David Cross

City Gallery, Wellington
24 June – 31 July 2005

The overarching title of David Cross’s recent tripartite exhibition (video, photographs, performance), invites us to come Closer in the tone of a child-abductor with a bag of sweets. Although his work typically involves an exchange with the viewer, Cross disrupts any notion of conviviality by presenting himself in a disturbing light.

The subject of Closer, and all of Cross’s work, is the artist’s eyes. Born without tear ducts or mucus membrane lining, Cross keeps his eyes moist with ointment. As medicine mimics bodily secretions, the abject and the uncanny are evoked. Cross’s work pivots on these concepts and is further informed by, and questioning of, relational aesthetics—art as a kind of convivial social exchange. He critiques conviviality through mobilising Georges Bataille’s model of social cohesion as that animated by repulsion.

Each component of Closer generates a progressively tighter centrifugal force between attraction and repulsion. Occupying the outer perimeter of the centrifuge is the video series, Figure/Ground (2004). Three video projections show headshots of the artist and a series of young men each miming a vacant-gazed fashion parade. In the brochure accompanying the show Cross says that in this piece he is using repetition to blur binary distinctions between male beauty and ‘what you might consider to be my grotesque qualities’. However the opposition is not striking enough to need blurring, Cross’s self-confident stylishness precluding a grotesque reading.

In the adjacent room the detached, personable manner gives way to raw red eyes weeping like wounds from behind plastic Halloween masks in four large-format photographs. The discordant yellow, flesh pink and mauve tones are compellingly repulsive and seductive, the slimy textures activating not so much social cohesion as a carny’s entrapment. The powerful close-ups introduce a sense of unease and tension between artist and viewer that is felt most strongly in the performance piece, Bounce (2005), the centrifugal nucleus of Closer.

For one day during the last weekend of the show, the artist occupies a huge red bouncy ‘castle’ dominating the gallery foyer. Being given a leg-up onto the inflatable and crawling over to look into the eyeholes is kind of fun, if a little self-conscious making. With all one’s attention occupied on attempting to focus in the face of the draught blowing out of the holes, the impact of that uncanny moment of recognition is heightened. The sudden degree of intimacy afforded by meeting the artist’s eyes, realising you are lying along his body, makes the rest of the space/people disappear. The impact of that closeness is intensely unsettling as the seemingly familiar fairground ride turns on the viewer in a shocking and entirely personal way. The self-consciousness rushes back with the intimacy of the mute (on the artist’s part) exchange, driving one away.

The disturbing impact is further heightened when watching children tumbling over the artist’s concealed, prone body. Their play is punctuated by aggressive stomping on the eyeholes under which his face lies. This degree of violence drives gallery staff to intervene, reminding the children that a real person lies underneath. It is instructive to witness how the depersonalising effect of the fairground packaging incites the children to terrorise the person so packaged.

Cross’s intention to critique Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of conviviality and activate the uncanny is nowhere more powerfully realised than in those moments when the artist positions himself in real-time vulnerability, unmediated by the distance of representation afforded by the photographic and video work.

Julia Kristeva speaks about the abject as occupying liminal spaces in our body, the spaces where outside becomes inside, public private. This is the area where Cross’s work resonates most strongly and is what triggers the uncanny reflex, the moment of recognition and confrontation that is such a memorable aspect of his performance work. The sense of public/private transgression is activated when you are thrust into an intimate relationship with the artist’s body, the ‘speaking’, observing, communicating part, looking mutely back at you from the belly of the red ‘castle’, like Bataille’s wounded king, an object of attraction and repulsion animated by social power play.

The horror of watching the artist being casually brutalized by children in the gallery foyer, combined with the disconcerting impact of the artist’s disembodied, mute gaze, leave a lasting impression of a practitioner who is prepared to occupy vulnerable, uncomfortable territory in a successful critique of the friendly face of relational aesthetics. Instead of a hearty bowl of soup, we are offered a one-on-one confrontation with the abject.