Review: Social Structures

Social Structures

Kinly Grey, Tayla Haggarty, Anna McMahon

Curated by Amy-Clare McCarthy
7 June-24 June 2017
Metro Arts, Brisbane

Tayla Haggarty / Well Hung / 2017 / Image by Llewellyn Millhouse.

Words by Sarah Thomson

Social Structures, curated by Amy-Clare McCarthy brings together three powerful works by Tayla Haggarty, Kinly Grey and Anna McMahon exploring themes around intimacy and relationships. Personal narratives and universal experiences merge to take a critical and accessible approach to subjects rarely discussed openly.

Well Hung revisits Tayla Haggarty’s ongoing use of bodies and suspension in works that combine sculptural installations with durational performance to explore lesbian experience. A scaffolding structure is set up in the gallery with a wooden plank suspended through a simple system of rope and pulleys. Two almost naked women are strapped into harnesses, attached to the ropes, and sit on either side of the suspended plank, simultaneously resting on it but also holding it up using each other’s weight.1 The women are suspended, supporting each other physically through the weight of their bodies but also perhaps mentally, through the shared experience of what would be quite uncomfortable circumstances. Like scales, this balance between the two performers suggests equality and duality but also a certain sense of precariousness, as any small movement will have an effect on the equilibrium between the two.

Haggarty sees scaffolding as ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’2 and plays off this contrast between the cold, industrial material and the soft, feminine bodies that nest in it. In the artist talk Haggarty mentions her interest in pursuing scaffolding as a way of reclaiming a material she feels like she’s never had access to.3 The use of scaffolding as a material, which recalls a certain kind of worksite masculinity, contradicts the power dynamics generally associated with it. Instead of a ‘tradie’ occupying this space high off the ground, able to ogle and wolf-whistle without consequence, these exposed women are perched above, looking down on the audience. The viewer feels somewhat voyeuristic looking at the performers, however they possess a physical sense of power afforded by their vantage point and are able to return the audience’s gaze with confidence. Interestingly, for a work about intimacy and relationships, the two performers face away from each other. There seems to be an inherent trust that the other will be right behind them in their shared experience, giving the women the strength to face out to the world and the on-lookers below. It conveys the dynamic of ‘coupledom’ whereby a couple functions like a two-person team but also as individuals in their own right. Through this work Haggarty manages to translate intangible negotiations of trust and duality in lesbian relationships into a striking visual metaphor.

Kinly Grey’s work between us takes a less overt approach to exploring interpersonal relationships. It uses the interaction of objects to convey the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions associated with our often-futile attempts to connect with people. A round, slightly aged mirror is suspended from the ceiling with a spotlight a few meters away pointed directly at it. During the daylight hours the light produced by the spotlight is hardly distinguishable and at night the beam of light, is almost a solid material in itself, penetrating the air and striking the mirror with confidence. Grey’s work imbues these simple objects with an emotional narrative; the mirror and light have something between them. They are not physically touching but are communicating in a seemingly intimate way, sending out light and bouncing it back.

For me, between us evokes associations with a lonely lighthouse trying to communicate with ships far out at sea, or of signal mirrors, used to try and catch the attention of a rescue party. The spotlight is always projecting its light out, but only sometimes is the beam returned. Depending on when the work is viewed it can seem like an ode to the strength of intimacy to exist even without the physical; like love that spans oceans, built on a deep trust. Other times it seems somewhat hopeless, relentlessly trying to make a connection that won’t be reciprocated. It seems bitter-sweet, hopelessly endearing and vulnerable. Grey mentions the way the objects themselves are imperfect but honest: ‘the light is dusty, the stand is filthy with paint on it, the mirror is chipped and the chords and plugs are visible’.4 The objects bring with them their own histories and vulnerabilities and the work therefore seems to speak of the inherent risk of putting oneself ‘out there’, warts and all, and the possibility of rejection.

Installation image by Llewllyn Millhouse

Anna McMahon’s work Untitled #1 from the series ‘Holding my breath’ consists of a sling of blue carpet suspended from the tops of two walls in the gallery. At the lowest point of the sea of deep blue, what looks to be a glass ball is cradled. Upon closer inspection it is the head of a glass dildo that has penetrated the surface of the carpet. The remainder, including a whip attachment, hides underneath. The only point of contact with the floor is the leather whip that is literally swept ‘under the rug’, alluding to our tendency to hide or be ashamed of our sexual proclivities. Formally, it is a striking work with a large blue mass taking on a feeling of weightlessness via its suspension from the gallery walls. The glass ball that rests on the blue is merely the ‘tip of the iceberg’, challenging the audience to look below the surface. Untitled #1 possesses a duality of form- it carves out an almost monumental presence in the gallery space yet is made of a soft material and suspended, giving it a sense of precariousness. McMahon draws on her own queer life experiences to create a work that is imbued with personal narrative while leaving the viewer to recognise their own intimate experiences within it.

Curator Amy-Clare McCarthy is interested in the way that industrial and found materials have been used by all three artists to convey deeply personal and intimate moments. The combination of these materials and the subject matter create a simultaneous strength and fragility in the works. For example, the use of scaffolding in Well Hung, which is solid and stable, is contradicted by the precarious balancing of bodies on thin rope, where every tiny movement is amplified. In between us Grey presents fairly impersonal objects to convey a surprisingly personal and emotional narrative, and uses light in a way that wavers between solid and confident to the visual equivalent of a whisper. McMahon’s Untitled #1 is an imposing presence in the gallery but the glass dildo tentatively emerges through the surface, suggesting vulnerability beyond the bold façade.

This inherent fragility is exemplified in the method of suspension, coincidentally shared by all three works. The suspension of objects (and bodies) brings with it a tension- the suggestion that at any moment everything could come crashing down. There is a sense that there is no solid, safe state for these works. They are continually in the balance, so to speak, representative of the way interpersonal relationships are in constant flux: a series of negotiations between two ever-changing individuals. The duality of the fragility and strength required to be vulnerable is summed up perfectly by McCarthy in the final line of her catalogue essay where she proposes, ‘…the trust we put in other people is the biggest and most necessary risk of all.’5

Social Structures conveys universal emotions through at times very personal narratives. Despite being labeled a ‘queer show’ by a gallery visitor, and the clear references to queer sexuality in some works, the exhibition moves beyond trying to define a ‘queer experience’. Social Structures gives intimacy and relationships a monumental scale; emblematic of the place it has in our lives. On opening night, the Director of Metro Arts, Jo Thomas, reminded us that in current times when we are so engrossed in the big picture things like global politics, it is especially important to take a step back and recognise the things that are most important to us- the people we are close to and the earnest connections we make with each other.

1 Performers: Siena Hart, Fiarrah Poole, Bronte Chancellor and Melina Wightman.
2 Artist and curator talk, Saturday 10 June, 2017 at Metro Arts (With Kinly Grey, Tayla Haggarty and Amy-Clare McCarthy)
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 ‘Social Structures’ catalogue essay by Amy-Clare McCarthy