I'm tired and need to wrap this up or maybe I'm trying to get at something.
I guess with this next work I want to introduce some temporal and cultural contexts. Ideas about modern entitlement and how that conflicts with the vagaries of nature we still remain powerless to control, plus the implied role of a market economy - the selling of physical perfection, disengaging us from our humanity. Related ideas of spirituality, authentic living too. 

Thats it for now. If you made it this far thank you. Feedback and discussion welcome.


  1. Wow, I will need to re-read and think about this Jo. If you can meld your insight about issues of difference and alienation (Guess what, your virtue won't protect you - i love that!) with the subversive beauty of the objects you make it will be a very interesting show indeed. I am very excited about someone doing serious work about what it means to belong in our material democracy, such a potentially depressing subject! Have you seen the images of William Kentridge's interpretation of the Gogol/Shostakovich story 'The Nose'? I haven't seen the whole work only some of the images and film, your concepts and moquettes brought them to mind, for some reason. Great start! More later :-)

  2. Thoughtful Jo + you're on the create + I love what you're doingXXX Njoying mulling your words & ideas... thanx

  3. Interesting idea of where we confront our fears today compared to other historical times...