Brad Buckley

Etiquette
Artspace, Sydney
30 October – 22 November 2003

The object reproduced for the invitation of this exhibition, and then painted huge on the wall of the gallery in simplified cartoon-like contours, is an intriguing contraption. Neither stool nor settee, the grace of its gold ormolu and delicate silk upholstery seem at odds with two things that spring like antennae and, below, what look a lot like stirrups. Before I visited Brad Buckley’s installation, Etiquette, I stared at the thing over and over again, and must say, found it pleasantly unfamiliar. Was it some aristocratic conceit? A sculpture perhaps, or some Koonsian mock-Baroque remake? Almost right. It is what was known in French nineteenth century bordellos as a seige d’amour, a ‘love seat’, more properly known in Britain as a ‘rogering chair’, a custom-built device used in brothels that was literally an ornate harness used to keep women in position while clients did their business. Whether you choose to grimace or snigger at this, such images for Buckley are specifically encoded, emblems which are to do with the exchange of power.

Etiquette was chamber red on the outside and densely black within. Before entering, you met a trio of suspended red sheets, like the generic signs of authoritarianism. Around each of the two pylons that divided the space inside were white neon hoops placed just below waist height. The far wall was filled with a text relating some pornographic male fantasy. Part of it read, ‘she knew I had always wanted to fuck her and perhaps tonight was the night. There was only one catch, which was she wanted to piss in my mouth first’. You were abruptly transported into frivolous libertinage. Buckley uses sex as the site for the articulation of power, since sex is what is both primordial and socially inscribed with taboos, that is, simultaneously ever-present and concealed. While sex is what, biologically speaking, makes us, it is also the activity richest in metaphors and behavioural expectation, hence etiquette.

For Buckley, since everyone is haunted by covert desires of possession—or even sexual defilement—which far fewer of us end up realising, the psychology of seduction is the fundamental scene of political exchange. Seduction is traditionally an insidious strategy of attraction which suggests a corrupting influence on a chaste body or mind. The art and literature of the eighteenth century, ironically the century that witnesses some of the most major shifts in the distribution of individual power, is rife with the intrigues of debaucher on debauchee. The art of seduction, which is the point that Buckley takes up, lies in a series of ruses which lull the object of seduction into the delusion of trust. Once the seducer has taken what he wants, recourse is impossible. This is the relationship Buckley draws upon in this work, the concerns of which, although general and cross-cultural, are in this instance specifically related to Howardite politics and the Iraqi war.

The skill in the tone and tenor of Buckley’s text was the way it anticipated literal reading, and therefore a misrecognition that drew attention to people’s habitual prejudices. The buggering chair alluded to the fact that we are presently being held down and fucked by the right; the symbol of impotence against leaders whose concept of strength is aggression and arrogant denial. Buckley’s language of seduction can refer to the way the Iraqi war was delivered to us as something resembling a serialised wartime drama, or how the media is instructed to deliver messages which attempt to divert attention away from national anxiety, or political disquiet.

You knew in this installation that you were positioned within something with a discrete purpose. The dense black walls, interrupted only by two forms in white outline and the white text, bore no semblance to anything familiar or natural. Adding to the many ironies which the installation was built upon, the word used to identify the particular sort of white neon is named after another chaste heroine, Snow White, and is a glow characterised by its particular deadness. Everything about the exhibition appeared impeccably but exhaustively processed, a synthetic excess the bodily counterpart of which is the society dame who has surgically altered her body beyond recognition, or the repeat effect of pornography, which is to divorce the sexual act from any sense of humanity or compassion. The undercurrent of violence which flowed through the space was made palatable because of its sardonic edge, like a jester’s touch which abides by the maxim that many a true word is spoken in jest.

When you turned to leave, you encountered a mixed duality on either side. To the left, another white gargantuan outline of coitus; wryly in keeping with the text, the woman’s form is on top, though the power-relation is ambiguous since the exact nature of penetration is left open. To the right of the exit, at shoe-level, in block capitals, was the declaration, ‘WAR IS PEACE’. Buckley, an outspoken advocate of Republicanism, is a rare artist who ardently seeks to expose the perversions of power, and to express aversions in the name of those who, despite a democracy, are silenced. President Bush, after all was elected by a numerical minority. We can do nothing to prevent an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state. The aim of Buckley’s work is not to pose solutions, rather its semantics expose more clearly the side the viewer is on: some of us may empathise with the feeling of collective political buggery, others, insensate, may just let out a loud guffaw.