playing at the limits of fortitude

Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Fortitude—such an old-fashioned word! lt seems an incongruous title for an exhibition of contemporary art. lt reminds me of the school motto from the Catholic girl's college I attended-fortiter et sauvitier, a Latin phrase for 'strength and kindliness'. An incongruous phrase from a dead language stitched onto the blazers of our uniforms, inscribed onto our young female bodies, the language and institutional architecture of a past era. Fortitude, according to my dictionary, means moral strength. What exactly is moral strength and why should art or artists have any need of it?

The artists represented in 'Fortitude' all live in Brisbane. The Queensland Art Gallery gathered them together for the Brisbane Festival. I also have lived in Brisbane for most of my adult life and so /look here to find a point of contact with Fortitude and with art, the geographical incident and locus of my relationship with art. But to speak of Brisbane the city and the deep adult relationship I have with art, I am drawn back before their time, into the primal spaces of my childhood-to write them from their margins so to speak. For I grew up in Redcliffe, a city to the north of Brisbane, very close but separated by a long bridge and stretch of water. An old seaside town, it hovers as Brisbane's 'Other'-a place of retirement, an old holiday spot, a forgotten place. Spread across a peninsula, jutting out into a flat sea, almost adrift, waves lapping and sucking at its shores-a haunted place. Surely the beach is the most primal of all places in our Queensland childhoods- a marginal place which leaves a line of foam along the edges of histories and memories. Fortitude conjures an old world image in my mind the fortress, the fort. A building I have never inhabited, except perhaps in my imagination-a distressed damsel locked in a fortified tower-a virtual architecture of an imprisoned self. Is it possible to write the story of glittering fortress towers from the beaches and coastlines which they were erected to survey, protect, and defend? And what will be its effect-to unlock the tower and release the prisoners within?

The beaches at Scarborough are not surf beaches, they open onto Moreton Bay. They have gritty brownish sand, jelly fish, itchy red seaweed, and, when I was young, bits of scrub and bush tracks and, of course, red cliffswell more like reddy-brown rocks. My next door neighbour, Peter, used to explore the beaches with me, when we were about eight or nine. We would often climb inside the big drainage pipes and listen to the echo of our voices. Once we travelled up the pipes as far as we could go, until they got too small. We sat beneath a drainage grate under a suburban street, amazed to feel the heat and sunshine, smell the bitumen and see pedestrians walking over the top of us. Back in the cool dark pipe, Peter and I showed each other our private parts. When we got back to the beach it was late afternoon. The tide was out and it was still hot. We went swimming, wading out for what seemed forever while waves lapped around our knees. When I got home, Mum was worried sick-not being able to find me, she had called the police. The beach is a zone beyond morality- a place we can walk about semi-naked, lie our bare skin on the sandy ground, dig our fingers and toes into the earth. The rules and regulations of home and school seem to melt in the sun and run into the sand. And we are left, exposed to the elements, feeling closer to Nature and to our own bodies, my fair skin freckling . The lapping waves, the porous ground, the echoes of voices in drainage pipes, send tremors through the body which refract a sexuality. How can one speak of moral strength, of fortitude, except from that far shoreline with its liminal childhood desires? We have not in the least liberated sexuality, though we have, to be exact, carried it to its limits: the limits of consciousness, because it ultimately dictates the only possible reading of our unconscious; the limit of the law, since it seems the sole substance of universal taboos; the limit of language, since it traces that line of foam showing just how far speech may advance upon the sands of silence .... sexuality is a fissure-not one that surrounds us as the basis of our isolation or individuality, but one that marks the limit within us and designates us as a limit.1

It was easy to believe in fortresses, to allow the inscription of moralities, when living at the limits of Nature-the beach was a constant gift of 'freedom' and 'wholeness'. The city of Brisbane with its coastlines to the north and south and the islands of Moreton Bay where we all escaped, to holiday, relax, and unwind, orchestrate a dialectical geography-city-beach; vertical -horizontal; fortress-shoreline. Redcliffe was a failed city, a sad suburb, and its beaches were not holiday spots. Perhaps, in this grey zone, dialectical reason can be undone. One day, a man came up to Peter and me and asked us for a tour of the beach, wanting to know where our favourite hiding places were. After a time, he drew us in behind some bushes and dropped his pants. He proceeded to stroke his dick. He asked whether I'd ever seen one of them before. I said yes and that Peter had one. The man was surprised and a little taken aback because he thought Peter was a girl (it was the seventies and Peter had long hair). But he continued nevertheless and he asked me whether I wanted to touch it. I declined his offer but continued to watch with sorne fascination. After he ejaculated and started to zip himself back up, Peter and I proceeded to run all the way home. I related the incident to my mother. I remember telling her that 'all this white stuff came out of his penis' and her correcting me and saying 'you mean clear'. Later I had to tell the story again to the police.

On the day that sexuality began to speak and to be spoken, language no longer served as a veil for the infinite; and in the density it acquired on that day, we now experience finitude and being. In its dark domain we now encounter the absence of God, our death, limits, and their transgression.2 It would be easy to say that this beach encounter reinforced a moral inscription ('stranger danger') and a retreat to the fortress of home. But looking back now I am aware of an opposite movement. His adult male sexual presence was bizarre, monstrous, and captivating. And because there was no violence, or rape, or coercion, the contact passed over me as a shadow-not opening a space (a wound), but, for an instant, collapsing one. In that fractured encounter, I became entangled with my own Other, in its grotesque similitude, its intimate foreign-ness. ('How does this man's curiosity and perversity compare to my own and Peter's?', asked my nine-year-old mind, 'My mother has seen male semen too'. ). From then I think I knew that the beach did not give me freedom, or Nature, or wholeness-simultaneously I relinquished the possibility of moral certitude. I was simply playing at the limits of an imposed understanding of human-ness which was all too impoverished; playing at the limits of being.

The fortress on the shoreline is ruined. But the walls still stand. We cling to them nostalgically, erotically. Where once they harboured the authority of king and state, of law and order, of God and Divine Will , now they lie empty. But though the king is dead, long lives the king in the virtual fortresses of our contemporary selves. We believe that we announce ourselves, speak our thoughts, harbour desires and secrets, and bear ideas, from a mental space all our own, where we rule with sovereignty over those 'other' foreigners within. There are, in this age of information flows and ever-changing fashions, fast food and freeways, speed and smack, reproduction and distribution, underlying architectures of fortification. They are the personal walls of our own subjectivity and perhaps, in a contemporary culture of bombardment, they have never been stronger, more inflexible, more impenetrable. This is not the fortitude I am searching for. This fortitude I continue to reject.

How does one live walled alive in oneself? Playing at the shifting shoreline of being-knowing its limits only to transgress them again? Is it possible not to speak as sovereign '1', but rather to visit the shore where language fails , the place where words escape us, where we as speaking subjects vanish? Can Brisbane listen to its coastlines, understand the grotesque similarity, the intimate foreignness which they all share with it? Can the pulse which radiates from its centre refract back in a moment of elision? In a world in which the Other has collapsed , the aesthetic task ... amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless 'primacy' constituted by primal repression. Through that experience which is nevertheless managed by the Other, subject and object push each other away, confront each other, collapse and start again-inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject.3

Like Kristeva I believe the task we face is an aesthetic one. Aesthetic precisely because aesthetics are no longer separable from ethics. Do I see a faint glimmer of the 'moral strength' for which I have been searching? Do we in fact require, at this historical moment, fortitude of a different kind? We cling to the belief that art is created in the fortress, that it announces the 'I', that form is created from nothingness, that art requires a frame. We are still so very much trapped in dialectical reason. I am part of a profession which acquires and frames, catalogues and explains art.

But if there are no walls really, if the sovereign is dead and the fortress empty? We should not be concerned that art can be, indeed has been, divested of that language that has been historically 'natural' to it-languages of creativity, individuality, authorship, expression-discourses of the centre and the self. What we experience is not the death of art, but an art which is able to regain its own speech and find itself again in the margin, within its very borders. Art becomes then, in one movement, both a pure metalanguage and the concrete darkness within language, its blindness. Since Duchamp's urinal, art announces its own frame and its own death. lt is both critique and ontology- at once force and form, denaturalising. lt is an other language-between pipes and perverts I ran with it. I follow its course still.

notes: 

1. Michel Foucault, 'A Preface to Transgression', Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucaulc Vol. 2

(ed. james Faubion), pp. 69-70.

2. ibid., pp.85-86.

3. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an essay on objection. Columbia University Press, New York, 1982, p. 18.