Rhapsody happens

The Kingpins
Artspace, Sydney
14 April – 7 May 2005

Emerging from the now legendary Sydney artists collective Imperial Slacks along with other newly significant artists such as Shaun Gladwell and Monica Tichacek, the all girl Kingpins have quickly acquired national and international visibility. This being Oz, getting a lot of favourable attention generally means also harvesting a whirlwind of vituperative commentary nourished in the toxic agar of peer group jealousy, miniscule public funding and limited exhibition possibilities: but not in this instance. Rhapsody Happens, which premiered recently at Artspace in Sydney, was the latest instalment in what for The Kingpins has become an extensive taxonomy of pheromone based mega fauna. Now it is the Biker who is espaliered in that immersive format extrapolated from equal parts video set, shallow panoramic space and old time cinema, that the Pins have made entirely their own. Go Girls! In Rhapsody Happens they have evolved beyond the three minute pop video model that characterised their earlier work while retaining not only some of that genre’s challenging disjunction between image and lyric but also its chaotic allegorical flux.

Drag used to mean the wearing by one sex of the vestmentary signifiers of the other, but more recently it has evolved into a way of renouncing the sovereignty of the ‘singular self’ in order to create a new space for a multiplicity of fictionalised personae usually suggested to us as ephemeral and elective identities by a variety of media sources. It is a centuries old romantic prototype—undead like the vampire, feasting preternaturally on a supine sub-cultural body conjured into being by music television, gothic cinema and public role playing, all sources that The Kingpins draw upon for what could be best conceptualised as a form of bricolage. A result of this pastiche-effect, more evident in this work than in earlier installations, is an indeterminacy of meaning which I perceived as a troubling ambiguity in their (un)articulated relationship towards their subject—firstly the biker and secondly the media modalities that they enunciate as a class of discursive social discourse. Consequently the biker in Rhapsody Happens is possibly just too many things—’Hell’s Angel drag-god’, ‘Western loner anti-hero’ and ‘Nordic Warrior’—to provide a consistent theoretical position that locates the work's meaning in what the press release describes as—’its silhouetted landscape of glittered boulders and electric highways’.

As Phillip Brophy points out in his phosphorescent catalogue essay ‘the hirsute brute of the biker is so desperately male that his performative energy creates a transformative field around his body’.1 It is precisely this nimbus of distorting hyper-masculinity or rather the formal and compositional possibilities of representing it that provides Rhapsody Happens’ most significant contribution to recent iconography—two inventive, formally seductive and occasionally unnerving totemic figures. Facing each other across an infinite freeway drawn across the gallery floor in converging rope lights is a new category of fabulae—pointed plastic animal nose on the chin of a head sometimes inverted, eyes over-large with leering and red with amphetamine abuse, elaborate pointed ears formed by someone’s elbows, a visceral garment of muscle under the obligatory leather jacket, talons in the form of elongated finger nails and an oversized goofy shoe with velvet roll up socks. As the biker is one with his machine these hybrid creatures are fused with a silver dusted dragster, which in one of those auto reflexive moments so characteristic of current art ironically evokes twisted sister memories of Ricky Swallow’s Commemorative Model, Peugeot Taipan.

Implicit both in the nature of the various subcultures that are the thematic of The Kingpins art and their relationship to these is the tendency to confuse ‘signifier with signified in its belief that the clothes which betoken gender also constitute it2, which is an issue they will need to resolve more thoroughly if they are to expand upon rather than operate with prevailing conventions. Historically masquerade and dressing up in general have possessed seditious implications and within Australian history the most obvious example is the transvestism of members of the Kelly gang. Specifically, in the present work, and over numerous of their projects, it is what Peggy Phelan identifies as dressing up’s capacity to function as a ‘means of investigating the politics of culture, knowledge and power’ that continues to animate the best in what the Pins do. 3 This facility remains, as it has always been, cordite detonating the irony bombs, which they use to engage with the privileged redouts in official art that reinforce the privileged visibility of the masculine, whiteness and the heterosexual. Their work continues to playfully propagandise the dominant international style as a form of product placement promoting positions that advocate western rather than multi-polar systems of value.

The Kingpins have argued that drag is an action, a highly cognitive and ultimately empowering strategy for dealing with the pervasive authority of a few select thematic and material models for cultural production emanating in the great metropolitan centres of the north Atlantic arc and imposed elsewhere as the default settings for all forms of creative expression. Whilst to my mind Rhapsody Happens is a flawed work—its parts never convincingly coalesce into a unitary whole—it is also deeply aspirational in its struggle to accommodate alternative and inventive forms of post-colonial mimesis. Quotation and citation are pre-requisites for obtaining curatorial attention so perhaps as John Kelsey remarked in a recent Art Forum ‘a “derivative” contemporary practice could be a kind of black market tactic, a dispersion strategy, a termite like hollowing out from within’.4 The Kingpins continue to develop a highly rhetorical and aestheticised discourse based around accessible forms of cultural critique in response to the elasticity of gender tokens that had hitherto been seen to be immutable. They posit that identity—individual, social and communal—is encountered as performance and therefore best re-represented as a thing ‘staged’ allowing for alternating layers of abstract and imitative characteristics to be deposited on top of the narrative that resists the death of context and the denial of place.

The Kingpins, Rhapsody Happens, 2005. Video installation, Artspace, Sydney. Courtesy the artists and Artspace.

notes: 

1. Phillip Brophy, Rhapsody Happens, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney, 2005, unpaginated.

2. Laurence Senelick, The Changing Room–sex, drag and theatre, Routledge, London & New York, 2000, p.2.

3. Peggy Phelan, ‘The Golden Apple: Jenny Livingston’s “Paris is Burning”’, in Unmarked, Routledge, London, p.94.

4. John Kelsey, ‘Russian Front’, Art Forum, April, 2005 p.189.