Little boys

Simon Mee
Savode Gallery, Brisbane

When you look at Simon Mee's sculptures, and consider the cherub-cheeked subjects of his paintings, there is the irresistible urge to see them come to life, to dare to suggest to the artist that perhaps he should turn his hand to animation. This might be because on one level Mee's work interacts with our expectations of animation: beyond the child-friendly characters, an irreverent humour and an impossible, yet casual, violence permeates Mee's art. On another level, the desire to see these characters move is almost certainly motivated by a need for narrative closure. Mee's characters are invariably presented suspended in mid-narrative; there is something that has happened before the image that confronts us, and there is almost certainly something that happens after the point we are witnessing. We want to know, 'What happens?'

Mee has responded to the suggestion that he make a career in animation with the observation that to extend beyond the still image of a painting or sculpture, to fill in the narrative gaps by telling a complete story, would defeat the purpose of his art, which he says is to reflect upon a single narrative moment within an unspecified sequence of events. While Mee is quite willing to talk about his work, he evades describing what it is about.1 The apparent conflict between an immutable image and the manifold narratives such an image evokes, illuminates a point of ambiguity in Mee's work, the first of many that characterizes his intelligent and complex oeuvre.

In some respects it might be argued that Peace and Security is the artist's response to those who wish for narrative closure. The painting depicts an infant curled up, sleeping blissfully, with its oral and anal orifices plugged with pacifiers, or 'dummies'. The sealing of the beginning and end of the processes of bodily functioning operates in a metonymic relation to the pacification that occurs when the narrative gaps are filled in for an audience. One no longer has to think, and peace and security are attained, but at the expense of 'dumbing down', of creating 'dummies'.

In another reading however, it can be suggested that the representation of an enclosed digestive tract offers a model of Mee's work, in that his art does consider encapsulated moments that each can be regarded as complete within themselves. This is not to suggest that his art offers static representations of stagnant moments. With respect to the imagery used, Julia Kristeva has long since privileged the drives that order the continuum between the glottal and anal sphincters to forward an argument for the 'psychosomatic modality of the signifying process'.2 The feature of Mee's art that might lead to an assessment of it as undeveloped animation, or indeed likened to an enclosed digestive tract, is that which imbues his work with sophistication. The moments Mee contemplates are moments of narrative crisis, 'thetic' moments (to employ Kristeva's terminology), where meaning erupts but also where it is undermined: 'when ... meaning is constituted but is then immediately exceeded by what seems outside meaning, materiality, the discontinuity of real objects'.3 The non-meaning that encroaches on the discontinuity of real objects (or the pacified digestive tract) is conveyed in all of the works in Little Boys by the sparse spaces that the characters inhabit. The figures in Mee's paintings are not connected to a physical landscape. A rare exception is Jousting, but even in this portrait, the pinioned state of the horse-mounted character is the focus of our attention- the black horse she is riding is subsumed into a receding background, while both the white horse and its lance-wielding rider assume the shadowy proportions of the surrounding space. This indistinct space, however, intrudes upon the space of meaning in the painting. The obscure landscape is as much a threat to the mounted figure as the lance that stabs her eye. Similarly, Mee's sculpted figurines are placed in nondescript landscapes of fake trees and grass whose banality serves at once to isolate the duck and rabbit characters in a narrative moment, while also asserting a sense of non-meaning that threatens to engulf meaning. The space in Mee's work encroaches significantly upon the materiality of his real, discernible figures, and it might be argued, represents, metonymically, the excess of non-meaning that constantly challenges meaning.

This sense of thetic crisis that is conveyed through a narrative moment in Mee's work is further apparent in the violence of many of the pieces. Decapitations, stabbings, and other violent acts abound. As thetic moments these works have meaning, but simultaneously, destroy meaning, a life, or an idea. In this regard, Mee's work is susceptible to a charge of nihilism; his art seems to wantonly destroy, to negate belief. Nothing is sacred. Such an assessment however, denies the way in which Mee's art ceaselessly opens ways for new meanings to be created.

Kristeva considers the way the thetic break, which produces meaning, has been represented as a death, or rather a murder, in archaic societies. This is what occurs when the drives of the semiotic become regulated through the social symbolic order. Kristeva refers to Freud's revelation of a 'founding break' from which he extrapolates that society is founded on a 'complicity in the common crime·4 For Kristeva this common crime is the 'act of murder' that ensues when the drives of the semiotic become contained in the stasis of the symbolic function that enables meaning. In effect, every representation is a moment of stasis; every representation is a kind of murder that has social implications. In representing a moment of narrative stasis, often quite literally the moment of death, the artist 'takes on murder and moves through it's Mee's work contemplates the violence of the social world, and enables, through the ambiguities between his child -friendly characters and adult themes; between his accomplished technical execution, and sordid and bloody imagery, 'a kind of second birth '.6 Through his art, Mee ensures infinite possibilities of meaning.

notes: 

1. Interview with the artist. 20 October 1998.

2. Julia Kristeva, 'Revolution in Poetic Language', Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maiden, Massachusetts, 1998.

3. lbid

4. Julia Kristeva. Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Lean S. Roudiez.

Columbia University Press, New York 1984.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.