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Issue 142

Not the Camera, But the Filing Cabinet: Performative Body Archives in Contemporary Art
by sophia bartholomew

I arrive at this exhibition deeply shaken by months of public discourse denying the existence of trans and gender-non-conforming bodies, denying women’s experiences of sexual harassment and rape and deny- ing the basic human rights of displaced people. The artworks in Not the Camera, But the Filing Cabinet: Performative Body Archives in Contemporary Art feel like a safety net, catching me, seeing me, speaking their own stories. At first glance, the room feels crowded, but it quickly becomes clear that the sparse conventions of contemporary exhibition-making have been deliberately flouted in favour of creating an atmosphere of solidarity—a feeling of standing together, arm in arm. In this exhibition, curator Noor Bhangu brings together projects by 10 women, queer and non-binary artists that articulate experiences of emotional intimacy, tenderness, violence and grief. Taken together, they refuse a colonial-capitalist logic of extraction and accumulation, which presumes that knowledge can be removed from human bodies in the way minerals are mined from the earth. Rather, these works assert that knowledge is an exchange requiring due process, mutual vulnerability, relationship and time, and that, in the end, there are many things that cannot be known or shared.

Upon entering the gallery, Dayna Danger’s large-scale photograph Gi Jiit (2017) stands sentinel between two doorways, its subject making unwavering eye contact with the viewer, but turning her glistening body away, a large pair of antlers pressed to her hips. The pink tones of her skin match the flat pink background, becoming expansive. Facing this work are fleshy body fragments, eerily lifelike and built from silicone and foam. These are parts of Susan Aydan Abbott’s R.O.T. (Rape Over Time) (2017) series: a foot, a leg and a section of upper body with purple pooling over a pink-white skin colour, flapping over a curdled yellow. Though both works invoke the leering presence of systemic misogyny, Danger’s subject projects a coded counter-narrative, a wholeness, a certainty, while Abbott’s subject conveys physical dissociation, pain but also healing—processing trauma.

On the left wall are bedsheets billowing on a clothesline and disguising a woman’s body—as seen in Sophie Sabet’s nine-minute-long video work Though I am Silent, I Shake (2017). Here, Sabet gently traces moments of tension in a conversation in Farsi with her mother, as they stumble over definitions of woman- hood, motherhood and gendered family roles. Nearby, Ayqa Khan’s grid of photographs, untitled (2018), feels similarly layered, coded, only partially legible to me. Photographs of photographs pressed up against a body, flowers; a hennaed hand, brown skin, black hairs; a golden anklet, an ankle, skin covered in clear plastic. A screenshot of angry texts from mom: “U fk need to put your life together if u want me to stay in ur life I am done with u.”

Remnants of Christina Hajjar’s performance remain in the back corner of the gallery: rose petals encased in gelatin, carved to form the Arabic word ghanouj —which translates as “spoiled brat”—an affectionate name from her mother. In a glass pitcher are the chewed-up remnants of the carving process, which were first carved with a knife and then passed through her mouth but not swallowed. These residual actions give substance to both the incongruity I imagine is felt in diaspora and to thick layers of cultural inheritance echoed in Sabet’s and Khan’s works.

On the final day of the exhibition, Luna’s performance que dira la santa madre (2018) began with dancing and music, initiating a sense of warmth and celebration, but broke open into sudden and startling grief, recalling the violence of the 1973 Chilean coup with devastating intensity, bringing it into the room and holding it. Similarly, Matea Radic’s gouache and graphite on paper—red, white, grey, black, yellow—diagram how loss lives on, attaching itself to the body. Titled We’ll Never Be Silent (2017) and They Took You From Us (2017), her works commemorate children she knew who died in the Yugoslavian Civil War. Having grown up in Sarajevo, she depicts herself as a young woman, walking the city streets. She is holding a faceless figure, and is being clung to by a grasping shadow.

The theme song from Match Game ’75 underscores the entire exhibition: it is the soundtrack from Kablusiak’s video an exercise in not taking myself so seriously (2016). For them, the song is nostalgic—taken from a game show they watched with their mother growing up—but in this context, the chipper melody is so absurd as to be deeply unsettling. In their video, Kablusiak cuts between close-up shots of scars on their wrist, upper arm and upper thigh, tracing them with a bright pink, viscous paint, allowing it to drip down slowly. Beside this work, Leesa Streifler’s painting Her Body: Fragility: Legs (2016) also drips—its pair of aged and emaciated legs covered in streams of translucent purple and green. Here, a phrase from Sarah Ciurysek’s intimate audio work Dear Mary (2013) resounds: “I have been longing to spend time with an old woman, longing for the image of a self-determining woman…” In the 16-minute-long piece, she describes a found photograph, and then goes on to address the old woman—Mary—who it gives her cause to remember.

In a slow and calming voice, she relates the love and admiration she felt from their encounter.

Seen together, these works materialize the violent exclusions of colonial-capitalism’s History and Archives, its forcefully policed categories of Gender, Sexuality, Cultural Identity, Age and Ability, and its newly formed structures for Diversity and Inclusion, which are at best highly inadequate, and at worst disingenuous, insidious. In emphasizing the transference of embodied forms of knowledge, Not the Camera, But the Filing Cabinet… ultimately speaks to something both vital and uncontainable—a web of truth that resists being written down.

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