Whatever happened to the unconscious? Among artists and their critics, no one much uses the category anymore, to explain their work or to glamorise it. And yet, there was a time when art theory and criticism fizzed with passion for the uncanny, the abject and the oedipal. Has the psychoanalytic moment passed?
If anyone attracted that frisson earlier in her career it was Pat Brassington. She remains one of Australia’s major digital artists, but whereas her work was first claimed for women’s art under licence to psychoanalytic readings, it has more recently modulated into Australian Surrealism and even Dark MOFO. Regarding her work is a study in the changing fashions of theory.
Pat Brassington: The Body Electric at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), offered a potted history of Brassington’s work, put together from the Gallery’s holdings. It was muted and without some of her more flamboyant pieces. It nevertheless traced an itinerary.
At the time of Brassington’s retrospective, A Rebours [against the grain], in 2012 at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne, a Sydney Morning Herald article repeated what is commonly known about the digital artist and photographer: that she was influenced by her study of gender and psychoanalysis as a mature-age student in the 1980s at the then Tasmanian School of Art.
Anne Marsh’s monograph on Brassington (2006) utilised the critical tools of scholarship at the intersection of feminist theory, psychoanalysis and postmodern cinema, to make a detailed reading of the work.1 At the time, these tools would have been compelling as a way to address Brassington critically—no review would have been complete without reference to Freud’s theory of the uncanny and Julia Kristeva’s of the abject.
That was then. Brassington’s work still harbours affects of the uncanny and the abject, but today it is alternatively described as ‘quirky’, ‘disturbing’ and even as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’.
Mark Bunyan, writing for the blog Art Blart, accused the ACCA retrospective of being disappointing and the work of being ‘dated’.2 This is an important symptom of the present critical moment. Perhaps theorists in general want to move on, and let psychoanalysis and its esoteric post-structuralist elaboration return to the niche of recondite curiosity.
If the hyperventilating of its theoretical vocabulary was at times wearing, how else are we to capture the sense of an art practice that works with resistances, and with logic larger than the rational? Or is it feminism that is dated? This is more ominous, because Brassington’s work tilts toward a world of intimate violence that has no representation within the apparently rational categories of neo-liberal economics, sociology and demographics.
So much of Brassington’s work is about theory—about Freud, and art theory and the pretensions of it. Her work is full of in-jokes about art history, like the dying flowers in Gifted (2013)—a dig at nature morte, the still life, beloved of art historians.
Gifted is an incomparable condensation of the pathos of the dead and gone—dead flowers on an unkempt grave in a suburban cemetery, funereal vases on hall tables in old wooden houses. And rendered in a colour sometimes called sanguine, a pink-to-red which is the tone of flesh and blood and pretty much the only colour in Brassington’s palette.
Patterned wallpaper, dingy carpet, grubby voile curtains, faded sprigs on linen are drawn from a dismal domestic liturgy of the fifties. In My mother’s House (1994) renders childhood as a kind of history. The images—like most of Brassington’s—carry ambivalence as their crucial quality. Formal beauty overlays dread or misery. Ambivalence in psychoanalytic theory is read as the presence together of conflict and contraries, and Brassington’s work is electric with these—love and fear, beauty and deformation.
Anne Marsh, in her monograph, offered a detailed discussion of the Oedipal resonances of this work and of related pieces like In My Father’s House (1992). It was plausible. But the Freudian is easily misunderstood. Brassington’s art is not personal; Marsh comments that while Brassington’s work draws on the family album, ‘it is rarely autobiographical and never self-expressive’.
Does the work judge or merely record the formal metonymy of posies on pillows, underwear and walls? What does the flower repress? The importance of a series as a primitive syntax is perhaps at its most successful in this work, so damning of the claustrophobic life of the traditional family. Many have pointed to the pillow as representative of smothering, both mother love and literal infanticide. Medical photography signifies past ignorance but also the pathology of the familial arrangement. And over it all hangs the musty smell of Freud’s A Child Is Being Beaten (1919).
Like other Tasmanian cultural producers, Brassington has recently been enrolled in the Tasmanian Gothic. Old houses and old materials—Hobart still retains more of this past than anywhere in Australia, as uncurated as it comes, even while the crooked houses of Battery Point are renovated for upmarket Airbnb. It seems Tasmania is now sufficiently in command of its demons to claim the mantle of disturbing darkness as a tourism pitch, an atmospheric thing, and a marketing ploy.
Of course there was a Tasmania once that was a place where things got seriously creepy, where violence and neglect was the norm. The label ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ began as a critical gloss on nineteenth century writing of its history of cruelty and hardship. Colonialism was harsh in Tasmania—Port Arthur, Macquarie Harbour, the New Norfolk Asylum, the Cascades Female Factory. Before it was redeemed as a movement, this past was abject in the ordinary sense of the word, and sometimes hard to witness.
Tasmania knows some terrible things that are covered over in the spin-speak of the lonely planet, in the tourist-lust for quaint old-fashioned towns that signify real estate bargains, not claustrophobic loveless neglect. Marketing campaigns devise a destination in which the past is charming not menacing, and wilderness is something you can always find a way out of in time for five o’clock drinks. Tasmania is of course also astoundingly beautiful—the seascapes and the wilderness, so vividly open to the elements, now adorn much of its contemporary art.
New work of Brassington’s speaks to that Gothic. The Branching (2015), recently acquired by the AGNSW and featured in The Body Electric, retains characteristic cinematic parallels but seems to step away from the visceral quality of earlier work.
Edward Colless wrote in the catalogue essay for A Rebours, in Brassington’s images ‘we are directed to squirm yet savour their cruel eccentricities, to command this connoisseurship of the creepy… its sinister playful surfeit of spectral horror’.3 He reminds us Brassington’s work uses the image like the rebus, which is the Freudian interpretation of dreams. Her vocabulary of images is repeated across a mute plane. Like the feeling had in a dream of being unable to cry out, the latent message is urgent, the manifest surface encrypted.
Vocabulary and syntax; the repetition of her visual elements, put together as grids and series, gesture toward associations of ideas. The cinematic, being a consequence of seriality, is all about syntax. Perhaps that is why as early as 1987–88 in Cumulus Analysis (included in this show) cinema stills were arranged with medical images. And now in Branching the repetition in the woman and the tree, references the cinematic and its peculiar way of putting together images to manufacture narratives.
But despite her use of seriality, Brassington is not about narrative. In Marble Halls #1 (2003) offers a portrayal of mental distress in a figure doubled up before voile curtains that are transubstantiated by sunlight. But just as the dream is not a story, her collections assemble—they do not resolve.
Quill (2013), along with its angst-ridden series The Permissions #1-#6, reprises earlier work like In My Mother’s House. But now the images, while undeniably beautiful, are more a reference to something remembered than seen for the first time. Their closeness to the European traditions of surrealism and absurdism—there are echoes of Magritte and Man Ray—are marked. (One can also see the reference to surrealism in Pair Bonding (2016) that won the Redlands Konica Minolta Prize for an established artist.) A place was found for Brassington in the outline of Australian Surrealism in the 2015 National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes.
The images of The Permissions also engage associations of the permissiveness redolent in Surrealism’s corpus. Perhaps they do so as critique. The images dwell on those things for which the child is permission; things extorted in illicit touching, upskirting and the correlative demand to pretend not to notice, or to say nothing to others.
The teddy and the rabbit leer out of Brassington’s series like creatures who saw too much. The uncanny traditionally involved dolls and toys in a half-life of animation, as Freud wrote of Hoffmann in his 1919 essay on the subject. In its 1980s revival, the feminine as uncanny was not lost on feminist writers like Angela Carter and has featured in other women’s art, like Cindy Sherman’s and Patricia Piccinini’s, which are also slanted toward commentary.
Permissions lacks the menace of earlier incarnations, like In My Mother’s House and In Marble Halls. The pillow is still present, but now it is a mere sign of itself stretched over the eyes (it has become a recurring piece of her vocabulary) in a ‘sightless gag’. No longer the horror of child abuse; only its tincture for those who have read the grammar of the earlier works.
The headless wedding dress of Drink Me (1997, printed 2002) may stand as a commentary for heterosexuality, the retching bride suffering perhaps from morning sickness, but also from revulsion at the whole unwholesome bargain of marriage. And the gnome? The baby/penis of Freud, but also the joke bearer of ‘gnomic’ wisdom perhaps (as in, where do babies come from?).
The body as abject is visible but encrypted throughout Brassington’s work. In a related image, The Wedding Guest (2005) (not in this exhibition), the perversion is explicit in the pink flesh of a tongue/scrotum emerging from beneath a white satin train. Repeated images of abject body part-objects in the folds of a groin, the tautness of a stockinged thigh, stained underwear, etcetera, recur in Brassington as a relay of the scandal of flesh. To a large extent The Body Electric left out this horror, hanging the wedding dress image without bodily intrusions. But those who have been watching know what that pearl sheen disguises.
The more famous Akimbo (1996) made explicit what the white satin occludes; the gaping maw of a red vulva opening un-seam-ly in the front of the gown. This image has become acclaimed in feminist theory, as Marsh writes. But Drink Me is an important refinement; the two images need each other.
In many ways, Brassington tracks theory’s fashion like a thieving magpie taking off with shiny things. Freud’s idea of the dream as a rebus, of images held by a web of private associations barely visible beneath the surface, his conviction about the psychical power of emotional significance become oblique by weight of what it is conventionally forbidden to say or to see.
Kristeva, feminist psychoanalyst and semiotician, writes of the powers of horror to be felt in bodily excrescence and abjected flesh. There is plenty of this, from time to time, in Brassington’s work. And perhaps also Gilles Deleuze’s logic of sensation, adapted from his views on the painter Francis Bacon; certainly his reflections on cinema as the art of repetition. Then there is Mikhail Bakhtin’s revelling in carnivale and the grotesque; there is Georges Bataille’s deployment of the obscene, and even Slavoj Žižek’s enjoyment of perversion, and so on. There is quite a pedigree possible here.
But just what does this prove, now that post-structuralist fever has abated? What has happened to the unconscious? It has become again culturally latent, figured but obscured by the talk of the Surrealists and the Museum of Old and New Art and the Gothic.
The images remain to stir us, to unsettle and perhaps to alarm. Only the gnome gives the game away. The creepy uncanny, the threat of incest, the dreariness of a world of stunted choices or no choice at all. The formal quality, that makes the images work, also cloaks the savage, and the uncivilised appears dressed up in over-civil tropes. Everything in the work is dressed up, especially in theory. And under the surface, the discomfort of the thyroidal throat—the mute, the perverse, the violated, the strangled cry. The shout of laughter, breaking like a fart from straining titles. The prick of fear in the look of obscenity.
Anne Marsh writes, ‘our fears peer back at us’. Brassington’s remarkable art comes out of extremity, although so beautifully and coolly finished that it is possible not to dwell on it. Proselytising is far from Brassington’s images, yet we feel their ambivalence.
This is the studied brilliance of Brassington’s regard.
In my mother’s house, 1994. One of four gelatin silver photographs, each 52 x 35.5cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 1996. © Pat Brassington. Photograph Ray Woodbury, AGNSW.
Drink me, 1997, printed 2002. Inkjet print, 100.2 x 80.2cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Amanda Love 2011. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. © Pat Brassington. Photograph Nick Kreisler, AGNSW.
Candie from the series Quill, 2013. Ink jet print, 59.6 x 43.5cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Anonymous Gift 2015.
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. © Pat Brassington. Photograph Felicity Jenkins.
The Branching, 2015. 2 pigment prints, diptych, 94 x 130cm each. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Endowment Fund, 2015. © Pat Brassington. Photograph Nick Kreisler, AGNSW.
1. Anne Marsh, Pat Brassington, Quintus Publishing, 2006.
2. Mark Bunyan, Art Blart, 16 September 2012. See artblart.com/2012/09/16/review-pat-brassington-a-rebours-acca-melbourne/. Accessed 26 October 2017.
3. Edward Colless, ‘A Rebus’, in Pat Brassington: À Rebours (Dr. Edward Colless and Juliana Engberg) 7-11, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2012, p.10.
Pat Brassington: The Body Electric was exhibited 16 August 2017 – 11 February 2018 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Robyn Ferrell is a Canberra-based art historian and writer.