J a n e t M c E w a n
A critical response from Dane Sutherland.
The Redsuit Project: Performing Space
Janet McEwan's photographic installation at The Lang Byre Gallery at Woodend Barn, Banchory : Who's Who, is a continuation of The Redsuit Project - an ongoing work inviting participants to send photographs of one or more red disposable coveralls, supplied by the artist, in a place(s) of their choice. The garment can be used as an object within the photo, or as in the vast majority of images in this installation, worn as a costume; the only caveat being that the identity of the wearer be concealed. The result is an exhibition of 177 prints from over 60 image makers, each responding to Janet's open brief in a wide variety of ways. But, to what extent are these variations representative of individual purpose? If the motivations of individuals and the role of self-expression is called into question, is the project truly participatory? The Redsuit Project produces a group of images in which an authorial stamp is difficult to detect - as well as the photographers, the suited figures poetically respond with unique performative actions, while both photographer and subject negotiate the chosen surrounding landscape and topography. However, it may also be noted that Janet's framework is one that demands a particular response, and one based on a cloaking of the individual's identity - what effect does the red suit have as an object, and also as the material articulation of a potentially limiting framework? This is not to say that Janet's work is limited in it's scope, rather it exposes both the subject as a performing apparatus of aesthetic criteria, and also the bleeding of identity that occurs in this context.
The exhibition's title is a phrase often associated with celebrity, and when probed a little it alludes to the often noted lack of real identity represented in the glossy celebrity world. Similarly, the cast of figures in Who's Who is an amorphous aggregate - standing out from their surroundings; presenting themselves as a synthetic interruption within the scene. With the relinquishing of one identity, a new identity is assumed by the participant. Like a celebrity's public persona, which subsumes their real character, the suited individuals may have lost their own identity but it may be suggested that they are potentially more self-aware. This is apparent in their careful composition of their bodies in the shots required of them to fulfill Janet's criteria. On the other hand, it is this desire to satisfy criteria that reveals the potency of Who's Who as a tool that demonstrates the malleability of the human body in its relationship with a possessive framework. As a result, the many photographs detailing individual responses take on a different meaning - the figures appear closer to sculpted objects. Janet has pinned a few of the suits onto the walls also, stuck in a frozen choreography - are the seemingly free poses that appear in the photographs actually as rigid as the empty suits on the wall? Is there any difference between them? The suited figures in the photographs each pose according to an internalised aesthetic criteria, ingrained in the movement of each limb. Are these figures responsible authors of their own actions? It would seem that the suits themselves have a more organic, even symbiotic power than originally given credit. The aforementioned suits in the Barn which have been stuck to the walls have been dissolved to reveal their seams, a nylon skeleton - the frayed tatters have the quality of veins and arteries. Also, just as much as the suited individuals, and the photographers negotiate their surroundings, they also negotiate this invisible framework, to the extent that their activity becomes Janet's performance. Or even the performance of embedded aesthetic standards.
A tension does exist in this work though. One image that sums up such a struggle is a photograph of a figure limply lying on the ground, with a limb stuck through a golden frame. The image corresponds with the improvisational nature of the others in its apparent individuality and unique response to the brief. "Improvisation brings about glimpses of instability" notes the experimental Basque musician, Mattin, and this glimpse illustrates the nature of subjective interpretation wrestling with classical ideology - has the frame been punctured by the uncontrolled jabs of the figure, or has the weight of the frame collapsed the individual? The frame is still firmly intact, but the errant limb testifies to life inside the framework that has the ability to comprehend its surroundings and transcend illusionary planes. A parallel exists here with Brecht in his attempts to disrupt such illusions by activating the audience through shattering the divide between artist and performer, leaving the framework of theatre in ruins.
So where does this position Who's Who? In paraphrasing this title, and asking, "Who is who?" the search for identity leads towards a struggle between the actual individuals named within the images, and the recuperative forces of a homogenising aesthetic criteria. This struggle is the subject of Janet's work in the barn. The struggle is representative of democracy in action, the forum where voices are pitched against others - here the human body engages with its own representation, the individual will engages with established artistic principles, the internal machinations of paradigmatic frameworks are rendered visible in their physical interpellation of acts. An extreme example is metaphorically illustrated in the photograph of the suit that is laid on a set of steps leading to a beach - the suit bends in an inhuman pose that curves around the pillar at the foot of the stairs. This clearly shows the affective power of architecture, its steadfast immobility and command over the human form and its negotiation of space. Mattin goes on to say of improvisation that it is the "production of social spaces as well." The improvised use of the red suits within the focused framework of the project pushes against the frame stretches it further, bends the frame rather than the body. An image that represents the crumbling ruin of an old monastery stands out, with its lack of a human figure, but the suit remains - it covers a plaque identifying the building. Here, the suit wields its power over a physical site, affecting it as much as it has done the human body in previous images. In the hands of the participants, the red suits are potential tools for opening up spaces for democratic dialogue - stone, bricks and mortar can be shaped like a dancer by a choreographer.
Dane Sutherland (UK) is a curator, writer and arts professional interested in developing a practice in the interstices between roles, such as artist and curator. Through this he aims to develop a critical approach towards exploring material and ideological structures that both promotes discussion and affects change.
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