CEREBELLUM

The Performance Space, Sydney (in assoc. with Sydney 2002 Gay Games)
1-30 NOVEMBER 2002

The cerebellum, I understand, is largely responsible for the human body's motor facilities, having always been represented in counter-distinction to the 'thinking brain' that is responsible for the higher faculties, those traditionally associated with what distinguished us as humans - abstract thought, moral perception, rationality. The cerebellum, in other words, has languished in a somewhat lesser category, closer to the animal world, associated more with body than with mind. A very fitting title, therefore, for this exhibition of three video works by Australian, American and European artists, which place body and gesture at the very core of human identity.

Both Charles Atlas' 'Teach' - a documentation of legendary Australian drag performer Leigh Bowery lip-synching to Aretha Franklin 's 'Take a Look' - and Monica Tichacek's 'Lineage of the Divine' comprise, at one level, careful and incisive studies of gesture. In 'Teach', Bowery is shot at mid-close range with dark hair in a topknot and face in stage make-up. The key feature, however, is his mouth: he is wearing a set of plastic lips from his costume collection that is literally pinned to his face through piercings in his cheeks. In the first rendition of Franklin's soul lament about the poor state of race relations, Bowery's plastic lips are fixed in a voluptuous smile. No matter what the content of the lyrics, no matter what the performer's emotional state, his face is forced into a celebrity publicity pose. The eyes and head attempt to shake off the shackles, but the viewer's attention is focused on the mouth as it struggles to remain faithful to the soundtrack. In the second rendition, Bowery wears plastic lips closed into a resolute pout. Here, the performer's gestures become more extreme, his shoulders visibly slumping, his eyes rolling in frustration. The restrictions Bowery places on his performance, the plastic lips underlining the fact that the drag performer's voice has already been supplanted by a pre-recorded track, form an ingenious and moving strategy to consider the manufacture of identity through gesture and indeed the strictures of any form of identity.

Tichacek's video creates a complex and visually sumptuous narrative. We are introduced to a character who, like Bowery, foregrounds the manner in which gesture and composure construct identity. This figure is harnessed into a pink, body hugging 1950s tailored suit, blonde hair in a net, lips, again, overripe and gleaming. While all the obvious markers are of femininity, their almost hysterical register raises suspicions about the 'true' gender of the figure. 'She' walks in small steps dictated by the tightness of her skirt and precariousness of her shoes, lips pouting, eyes betraying a keen awareness of being watched. She scans the room, which also screams feminine cliche, its walls studded pink satin, recalling a padded cell as much as a frou-frou bed-head. Through selected use of close-ups and slow pans that bleed shades of pink into the gallery, it is gradually revealed that this figure is contemplating another, who lies sleeping, attired in identical clothes. The figures are conjoined by their hair that loops and weaves around the room, not unlike an umbilical cord, although one composed of the superficial trappings of 'beauty': unnaturally blonde hair switches. The sleeping figure eventually wakes when the other plies her face, which she nurses in her lap; under her pink suit she is wearing flesh-coloured prosthetic casings on her limbs and torso.

Tichacek creates a tableau that recalls Frida Kahlo's self portraits, in particular The Two Fridas, where the artist represents herself as two women, separate but inseparable, sharing blood and holding hands, but riven by cultural contradictions (one wears indigenous Mexican garb, the other the high-collared lace of Spanish dress). Kahlo, renowned for her sexual ambiguity, made a virtue of her ravaging physical disability, exquisitely aestheticising the prosthetics she relied on by decorating them or incorporating them into her compositions. This aestheticisation, and extreme feminisation, of prosthetics, pain and incapacity, of dependence and strictured movement, also has a strong presence in Tichacek's work. This sense of the narrow margin for self-assertion is echoed later in the video's loose narrative, when the first figure lip synchs and shimmies in classic sex siren style to 'Secret Love', Doris Day's hit song that was later to become emblematic of closet lesbianism. The figure appears fated to perform this ritual of celebrity sexual tease; unable to speak her own language, she is forced to communicate through the gesture of cultural stereotypes.

The gesture of sexual and class identity is also a focus in the exhibition's two remaining works, Raw Sewage's 'Walk this Way' and The Kingpins' 'Versus'. Both of these are video clip spoofs of the Run DMC/Aerosmith collaboration of the mid-1980s, 'Walk this Way', the title itself a play on mimicking, following cultural Instruction. Raw Sewage comprises a male trio (one of whom is Leigh Bowery), dressed in bizarre combinations that cross stripper-gram with primitivism, straddling various fast-moving cityscapes. The Kingpins comprises a female trio of 'drag kings', cross-dressed in rapper gear, complete with gold teeth (although looking more Ali G than Tupac Shakur), adorned by busty blonde flesh revealing 'arm candy'. The two videos face each other across the gallery, humorously playing off each other's outrageous stereotypes and cavorting in bad taste, but also drawing attention to the movement, gesture and costume that go to manufacture identity in a visually-obsessed culture.

Cerebellum represents an intriguing selection of videos at provoke questions about the margin for movement at the edge of personal and sexual identity. These works focus our attention on gesture and costume and the way these communicate to almost preclude or circumvent speech, thereby creating fertile ground to consider the prescriptions and demands of media-saturated, visually-dominated contemporary culture.