Impenetrable intimacies: the body as a fever dream

the body as a fever dream, 2020. Installation view. Work by Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Sheri Osden Nault, and B Wijshijer in view. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

the body as a fever dream

Xpace Cultural Centre

October 9 – November 7, 2020

Séamus Gallagher, Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Sheri Osden Nault, Camille Rojas, Lauren Runions, and B Wijshijer

Curated by Dallas Fellini

By Dana Snow

The back of my head rests at a right angle on shutters made of composite wood pulp, craning at my laptop screen—I have forgotten about good posture. Trapezius muscles in my neck hold the tension of overdue bills and the strain of a heavy grocery load. The sharpness in my tailbone presses into my partner’s firm mattress. My hamstrings are taut after a morning run in old sneakers. In the privacy of the bedroom, my body belongs to me, supporting and warming the person asleep next to me. I am fully present, existing on my own terms. I am safe from consumption.

The body as a fever dream teeters between thresholds of the corporal, constricting and constructing form. Spectral absences refuse the optical cannibalism lurking around every sightline in the gallery space. I have seen many exhibitions on the Body — in its academicized capital B — it has become synonymous with an essential identity, co-opted most frequently by a cis-white feminist framework.¹ The body as a fever dream works outside of this history, centring the body as an opaque form; one that honours trans experience. Using elements of absence, refusal and opacity, the exhibition refigures the body as something that exists in the slash between either/or, granting self-governance to a form that has historically been framed under the cisgender gaze.

Séamus Gallagher, THINKING OF YOU THINKING OF ME. Video. 2019. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Scarlet LCD screen emissions beckon me into the gallery—I think of Sara Cwynar’s Red Film first. An examination of ideal cosmetic femininity under late-stage capitalism, Red Film’s didactic lines have stuck with me the most: “Remember that dull scanners and digital cameras have problems with highly saturated reds.” Artist Séamus Gallagher plays with these “problems” in THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF ME. After an opening close up of artificial flowers printed on foam core, the camera cuts to ersatz velvet red shower curtains in the middle ground. Gallagher emerges as their drag persona, Sara Tonin, dripping in ruby sequins. Her Oz-worthy strapless dress blows out the focus on the torso of her performer, focusing the viewer’s attention on her paper maquillage. Under her mask, she— or perhaps Gallagher—speaks to biological “cheap imitations” in animal behaviour. Sara Tonin is a construction of mimetic lust. She moves just beyond reach, a technicality away from tangibility. “I am thinking of you, thinking of me. Watching myself the way you watch me.” In the wash of reds, I can’t tear my eyes away from her face, her décolletage. Gallagher’s use of red is a formal refusal to be completely captured as an object of desire. It’s a performed understanding of the freedom afforded by elusiveness — a refusal that grants breathing room. I think about my own red slip, a silky garment that lays in a whisper against my skin. A reminder of sensuality against exposed flesh that stretches over my bones and often feels like it does not belong to me, especially when it is on view. Wearing the garment becomes a literal exposure therapy. I think it is my form of a cheap imitation, that I am playing a vision of a woman that I will never be. But it also means that I do not have to truly reveal myself, I remain unwounded through performance. I re-watch THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF ME hoping that I will catch a glimpse of Gallagher revealing an aspect of themself, something that will point me to the person behind the performance. I am unable to find anything.

Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Net Interface. Forest-green privacy netting, button thread, brass grommets. 2019. Photo Credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Eija Loponen-Stephenson’s Net Interface leaks into my space before I can tear myself away from Sara Tonin. A wheat-pasted image of a construction shroud veils while Sara bares her collarbones. As I wander over to the installation, I think that it might be out of place, until I see the four drooping gloves protruding like weeds from the netting. I feel like I am intruding on this work, like a voyeur unable to access their subject. Within the folds that reach the floor, I find a knuckly plaster mass. Sheri Osden Nault’s Mimic, Lake Ontario offers relief, an assurance that my own body is not implicated to fill the vacant gaps in the work.

The two installation pieces lap at each other’s edges in the gallery space. They contain complimentary absences— while the site-specific images of Net Interface sever a body into limbs, Mimic, Lake Ontario materializes the body as a larger contextual whole in the space. As I walk around gently heaped piles of sand, I imagine the animate plaster peeking through to have spindly roots, a nearly neural network of connection between the islands in the gallery. The piles lead me to Hold, a sculptural work from Osden Nault using the same technique of cast plaster fingers inside a burrowed-in log. Corroded by insect trails, the work centers the embedded remnants of bodies reliant on one another. I am looking at the intersection between the human artist and the movements of insects as artists in their own right, one tracing another’s presence. I am reminded that I am not the sole being in the gallery space. Underneath my feet and poured concrete flooring there is soil, microbes, water. I am reminded of the mask I am wearing in the gallery to keep out virulence, and the open wound in my hand the sanitizer sears into upon entry—we are all embroiled together. In the unease, I recognize the intimacies of interconnection.

Sheri Osden Nault, Hold. Log, plaster, acrylic medium, epoxy resin. 2017. Photo credit: Roya DelSol
Sheri Osden Nault, Sovereign Bodies 01. Found wood, human hair, epoxy, nylon rope.
2018. Photo Credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Sovereign Bodies 01 hangs within the sightline of Hold, the boughed found wood and human hair evoke a closed eye with lashes looking over their fleshy parts. Osden Nault’s works contain what feminist scholar Donna Haraway would call a “becoming-with…  the cat’s cradle games in which those who are to be in the world are constituted in intra- and interaction.”² The independent works become an involved landscape. If Net Interface asks you to fill its voids, Hold, Mimic, Lake Ontario and Sovereign Body 01 interpellate the viewer’s body into their becoming. In their use of abstraction and union with the non-human, Hold and Mimic, Lake Ontario deny a singular corpus, allowing a horizontal relationship to the other bodies of the landscape (including the viewer’s) to emerge. I cannot distance myself from the objects as a singular viewer to gaze at the landscape the works create. I can only become a subject with an impact in their world.

B Wijshijer, How to Edit Your Selfies. Video. 2019. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

B Wijshijer’s How to Edit Your Selfies flashes west of Hold, jarring the world it has built for me. The artist sifts through filters on FaceApp, a popular application used to swap genders and ages, predominantly for social media posts. After each filter a screenshot is taken, moving Wijshijer further and further away from their origin point. Over time, the face of the artist becomes exponentially more bizarre, unrecognizable by mid-film and at the end, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s suffering figures. Wijshijer’s face is not absorbed by the algorithm, but defiant to the cis, neoliberal “beautiful” versions of the self the app was created to produce. In their exhibition essay, curator Dallas Fellini describes Wijshijer’s transformations as “monstrous.” As I embrace my own femme identity, monstrousity is somewhere I feel most comfortable. Tracing the scholarship of Judith Butler, the monstrous is “a way of writing ourselves out of the ‘bind’ of gender binaries, heteronormative desires and traditional forms of kinship.”³ Wijshijer has written themself out of the teleological nature of cis beauty the app promises to deliver, and into a cyborgian realm of possibility. How to Edit Your Selfies feels like a finale to Gallagher’s THINKING OF ME, THINKING OF YOU, a performance of data mined mimicry stretched beyond recognition.  A mutated, distorted face is one that has agency over its aesthetic co-optation, one that cannot be easily digested — it is what I would call a “power move.”

Quartet with “Net Interface” and “Mimic, Lake Ontario”, Performed by Camille Rojas and Lauren Runions. Work by Sheri Osden Nault and Eija Lopponen-Stephenson. Photo credit: Philip Leonard Ocampo. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

             Quartet with “Net Interface” and “Mimic, Lake Ontario” punctuates the exhibition in its notable absence of action. The only ephemera left from the performance between Camille Rojas and Lauren Runions are fingers scraped through the sands of Mimic, Lake Ontario. The atemporal aspect of the performance is a spectre in the gallery, stretching from far before I arrived when the act took place, and realized in a video work I pulled up from the comfort of my own home. I could describe the curious movements made by Rojas and Runions, inhabitants of the work and the space before I, or any other viewer for that matter, saw the work. I could speak to their loving cradling of Mimic, Lake Ontario or I could tell you about the playful insights bodies in movement bring to Net Interface. But I think the work is at its strongest in its frustrating inaccessibility. What the viewer can know in the space is that an activation took place, but until they seek it out for themselves, they cannot see through anything but its remnants. In its frustrating opacity, Quartet is whole—a completely inconsumable body of work, a haunting refusal to be present. It reminds me that as you read my words, I am not the voice that exists in your head. Or, that I am becoming another as you digest me. And I can exist as both, unburdened.

¹Anj Fermor, “The Feminine, The Grotesque and the Reclaimed,” Canadian Art, November 24, 2020. 

²Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4-5

³Judith Butler, “Afterword.” In Animating Autobiography: Barbara Johnson and Mary Shelley’s Monster. (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2014) 40.

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