Solitaire: Julian Hou and Anne Bourse
by Kate Kolberg
The Jekyll and Hyde relationship between solitude and loneliness is a known feeling to most. There is Solitude, she who is comfortably alone, and then there is Loneliness, she who is sad because she is alone— distinct but yoked states of being. Recently, however, within this prolonged state of hyperconnectivity— where the opportunity for both physical and psychical aloneness is minimal—it seems that solitude is increasingly mistaken for loneliness, or, if not that, some apathetic intervening feeling. Standing in the empty corridor between the personal, handmade contributions of Anne Bourse and Julian Hou in the two-person exhibition Solitaire at Cassandra Cassandra, I wonder: within this condition of ready connection and constant pseudo-companionship, is solitude something that needs to be practised, manifested, displayed? After all, Solitaire is a game intended for one.
It is as if the small, square-shaped gallery has an invisible line drawn diagonally across the room, so that Bourse’s work sits across from Hou’s, like opponents in a boxing match. But their works do not mingle physically, making Solitaire more like two isolated tableaux or single-player games—not one, but two solitudes that have been decisively exhibited together. In Bourse’s corner, on the ground beneath an arrangement of automatic drawings on the wall sits a book of similar drawings with the words HIDDEN THOUGHTS (also the name of the work, 2018) in block letters on the cover. The drawings are somewhat frenetic and child-like, ranging from representational to more symbolic, and, as the title suggests, they allow for a jumbled insight into Bourse’s own psychic topography. Throughout, we are invited into her illustrated waggish imaginings of “H Club,” a henhouse-cum-dance club that a friend started when he was 12 years old. Over in Hou’s corner sits a neatly patched stitched quilt, Untitled (2019), folded into a square so that only a fraction is entirely visible, forming an easy relationship with the so-called hidden thoughts of Bourse’s book, together opting for a level of concealment within the exhibition’s call to externalize interiority—mirroring the need to ration ourselves out in today’s culture of online sharing.
Not only is each artist’s work suggestive of personal disclosures, but they are both based in craft of sorts, constructed through a thoughtful engagement between the artist and the material. To me, this signals a potential pleasure, one found with the self through an activation of the body, engaged in time spent alone, making. Bourse’s Two or three pillows for Marge getting high on episode 559 and one that I stole from the homeless along the ring road with both pleasure and guilt (2018–19)—a gathering of pillows on the floor, all hand-sewn from dainty silk crepe satin and illustrated with pen and marker in a manner alike to her book—demonstrate not only material but also conceptual comfort, literally cushioning her navigation of solitude in an aesthetic that represents its unstraightforward, unique tangle. For Hou, these ideas come to life in Body truce (2019), a silk, patchworked robe constructed from an assembly of rectangular, coloured fabrics. Some patches feature text divined from an adaptive reading of a Thoth tarot deck written for a play, Cloudcuckooville (2017–ongoing), he is co-creating with his partner, artist Tiziana La Melia. What materializes is a personal object made by and for the body, in a practice of slow engagement with the self and its needs. Hou described to me how, in both the robe and quilt, the fabric pieces conduct a type of healing in part through their “function as containers of energy and history.” These objects are intentionally dear, grounding Hou as he moves through new spaces, and appealing to his expressed interest in bringing the personal into the public setting of the gallery.
In a sense, Solitaire is a presentation of mindfulness. Over the past decade or so, there has been an observed rise in mindfulness practices—exercises of thoughtful engagement with one’s physical, emotional, mental awareness that include craft, yoga, meditation or forms of alternative healthcare, to name a few. (Coincidentally, as I wrote the pitch for this piece, I received a rather felicitous newsletter from the Gardiner Museum, for which the subject line read: “Clay and mindfulness: Find your centre this fall.” Inside, it quoted an article from The Guardian titled “Throws of passion: how pottery became a refuge from our hyperconnected times,” which reads: “It is literally impossible to look at your phone while you are making a pot.”) It would seem the incitement behind such a rise is clear: How do we temporarily allay the virtually inescapable compression of this networked landscape? Or, more simply, for-the-love-of-god, how can we stop our hands from robotically picking up our phones like clockwork? It strikes me as baleful that our last hope for refuge from hyperconnectivity is a literal physical impossibility from participating, and that this is why you should try clay-making. Though this desire for refuge has begun to represent itself in our appetite for art, too, through a growing resurgence of interest in the one-off, the hand-worked and process-based mediums—a hypothesis Solitaire confirms. To witness the diligent, effortful practices of Bourse and Hou exhibited as two exercises in solitude, aligns well with this somatically inclined zeitgeist.
Sitting side-by-side but nowhere infringing or overlapping—like lovers silently reading across the room from one another—this pairing of artists puts emphasis on the individual journey of practising and formulating a happy aloneness, together. Their work demonstrates hours of artisan labour, which seems to imply that Bourse and Hou not only accept the joys of being alone, but also relish the opportunity to materialize this sensation, each intelligently attuning the messiness of sentiment for public display. All seen, Solitaire is indicative of a push-back, a type of resistance to the eradication of a contented aloneness, and begins to characterize new ways of observing and honouring states of aloneness in and amongst others.