Atlanta del Fuego: The sweet core of disobedience

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:33 -- damien
Jay Younger interviewed by Graham Coulter-Smith

Jay Younger's recent exhibition The Sweet Core of Disobedience has sent a few shock waves through the Australian art community, and has changed the artist's view of her position in the art world quite dramatically. The crux of the contention around her exhibition concerns her request for samples of semen from members of the art world. Almost two hundred men were asked, sixty-nine accepted. Jay sent test tubes, with a food preservative included, plus a comprehensive explanation of her reasons for asking for this contribution to her show. In the actual exhibition, which was primarily concerned with representing notions of sensuality and sexual liberation, the test tubes were arranged in a flat spiral on one of the end walls of a room at the Michael Milburn Gallery in Brisbane. On top of the tubes of semen was projected a film of a blindfolded man blowing smoke rings, and in front of this spiral, suspended from the ceiling on a steel platter, there was a wolf's head carved out of ice, which melted throughout the evening of the opening. Down either side of the gallery were sugar-coated ladders and bird cages. On the side walls above the ladders were projected images of three sets of identical female twins from the art world. They had eyes painted on their closed eye lids and a jewel swinging in front of them, as if they were being mesmerised. On the wall opposite the sperm-spiral there was a target painted in glitter coated black on the white wall. The white rings were painted with honey which dripped down the gallery wall onto the floor. Onto the centre of this target a film was projected of a woman rolling her hands in honey with bees hovering around and swarming on her hands.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

What about the title, 'The Sweet Core of Disobedience' what does that mean?

 

Jay Younger

It is about the way in which female sexuality can aggravate the patriarchy. The show is really about female sensuality, at the same time it has been incredibly aggravating to the art patriarchy.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 You really hit a nerve; but I would like to leave the contentious aspect for later. Let's begin by talking about the aesthetics of the show. In the eighties your work was very glossy and smooth, you used a lot of Cibachrome; but in your recent SHIFT conference paper this April [at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane] you criticised 'the glossy, formulaic, slick surfaces of art in the eighties'. The Sweet Core of Disobedience introduces something completely different-something you describe as more experiential. What is the basis of this change?

 

Jay Younger

I think that there is a change specifically evident in recent installation and performance work made by women. The kind of work they're producing is becoming more provocative, and politicised . It's about female sexuality, identity and creating a female gaze- trying to create the visual expression of that.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

So does this mark a move away from photography?

 

Jay Younger

It's a part of a move from photography into installation, but still incorporating projected photographic images. It is mainly about trying to create a more generous, physical environment, one that's tactile and engaging- more experiential, less commodified. I want more engagement in the work.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

So it's a long way from a postmodernist game of spot the reference.

 

Jay Younger

That's something that personally I'm tired of. I think that a lot of general viewers are also tired of that kind of self-conscious game, and have been alienated from art because of it. I think the ideal situation is just to create a space for viewers to construct their own meanings in a more playful way.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

What about your influences. In the catalogue essay for Fuel, the show you curated this year [at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane], you write of David Wojnarowicz-an artist from New York's Lower East Side- "He's passionate, anarchistic, angry . . . his paintings hurl an unspoken elemental force of personal and cultural iconography, connecting with one's own already cluttered subconscious fears. " Is this the sort of thing you are trying to achieve with your present show, something that is more psychological?

 

Jay Younger

Well, it's about how the psyche is affected by culture. In terms of living, I think most actions are politicised. There's no escaping it really, but this show intensifies that, makes it more apparent.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 With regard to the theme of sexuality in your show, Juan Davila wrote on his work, Stupid as a Painter, "The liberation of desire equals social liberation." Do you believe something like that? Installation view showing projected images, sugar-coated bird cages and ladders.

 

Jay Younger

Something like that, yes. Because in some way sexual imagination is the last bastion.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 Perhaps in our Western, 'rational ', culture, the basic attitude towards sexuality is that it has to be normalised, maybe because it's somehow fundamentally dangerous-or weird. It's primitive, a basic instinct, and it's going to lead one into hell if one doesn't control it.

 

Jay Younger

 Exactly. In terms of the politics of repression, sex is perfect. It 's a colonisation of the imagination, and the task is how people might go about de-colonising themselves. Maybe there are some experiences that you don't really want, and lifestyles you don't really want to live, and there's no use letting yourself be pushed into those circumstances. Rather than conceiving of oneself as a passive screen that receives and transmits, you actually do have to resist. You do have to make your body react and resist rather than just letting it be manipulated and controlled. The imagination, and how it constructs the body's movements and experiences, somehow constitutes the last bastion of resistance.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 In your SHIFT paper you also spoke about the Meese Commission in America which has been instituting a lot of sexual censorship in the arts. And with reference to that censorship you quote Carole Vance who stated 'the idea that the images are unreal are staged and used on a fantasy level to engage with dangerous or frightening feelings without wanting to experience them in real life was foreign to the Commission.'l Does that relate to your aesthetic philosophy?

 

Jay Younger

Anyone who's involved with photography or filmmaking would fully understand that state- ment. You look at a photo or a film and you don't usually ask yourself 'Are those people really in the middle of fucking or not?'. Such aesthetic subtleties obviously didn't occur to the Meese Commission-it was just taken literally. But perhaps they are subtle because it is a strategy of control, control of the imagination.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

This installation of yours does seem to be touching upon such concerns: that is, engaging with dangerous or threatening feelings. Is it something you are going through personally?

 

Jay Younger

It's not really about me at all, personally. But it does have something to do with me in terms of orchestrating it-somehow it's on my mind; but I don't think that there's any sense of danger or threat in my mind at all with this installation. On the other hand, when my sister told my mother about this show, my mother told me she was very concerned that I would ruin my reputation: that this one piece would ruin my reputation. I've been talking about this idea for some time, and there are a lot of people who are really concerned about it. I think the sperm project does touch on a lot of anxieties for people who are contributing to it. And quite close friends of mine have reacted really strangely, while, on the other hand, total strangers have asked to be included in the project. One particular person said that it's only something that you give to a very special person, for example if you're in a relationship. That's how a lot of people consider their semen, as something quite important, special and intimate. Of course there are a whole lot of other people that don't. One woman said to her partner that she wanted to have children with him and that she'd been asking him to have children for quite a number of years, and in a sense she was asking for the same thing that Jay was asking for; so why would he give it to Jay for an art piece and why wouldn't he give it to her? There have been many instances of this type of discussion between people and also the question of whether or not this is 'art'.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 When you asked me I thought, "sure, no worries"; and then I realised that my partner was implicated. So you soon start to get involved in larger implications of the thing. I mentioned it to some other people who said, 'she must be crazy'.

 

Jay Younger

Well there is that edge to it, that people think that it is crazy; and there is an obsessive aspect to it , reminiscent of Sophie Calle following people and photographing them, going into their hotel rooms and taking bits and pieces. This sperm donor project has almost got that same kind of obsessive edge. The process of collecting it is quite obsessive and difficult, but I think a lot of artists are like that, in the way that they produce: the process can be very obsessive. But the piece isn't just idiosyncratic or personal, it reaches out into the matrix of confusion surrounding sexuality at this time. It's touched a lot of people in some way or another and made them think about a whole range of issues. In fact, the art occurs when the potential donor reads the letter and he is somehow forced into deliberation and rationalisation of his position or the issues presented. And it's opened up quite interesting discourses between partners where one person has been asked to contribute and the other has said no. I asked one person to collect the sperm for me in Melbourne, but her partner didn't want her to be collecting the sperm of other men. It's almost like she could be having some kind of sexual encounter, or intimacy, with all these men, which I find amusing because of course many of the men who've contributed to the project are gay. It's opened up these sorts of issues. When I've asked some men for a donation, they somehow thought that I was asking them to have sex with me, or masturbate in front of me, or maybe I wanted to use it to father children. You can see, actually see, those things go through people's heads, and quite often they say them as well.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 Like you want to make love to the entire male art world. So do you?

 

Jay Younger

No. And the letter [which accompanied the request for a donation] said that I simply wanted to use the semen as part of an insta llation. The idea occurred visually at first; and then, of course as things do, it developed conceptually, and you try to understand why it was that you actually had this idea in the first place, what you were trying to get at. I think it's a number of quite contradictory things. I like to place my work on the edge of confusion and contradiction. I think the sperm project opens up a really interesting issue about territoriality and obligation. It's very interesting what that fluid actually symbolises and means to so many people.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 One would think that the avant-garde art world would be a little more progressive than is normally the case, and yet traditional values are still there, in one way or another.

 

Jay Younger

And I guess that's the thing that it is really disturbing-that all those '50s values of being heterosexual and getting married and having a house and a car, and being a consumer are still quite firmly implanted. People are really confused in the '90s about those values because they're still hanging around and they don't really have too much validity or relevance, but new models aren't really strongly in existence yet. Earlier this year I became interested in in vitro fertilisation, going to seminars dealing with the moral and legal issues surrounding it. The future of reproduction is absolutely fascinating in terms of what is possible, and what we will accept ethically and morally in the future. The whole range of possibilities that exist with respect to sexuality and reproduction are really only just starting to surface I think.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

Any more thoughts on the sperm aspect of the installation?

 

Jay Younger

After sending out all the letters and collecting the sperm, when I started to get involved in the rest of the installation, I began to think about the sperm in a different context, because it was really just a facet of the show. But the men's reaction to it were often very strong. I started to get annoyed about that. The contributors were men who were willing to assist a woman's project, and I think the others, who didn't, didn't for many different reasons, and some for intensely personal or political reasons, which I respect. But I think there was generally an underlying picture in those men's minds of almost a giant test tube with their name on it-and that was the installation, it was them totally. But their contribution was a very, very tiny part of the whole thing. Some men even asked me to write disclaimers and say that I would not produce anything derogatory towards men, and that was the only way they were prepared to contribute. Generally the men were very suspicious. But there were a whole lot of other men who contributed, who were really happy to contribute because of the questions and confusions that they felt when they received the letter. In the end I started to feel that it was about men who were prepared to assist women and to contribute to saying something that I, as a woman artist, wanted to say, not something that they wanted to say. Graham Coulter-Smith So enough of the sperm spiral, what about the installation as a whole. Jay Younger Well, firstly, I see the installation as a physical environment that is more about open-ended poetic connections that transcend more literal interpretations. But obviously the elements are included to bring certain concepts into play. Probably the underlying concerns are about sexuality and genetics: the fixed and fluid nature inherent in these areas. It's also important to state that most elements surface in a fairly irrational way and these are woven together in the process of installation. In a way it's as surprising for me to see the end result of the process as for anyone else. But on a more literal level the ice wolfs head suspended in front of the sperm spiral is about a fear- inspired aggression that is physically hard and also transparent; which, throughout the course of the opening melts into a more amorphous fluid and eventually evaporates. The glitter target reinvests that more formalist hierarchical visual field with a tactile version of core imagery. You also have the interplay of the projected hands in honey, arid bees, and also the circular bands of gold and black that are used to symbolise bees or honey. The sugar-coated ladders and cages are used to bounce off the honey, that is, the sugar is a refined processed product, with the honey as something more fluid and difficult to handle. The ladders and cages raise obvious concepts about linear success and empty entrapment being consumer culture's ultimate aspiration, so they're sugar-coated to lure individuals into the ritual of repression. The twins are, in a sense, more random. Their arrival in the installation is more about meeting three sets of twins in the period leading up to the installation. All the twins are artists in some sense, but what I was more intrigued with is the amazing difference, on quite a physical level , between identical twins. In the images, the women appear to be in the process of being hypnotised by a glowing jewel, but on closer examination it's revealed that their eyes are only painted on- so that they are, in fact, only keeping up a facade of being controlled or manipulated. They have their eyes shut so they are in fact quietly dreaming or imagining some other state inwardly. Actually they are concentrating on themselves. The image of the blindfolded man blowing smoke-rings projected over the sperm spiral is probably a bit more ambiguous-it makes me think of a soldier or condemned man having his last cigarette before being executed, as well as an erotic voyeuristic image where we are watching him but he cannot see us. The smoke-rings almost work as some kind of ejaculation as well, but they cally. are circular, which relates back to the target image, and of course they dissipate in quite a sensual fluid manner as well . That's the bare bones of the piece to me anyway.

 

Graham Coulter-Smith

 You mentioned "to me that you'd learned something by doing 'Sweet Core'. Would you like to elaborate?

 

Jay Younger

Yes, sure. Within the commercial gallery context I found the response fairly alarming. I hadn't considered that it might be too much, too provocative to smear honey on the walls and have people licking the walls and carrying on. But I think it was too much for that context. There was a reasonably conservative artist showing work at the same time and unfortunately he happened to be in town and didn't realise what was going on, and was totally annoyed and affronted by the clash of the two aesthetics. The whole experience for me really delineates the end of my commercial gallery involvement. I think that is a really interesting thing that has resulted from this show, and something that is very important for me artistically. It was quite interesting to discover where the edge of the patriarchal art community's intolerance might be. I didn't know where it was and now I've found it. There is a line there that I didn't know about before, and it was quite shocking to find it; but it is very evident to me now. I found a line within that commercial gallery context too: 'Well Jay you can only go so far.' In a way I have been waiting for that concealed line to be made visible. Because, in Australia, quite often you don't get to see those boundaries. They exist and are left unexposed. It was quite good to create some animosity-not that this was ever my intention. In fact I am really shocked that it could create such a reaction, but I somehow feel quite liberated by doing this piece because of all that as well.

notes: 

1. Carole S. Vance, 'The Pleasures of Looking: The Attorney General's Commision on Pornography versus Visual Images', in Jbe Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, edited by Carole Squiers, Bay Press, 1990.