By Philip Leonard Ocampo
At the opening of Muscled Rose, I didn’t get a proper look at Divya Mehra’s There are Greater Tragedies (2014). The same goes for my return visit, as the wind is blowing the large flag in a direction that makes the text on it difficult to read. I feel unfocused anyways—my mind is fixed on an argument I had with my parents about leaving home last year. I tell myself that I’ll see the flag on my way out and enter the gallery.
Curated by Rui Mateus Amaral with contributions from David Altmejd, Michelle Bellemare, Chris Curreri, Julia Dault, Martha Graham, On Kawara, Ragnar Kjartansson and Divya Mehra, Muscled Rose evokes the ways in which affection can be tethered to violence, and how outbursts of passion can tear apart pleasure. Tenseness ripples throughout the exhibition—the artworks of this exhibition teem with the potential to come undone. With the works emotive energy restrained yet swelling, I set forth unaware of just how resonant this exhibition would be to me, nor how beneficial it would be to see my own experiences mirrored within it.
Still feeling pretty scattered, it seemed fitting that a pile of infrastructural wreckage confronts me at the door. Resting uncomfortably close to the entrance, the debris is from the demolition of a pre-existing wall, the remains of which have unfolded in opposite directions like an open book. Amaral intentionally kept this ‘accidental’ stage, which now houses a monitor playing footage from American dancer Martha Graham’s 1930 performance of Lamentation, in which she fights a restrictive garment as it seeks to swallow her whole. As Graham struggles against the fabric, the two walls have come down, mirroring the constant battling forces of containment and release that surges through each work; (1) simultaneously coming apart and together with cathartic intensity. The work is a fitting introduction to the exhibition.
With the hulking debris still visible in the corner of my eye, I look at a damaged mirror mounted on the wall to its right. The reflective surface of Untitled 3 (Puddles) (2013) is pierced with five holes from which long fractures meander towards the work’s outer edges. Artist David Altmejd has reassembled its shards in order to maintain the mirror’s shape, seeking to recreate a sense of remorse after a violent act has occurred, making the mirror appear as if it has been struck multiple times. In its subsequent aftermath, the five rageful hits are now viscerally preserved. I stare at my own splintered reflection, now implicated as the perpetrator of something I did not do. Altmejd’s work illustrates the poignant sense of regret that can often be bonded to the impulsivity of violent release; intent as it can be so easily clouded by fury. The mirrored surface makes me think of instances in my own life that have compelled me to lash out in similar ways, and I begin to question if doing so was ever worth it.
I’ve always been conscious of my own capacity for violence and anger: I grew up in a low income, conservative household as the youngest of five children. Like many queer people, I remained closeted for so long, frightened of revealing it for the sake of my own safety. I witnessed my family fight against the racist and xenophobic systems and institutions that constantly force immigrant families into the social and economic margins.
I never had the tools to more effectively channel my fury, which has resulted in a lot of lingering anxiety about my relationship to anger, combined with my heavier set, broad shoulders, and considerable height—I have the stature appropriate for putting weight behind a fist with all of the pent up anger necessary for wanting to swing it.
Julia Dault’s, Untitled 26 (2013) holds a similar tension, which makes it stressful to look at. Composed of bent plexiglass, formica and fabric boxing wrap, the artists’ material choices incite curiosity, but I can only get as close as six feet from the sculpture. The evident tension in the drastically bent shapes feel too precarious to examine more closely. I imagine that at any moment I could be a casualty of the wrap’s sudden snap and the plexi’s immediate return to a straight plane. What would happen if I were caught in its chaotic release? The force that the three entities combat each other with is staggering—the strength of the fabric to tame the plexi and formica, their reciprocal urge to fight against the chokehold they’re in, and the unseen artist (2) attempting to force the two in place. Six feet might not even be enough to keep me away from its potential separation. Cautiously, I take another step back.
I turn around to see Michelle Bellemare’s Everlast resting on the gallery floor. Manifesting as a pair of conjoined boxing gloves—which compliments the boxing wrap used to harness Dault’s nearby plexiglass forms—the gloves imply that the boxer is down for the count, succumbing to or shielding themselves from a barrage of strikes from an opponent. (3) Anchored to the gallery floor, writer Josi Smit describes the sculpture as “constant and steady, waiting for the next hit” (4) in the exhibition’s accompanying publication. Everlast is resolute, and myself, kneeling down to examine the sculpture more closely, am in solidarity with its determination.
The faint sound of a ballad suddenly garners my attention, as if it’s accompanying the mise en scene in which these works have consumed me. I focus on the lyrics: Oh why do I keep on hurting you? I’ve been hearing it the entire time I’ve been here. I get up and follow the sound to a lonesome monitor mounted around a corner near the back of the gallery. On the screen, Ragnar Kjartansson, dressed entirely in white, serenades the eye of the camera in his hour-long video piece titled Mercy (2004). His earnest singing unerringly brings to mind instances of regret that immediately follow moments of anger. I recall moments in which I’ve been too cruel to those I care for: chastising a lover, scolding a sibling or needlessly criticising close friends. Kjartansson’s sonic wonderings become meditative, initiating a moment of self-reflection in which the recognition of how aggressive behaviour affects others can be rendered unactionable by the lack of knowledge required to break free from the cycle of violence. I carry the feeling with me as I begin to head towards the exit.
As the aforementioned works drew me to and from each other, I pass works by On Kawara and Chris Curreri and feel less affected by what they sought to convey for reasons that stand in opposing ends of too much and too little.
From the aggressive unease that settles into the nearby Kiss Portfolio (2016)—a photo series of intimate, passionate kisses—to the photograph on its right, which graphically depicts a severed lamb head tenderly meeting the viewer’s gaze (Insomniac, 2019), Curreri’s contributions feel jarringly gratuitous within the sombre landscape created by many of the artworks of Muscled Rose. As other works seek to embody a subtlety in their balancing of aggression and intimacy, Curreri’s works lean too heavily on the former, as if he is forcing his unsettling images to convey a tenderness. The many belligerent kisses feel as passionate and impulsive as its stage direction can make it; the grotesque decapitated lamb head doesn’t awe me as much as it just shocks me, even if it is looking at me so gently in its slaughtered state.
Where Curreri’s photographs act superfluously, On Kawara’s telegram, I Am Still Alive (1988), which sits to the left of Julia Dault’s plexi sculpture, intentionally materializes as scarce and isolating. It consists of a single telegram, one of the many sent by Kawara over the span of forty years, in which the artist shocked and confused his recipients with intensely disorienting self-declarations, such as: I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY or I AM STILL ALIVE . (5) The game-like playfulness to these aggressive and teasingly ambiguous phrases are an impulsive act which intervenes in the everyday lives of others. But the impact of Kawara’s telegram hinges on its adjacent explanation, as its process and connections to the exhibition are somewhat imperceptible without it. The telegram cheekily refuses its context, but in doing so, it obscures information needed to relay its poignant interplay of aggression and intimacy. Through this withholding, I find it difficult to connect with the work.
Despite this, Muscled Rose compellingly embraces the many flawed experiences that inform our complicated relationship to the interplay of intimacy and aggression. From deep regret to taut tension, curator Rui Mateus Amaral composes an exhibition that is intuitive and heartbreakingly candid—its ability to evoke empathetic reaction was unique in that I felt emotionally entangled in so many of its artworks. In leaving, I’m more attuned to the complicated relationships that exist in my own life, a new awareness of how I love and anger, and the acknowledgement that these experiences are interconnected in the lives of others. For this, I am grateful.
As I leave, I begin to write a text to my mother but look back to see the wind blowing in Divya Mehra’s fully legible favor: MY ARRIVAL IS YOUR UNDOING. Despite initially interpreting it as antagonistic, I fixate on the word undoing and begin to think about the term in respect to its alternative associations of untying, unfastening or loosening instead of the implications of ruin. Considering Mehra’s intentional ambiguity in using the two pronouns, There are Greater Tragedies is nuanced within the scope of its own blunt simplicity. If Muscled Rose is any indication, it is rash to assume that defining my and your is always that simple.
I glance back at my phone and finish texting my mother that I’m looking forward to coming home to visit her and the rest of the family this weekend. Exhaling deeply, I hit send.
- Josi Smit, in conversation with the author, December 6th, 2019.
- Smit, Josi. Muscled Rose exhibition publication, n.d.
- Amaral, Rui Mateus. Muscled Rose exhibition publication, n.d.
Muscled Rose ran from June 27 to September 7, 2019 at Scrap Metal Gallery in Toronto, ON.
Feature Image: There are Greater Tragedies, 2014 by Divya Mehra. Photo courtesy of Scrap Metal Gallery.