Tough Love

Liam Benson, Romi Graham, amira.h., Kate James, Tiffany Parbs, Fiona Roberts
Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide
8 June - 7 July 2012

The exhibition Tough Love, curated by Christine Morrow, begins with the whimsy of a suitcase filled with colourful knickers embroidered with the name of ‘exes’. Romi Graham’s homage to celebrity… Conquests (after Paris Hilton), the starting and ending point to the exhibition, lends lightness, if only in its riot of colours and patterns, to an otherwise disquieting exhibition. The gallery is partitioned; the lightness of the front room belies the unease that begins to grow as you move from work to work. The complexity of the works and the effect that they have deepens; what is going on here?

In the first room there is a visceral sense of unease. Tiffany Parbs’s Bond, a digital print of two people joined by the mouth with a glass tube, their spit pooling in a vial in the centre, conjures strange disgust—ridiculous when you think of the spit exchanged in a kiss. In her photograph beside Bond, a blister has formed in place of a wedding ring: has the wedding ring become too tight, rubbed too much, become restricting, or is the body trying to reject the infection of marriage?

Fiona Roberts’s Door Knocker continues the journey into disquiet with a horrifying brass head with a large knocker/ring protruding from its wide, screaming mouth in the place of a tongue. Roberts’s beautifully knotted whips are also in the front room. The whips are made from horse hair and constructed in a technique taught to prisoners in the United States, as occupational therapy. The red whip, is like a drop of blood against the gallery wall; the black one tightly knotted in on itself—the free flow of a horses tail bound into an instrument of bondage and punishment.

The final work in the front room is Kate James’s The world is a dangerous place which, although it has been exhibited before, is re-contextualised and perhaps given more power in this room full of anxiety and disquiet. Where in the past it has seemed to be a cosy communication between equine and human, in this new setting the woollen masks covering and joining the heads of both human and horse now seem restricting.

In the second room white noise from amira.h.’s three channel video projections Wedding Night: Drinking; Wanking; Sleeping fill the darkened space: the whole exhibition has the soundtrack of static, the sound of nothingness. In a darkened hotel room a bride is slowly getting drunk in the bridal suite, there are two champagne glasses beside the bed, pointing to an absence or loss. She gets drunk, gets into bed, masturbates and falls asleep; the sound track of nothingness apt for her lonely soliloquy.

Growth, also by Tiffany Parbs, sits just inside the threshold of the second room; a doubled wig luxuriously spread out on a round plinth and a digital print of two women (the artist and her sister) wearing it on the wall. Reminiscent of Japanese horror movies, Growth presents a relationship that has definitely gotten too close for comfort, veering into co-dependency and the loss of self; the terrifying closeness of relationships.

Romi Graham’s two other pieces added to the darkness of the second room: Untitled (After Rihanna) is a mug-shot of the artist made up with bruises that mimic those that pop-star Rihanna famously received from Chris Brown. In the catalogue essay curator Christine Morrow writes that Graham is bringing herself closer to the pop idol by ‘inhabiting her victimhood’, a rabid form of idolisation that also manifests in Graham’s Sleep (After Heath Ledger), where she has painstakingly drawn the stylised packaging of medication, recreating the pill boxes and plastic bubble packs of the drugs that Ledger was thought to have taken prior to his death. The boxes, logos drawn in what looks like texta, slightly smudged, look tired, old and depressed; celebrity souvenirs that have lost their shine.

In True Blue Liam Benson sings the John Williamson song ‘Hey true blue…’, while looking directly at the camera/viewer. The video work starts with Benson as the ‘average bloke’, his hair down, then slowly, in languid strokes, he transforms himself, pulls his hair back, finally putting on a glittery gold tiara with the Australian coat of arms on it. Like the song the work is somehow sad and extremely compelling, especially with Benson’s voice delivered directly into the ears through headphones. In Sirens Benson, waist deep in water, croons the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Dreams’ as multiple copies of himself rise out of the water behind him, humming along. There is a sense of the uncanny at play here, both in the duplications and in the way that water spirits can be both enticing and deadly.

This sense of the uncanny is prevalent throughout Tough Love. The co-dependant, dangerous, obsessive love presented in this collection of works is exaggerated, mundane and depressingly familiar. The artworks bring forth a whole gamut of emotions and responses: they are rich, enticing, sad, lonely, repressive, yet somehow they are also all quite removed, the overall lasting impression could possibly be defined as lack. Tough love, a term used by counsellors when it is time to let go, is reversed, implying perhaps, that staying in love is what is tough. The question is then: is it worth it?

Tiffany Parbs, growth, 2009. Human hair, cotton net. Courtesy the artist. 

amira.h., Wedding Night: Drinking, Wanking, Sleeping, 2011. Video still of Part II: Wanking. Three channel DVD. Courtesy the artist.