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The unwritten rule of art etiquette is 'you can look but don't touch'. In Kate Ellis's exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces feminine wax limbs are displayed in traditional vitrines. Behind glass and out of reach the dismembered arms, curiously sprouting hair and etched with a spiralling pattern, are exhibited in this manner to reinforce the notion of observation at a critical distance. This is a mode of looking particular to art, also associated with the objective scientific gaze ... a scrutinising stare invariably gendered masculine.
The first 'ceroplastic' figures were anatomical models.' These form part of the Medici family's collection held at The Imperial-Royal Museum for Physics and Natural History. Opened in Florence in 1775 the museum is known in common parlance as 'La Specola', meaning 'observatory' in Italian. The female, whole body model in this collection lies on a pink, silk mattress with a string of pearls around her neck. Posed in what looks like a post-coital gesture, she is a disturbing figure, more alive than dead. Still and yet animated, her head tilted back, her lips parted in the aftermath of the 'little death' of the living.
Ellis's hybrid, half animal/half human, whole body is lifeless by contrast. In the catalogue essay Saskia Beudel observes: '[W]axy is an adjective often synonymous with death-the yellowish colour of skin at the moment that blood drains away'.2 But wax also has warmth, evoking the incandescence of melting candles and the softness of the body, making this model uncanny nonetheless. Sigmund Freud's forerunner in the study of 'das Unheimliche' (the uncanny), Alfred Jentsch, used waxwork figures to describe the 'intellectual uncertainty' produced when the border between life and death, between animate and inanimate objects, is confused.3
Ellis explores the uncanny by eroding the line between science specimen and art object, the rational mind and the irrational body, human and animal, and culture and nature. Unlike the black haemorrhages, symptoms of the Plague and HIV, marking the body with signs of illness, the spiralling, bloodless 'spots' scratched into the limbs and the figure's waxy flesh do not stain the surface of the skin. These pagan tattoos, tracing neither an inside nor an outside, reveal nothing ... and yet her body is still marked by disease. As death becomes synonymous with desire she is defiled by virtue of her sex ... both are deemed an essential part of a woman's nature.
From the untouchable to the tactile; at deliberate odds with the encased limbs, the tufts of fur on the wall elicit an overwhelming urge to reach out and stroke. These clumps of animal hair testify to a continuing lack of unity: they are the bits that have been left behind, the everyday that lies forgotten underfoot. For Ellis, the poodle is 'a sentimentalised, fetishised icon of femininity'.4 Her hybrid form suggests she can only hazard a guess as to how to define what a woman truly is. It challenges the certainty derived from a process of inclusion and exclusion, the difference maintained between the one and the other that is the source of all meaning.5 Her work straddles any line that delimits, like legs firmly spread, creating a palpable tension by bringing together seemingly incompatible objects.
Kate Ellis, 2004, installation view, Gertrude Conemporary Art Spaces. Wax figure. Courtesy the artist.
Kate Ellis, 2004, installation view, Gertrude Conemporary Art Spaces. Wax limbs in vitrine. Courtesy the artist.
Kate Ellis, 2004, installation view, Gertrude Conemporary Art Spaces. Wall drawing. Courtesy the artist.
1. 'Ceroplastics' is the art of modelling in wax.
2. Beudel, Saskia, Kate Ellis, catalogue, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, 2004.
3. Freud, Sigmund, 'The Uncanny' [Das Unheimliche] (1919), in Standard Edition, vol. XVII , trans. James Strachey, Hogarth Press, London, 1955, pp.217-256.
4. Ellis, Kate, Media Release, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, 2004.
5. In 'The Cyborg Manifesto' Donna Haraway discusses hybridity and the politics of identity suggesting '... certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women... domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man. The self is the One who is not dominated... the other is the one who holds the future, who knows that by the experience of domination, which gives the lie to the autonomy of the self. To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many' (1991:177). Haraway, Donna, 'A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century', in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York, 1991.