Tough Conversations: (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc.

(un)happy objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrien Crossman.

(un)happy objects

Artcite Inc. Windsor, ON

October 15th – Nov 20th, 2021

By Adi Berardini

How one approaches tough conversations can be telling of who one truly is. When I first came out to my parents, I blurted out that I was queer while in the passenger seat of the car. I think that my reasoning behind this was that if there was a negative reaction, I could quickly escape after we had arrived. I worked up the scenarios in my head beforehand and often let the anxiety get the best of me. It’s a common desire to want to avoid difficult conversations for fear of rejection. Strategies, such as humour, can be used as a deflection for these anxiety-ridden conversations that are difficult to put into words.

Humour, intentional opacity, and inclusion versus exclusion, are demonstrated as themes in the exhibition (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc. featuring artists Madelyne Beckles, Vida Beyer, Kaythi, and Shellie Zhang, curated by Adrien Crossman. Through the framework of Sara Ahmed’s Happy Objects, which claims that we value an object based on how it affects us, orienting us towards what makes us happy and away from those that don’t,[1] the artists encourage viewers to face their anxieties around potentially “unhappy” topics relating to homophobia, racism, and white supremacy. As Édouard Glissant advocates for the “right to opacity” in Poetics of Relation, the oppressed, and those historically labelled as the “Other” should be allowed to be opaque, to not be completely understood, and to simply exist as different, challenging the reductive transparencies that classify others using dominant structures of worth.[1] Often referencing pop culture and focusing on text, the artists use accessible media such as textiles, video, and neon signs to address these topics.

Kaythi. Our Lady of Profound Failure. Photo by Adrien Crossman.

Walking into the exhibition, the first work I encounter is Kaythi’s Our Lady of Profound Failure, a brightly coloured rug that reads “DYKES ONLY.” The rug was created as part of a workshop on ‘Unwelcome Mats’ by artist and curator Lauren Cullen that introduced artists to rug hooking, featured in the exhibition Productive Discomfort at Xpace Cultural Centre. The piece features a figure in orange bent over with the text in black letters overlayed. At first glance, the rug reads as humorous, like a comment on how few lesbian spaces there are still surviving, carving out a specific queer-only space in a largely heteronormative world. The bent-over figure alludes to either prayer or oral sex. However, Kaythi is also interested in the politics behind lesbian-only spaces and how they have been exclusive to trans women through Trans Exclusionary Radical “Feminists” (TERFS) throughout history. Although the word dyke has been reclaimed, it’s also still a loaded term that resonates differently for everyone. As a femme, it also brings up some of my past feelings of discomfort in queer spaces, afraid that I seem out of place or simply not “queer enough.” The piece references the queer failures of the past, evoking potential feelings of inclusion and exclusion the phrase implies.

On the screen in the back left corner, the pastel aesthetic of Theory of The Young Girl by Madelyne Beckles brought me back to my teenage years, like a time machine back to my teenage bedroom. A large pink dice sits on the table and Beckles’ hand reaches out to touch a pink book with “theory” across the cover. While spraying her hair with hairspray, Beckles rehearses lines in response to the text Theory of the Young Girl by Tiqqun,[2] such as “When I was twelve, I decided to be beautiful.”[3] The film evokes the archetype of femininity as a cultural construction and its connection to heteronormative whiteness. In the panel discussion corresponding with the exhibition, Beckles explains how this work is connected to figuring out her place in femininity, particularly being mixed-race in her small town growing up.[4] The film juxtaposes the vapidness that one might attribute to sexist stereotypes of femininity with theory, commonly attributed to seriousness. Using humour, Beckles critiques how womanhood is prefabricated and marketed in a neoliberal society.

Vida Beyer. Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling. Photo by Nadja Pelkey.

Vida Beyer’s adjacent textile work Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling, mimics the overloaded sense of scrolling through the internet. Reminiscent of a karaoke night at a bar, the imagery spans from sensual lesbian hookups to song lyrics embroidered in the style of a karaoke sing-along. Beyer uses a mix of pop culture and more personal references, relying on intentional opacity which creates a sense of interest and intrigue. I couldn’t pinpoint the lyrics referenced at first, but after a google search, I determined that they are from “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears and an Alice Cooper song. Many queer people who have grown up in the digital age can relate to looking things up on the internet as a means of finding some connection, especially while growing up in the 90s and early 2000s when queerness was not as represented in mainstream media. This piece connects to Beckles’ Search Herstory work on the far back wall, which exposes her past search history in an act of vulnerability, bringing the personal into the public sphere. These media references connect communities that can otherwise feel disparate.

(Un)happy Objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrien Crossman.
Shellie Zhang. I am Terrified /我担心. Photo by Adrien Crossman.

Shellie Zhang’s piece, I am Terrified /我担心 consisting of a bright orange neon sign, addresses diaspora and intergenerational cultural erasure in western society. The piece reads: “I AM TERRIFIED THAT MY MOTHER WILL SEEM FOREIGN TO MY CHILDREN,” although there are two parts to this piece: one in Mandarin and the other part in English. The piece addresses white supremacy and cultural assimilation, and the anxiety of losing culture and shared understanding. Since they are displayed on two different walls, they also draw upon a sense of intentional opacity to some viewers because only viewers who understand Mandarin will understand the phrasing of the first sign.

In the exhibition panel, Zhang also explained how she was interested in how diasporic communities also use this sense of intentional opacity through shared experiences or jokes.[5] Her second work, It’s Complicated, reads “DIASPORAHAHA” In gigantic, gold lettering. If this seems like it’s something you’d view at an event, then you’ve guessed correctly since it was originally displayed at an event hosted by the queer Asian art collective, New Ho Queen.[6] Causing small rainbows to ricochet off the concrete, the glittery letters address using humour to relate through shared diasporic experiences and the sense of inclusion, and exclusion, this can bring.

By using culturally familiar and accessible methods such as neon signs and rug hooking, un(happy) objects encourages the audience to face their anxieties and difficult concepts head-on. The exhibition proposes the idea that working through discomfort can bring us closer together and forge new connections and healing. There won’t always be a clear escape plan and social isolation can’t be solved through a mere google search or doom scroll through an app. Sometimes it’s necessary to face what’s uncomfortable, even if it’s with the aid of an awkward laugh.

 [1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997). (p.190).

[2] Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, 2010.(p. 42).

[3] Formed in 1999, Tiqqun is a French collective of authors and activists.

[4] Beckles, Madelyne. “Theory of The Young Girl.” 2017.

[5] un(Happy) objects online panel discussion. Nov 6, 2021.

[6] Crossman, Adrien. “un(Happy) objects exhibition essay,” ArtCite Inc. 2021.

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