Fingers protrude from knees, arms, ankles, a vagina. They crawl up over a plinth or slide off of a sharp corner, inching to or from one of the soft headless figures on display.
There is an affinity between those hands and half-bodies. The pale white-blue colour of belly and breasts is repeated in the tubular fingers; the visible seams on thumbs and wrists are no different than those on the puckered necks and elbows. They add pattern and delicate texture and visually join the five figures in their separate spaces together.
But there also is a lack of affinity. The hands are set apart from the figures, different. They touch the intimate parts of the body as if acting on their own. They prop up a kneeling figure. They appear as if they were the rough creators of the dysmorphic figures, suturing human body parts together.
The hands make the making of the installation visible.
But what is it that they are bringing into being? Consider the minerally blood red colour against the patches of light blue and faded peach fabrics. It’s visible in the shiny red cloth on the headless necks, the touches of darker red at the tips of the nipples, the swaths of browny red on shoulders and thighs, and the red thread stitched around a vagina that is open so that the cottony interior is visible. The colour red outlines muscle mass and substitutes for shadow. It makes the body structures patently clear, however distorted, twisted, and deconstructed they may be.
Still, those stitches shaping all of the body parts—thumb, belly button, nipple-–domesticate the subject matter. They bring it into the realm of the familiar and even the realm of the family (the words are etymologically related) by formally resonating with piece-sewn quilts stitched at home. Indeed, the artist says that her work is deeply informed by the experience of working at home with her mother as her mother struggled with the body-changing disease of lupus during the final year of her life. Those stitches–the hands themselves–are reminders for Campbell of her mother hard at work with her crochet needles in spite of the loss of electrical impulse in her fingers. It’s through that emotional evocation of the warmth of home that the figures may connect to the beholder. Or possibly, the beholder may instead feel shades of confusion, or disgust, an effect of all of that red.
And here things get messy, because in crossing that bridge of feeling–in being touched by the artwork, whatever register the emotion–the beholder is encouraged to dwell on the nature of their own private encounter with the figures. That alone is a challenge. And there’s more to it. The figures pose a critical question about the ways seeing can be a mode of touch (behold, after all, is a word that is as much about touch as it is about seeing), and how the proximity of hands (we’re back to the hands) and eye forge peculiar encounters with these figural forms.
Any stories we make up about the installation depend on awareness of how the hand and eye are working in concert. The artist points out that this mode of encounter works in at least two ways. One has to do with recognizing a narrative of trauma from the vulnerability of the figures’ poses. Touch in this sense is threatening. (Campbell explains that The Scenewas generated from memory of a performance work called Crash My Room four years ago when she was subject to invasive, hard touch and the voices of the men at the bar where she was performing shouting into her mouth). The other kind of touch in contrast may also have to do with a recognition of that vulnerability, but it is as soft as the soft forms of the bodies, sympathetic, the shadowy memory of the comforting touch of her mother’s hands. The narrative suggested by the installation, then, is open-ended.
We Are Revealed (2017)
Towards the end of her life, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010; the first woman to be honoured by a retrospective at the MoMA), added an installation Qui es-tu (Who are you?) to her ongoing project called “The Cells.” She reshaped the biomorphic forms from her earlier work (pendulous breasts, phalluses bursting at the seams, an enormous tangle of guts) into a figure. It hangs in front of a mirror. Entrails or intestines wrap around the place where a torso might have been. The figure is headless. Legs and feet dangle. The turd-brown dimensionality of the sewn-up canvas contrasts with a delicate white lace skirt hanging nearby.
I begin with this evocation of Bourgeois’s sculpture because it is so closely connected to Campbell’s We Are Revealed. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that it is close and yet Campbell’s work moves quite literally in a different direction. We look at Bourgeois’s rounded and lumpish figure “looking” at itself in the mirror (doubly objectified). Campbell instead occupies that figure. She lives it. She wraps it around her body. Those tube-like intestines cover her legs, wind around her arms, extend from shoulder to floor, creep up over her face and hair. Lips rendered as a lamprey-like suction-cup give the costume an alien cross-species appearance, which is an odd thing to say, as there is very little that is identifiable about its biomorphic forms in the first place. Those tubes may not be intestines after all.
What is more, while so similar to Bourgeois’s sculptures in shape and excessiveness, the forms encasing Campbell’s body have a different visual presence. The nylons she uses to make them are transparent, meant to mime flesh. We can see through them, past the “skin” surface into the depths of the body parts. And they’re fragile. The nylon snags. Each costume can only be worn for one performance.
Four years ago at Mile Zero the space in which the performance took place was transformed from window front into the ruins of a once-feminine bedroom. A photograph reveals yellow wallpaper printed with roses falling away from the hot-pink painted walls beneath. Red candles in sconces, an apple green wooden shelf bedecked with a bow, and a white apron arrayed next to it convey a kind of Twin Peaks normalcy. Then you notice the fleshy phallic shapes attached to the wallpaper, the disc-like breasts mounted on the pink walls, the marks of a red pen on the wallpaper. You wonder about the organ-like sack hanging at the centre and the lumpy nylon-covered forms at the window’s edge. (They were there as a way of keeping the space activated when she was not present, Campbell explains, and served as a prop).
The room became a secret and safe hiding place for the artist to reveal herself, to bring her interiority into view. She did so through repetitious movement. Her body in its new soft carapace repeated the motions of anxiety that she knew too well from her own body and from watching others in moments of stress around her. It collapsed on the floor and rolled around with her daughter, her new collaborator, similarly costumed. Her daughter tapped the floor with a finger or obsessively rubbed her wrist with sickly-sweet strawberry perfume. In spite of the performed anxiety, there was a kind of freedom available to the artist in that heterotopic space. Her new body became a mode of enhanced expressivity, though also, because it was subject to our collective gaze, it became vulnerable. Such tension was unresolved. It pushed those encountering the performance once again to think on our relationship to our own bodies and how we see and interact with the bodies of others.
There is nothing literal about Kasie Campbell’s artwork. As the great feminist art historian Linda Nochlin wrote about Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture (with which Campbell’s work is so evidently engaged):
The meaning of a given piece may change as its context changes: what might (with difficulty) be read in one situation as a little girl may in another be read as a very big penis. And both interpretations are valid… Bourgeois warns against taking what she says literally. ‘I never talk literally. Never, never, never. You do not get anywhere by being literal, except to be puny.’ (2002)
Nochlin makes this observation in the context of a book review. She’s writing about a book on Bourgeois by another critical thinker and famous feminist, Mieke Bal. She is not entirely happy with it. Nochlin somewhat sharply notes:
There is something authoritarian about a writer who purports to leave herself open to new, more accurate readings of a work and then refuses to allow her fellow critics, much less others, to participate in a conversation. The snares of simple-minded narrative are everywhere, in Bal’s view, and certainly, Bourgeois lays them out for the unsuspecting viewer, at the same time as depriving her of the pleasures of narrative closure. Yet surely, in the case of a work as inscrutable and suggestive as Spider [perhaps Bourgeois’s most famous work] there are many paths to the meaning of the piece, which is deliberately unstable in any event. (Ibid.)
As we grapple with Kasie Campbell’s work, we would do well to keep in mind how its “inscrutability and suggestiveness,” its lack of literalness and its instability, is at the heart of the ways in which we make meaning. The power of the untitled figural work and We Are Revealed is that they remind us that meaning making can never be closed down. There is no final word. It is precisely because of the artist’s own feminist commitment to the open-ended process of making meaning of her work as we encounter it and as we participate in a conversation with it and about it that her installations and performances– and their bodily complexities–are worth dwelling with.
Campbell’s next project is curating an exhibition about misogyny. Her work Milk Diaries currently is on view at the AGA through August 8.
Campbell’s figurative work has been generously supported by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
Nochlin, Linda. 2002. “Don’t you cut your lunch up when you’re ready to eat it?” A review of Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Spider:’ The Architecture of Art Writing by Mieke Bal. London Review of Books 24, no. 7 (April). DOI: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v24/n07/linda-nochlin/don-t-you-cut-your-lunch-up-when-you-re-ready-to-eat-it