Inspired by the theoretical “queer death drive”, The Garden of Jarman began as a poem, illustrating a queer inversion, as in the Freudian term for homosexuality, of the garden of Eden. The poem explores the development of queer love in parallel with shame-based trauma and illness regarding emotional and physical intimacy, drawing from the artist’s repeated experiences. The poem also refers to three queer male artists who acted as a holy trinity of sorts, the progenitors of a lineage of twentieth century queer visual culture: Tom of Finland; Francis Bacon, and Derek Jarman. The masculinities constructed via oppressed sexual identity in their work is contextualised with my own experience navigating gender, sexuality, their constituents and mutual intersections in the queer community.
The queer individual, and by extension, community, over the twentieth century were required to construct their own spaces, their own subjectivities and shared realities in the face of an oppressive heteronormativity. This began in physical locations and various visual and lexical languages, codes, vernaculars and cues: underground clubs; the sauna; polari; the hankie code. In these spaces, one could perform one’s “true” self, reifying the identity and desire previously limited to one’s interiority. Increasingly, this was elevated to the digital, in the form of the internet and apps designed to facilitate meeting, even to the incremental detriment of physical spaces such as the gradual closure of gay bars, never mind the stripping of nightlife in the face of the COVID pandemic, this phenomenon having drawn parallels with queer history in the form of the AIDS crisis.
The medium of VR signals new and fertile ground for the facilitation of queer space yet to be penetrated. In the visuals accompanying the poem, I traverse nature adorned with a VR helmet. The visual is interspersed with visions of queer sexual encounter that would later that night in a bout of loneliness culminate in the anal transmission of syphilis, known in medical history as “the great pretender”. Under an Evangelical upbringing, one was taught of the subconscious, implicit motivations of self-destruction in homosexuality, that queer relationships were doomed to failure, an idea that would manifest as a self-fulfilling prophecy in one’s own pursuit of intimacy, specifically the spiritual death in homosexuals referred to in the Book of Romans: “Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”
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“THE INVERT’S COVENANT”, 2020
Two weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown, the artist exhibited symptoms of syphilis. It left stigmata-like marks across their palms; a fever, and deep, painful fissures, having knowingly contracted the disease sexually through their anus months prior in a bout of loneliness and apathy. The artist, performing to camera, primed sandpaper using the queer sick body, intermingling their infected blood with the grain of the canvas.
From there, they etched into it their internalised homophobia. Notions of queerness as an inversion of the heterocentric, "natural" order; of sin manifesting in physical and spiritual illness - such were the seeds sewn in the artist under an Evangelical upbringing that culminated in conversion therapy, later actualised as an adult in a self-fulfilling prophecy, self-destruction a queer sexual rite of passage. Presented is a Hellscape of the artist's toxic associations with sex now, risen to the abrasive surface: queer abjections and biblical abominations. The initial sandpaper painting “Panoramic Abject” was succeeded by five “inversions” of Caravaggio paintings depicting biblical tales, also on sandpaper, finally completed with another original composition drawing from notions of queer futurity and the imagery of the Book of Revelations, “The Investiture of Abatton”,
“Panoramic Abject” - 140x270cm, materials: a dead copy of the syphilis virus, sandpaper, feces, blood, dead skin cells, opioid lozenges, condom, pins, tissue, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, chalk. Sandpaper primed using the naked body.
“Salomé & the Head of John the Baptist” - 140x270cm, materials: sandpaper, dead skin cells, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, conté, chalk, spray paint. Sandpaper primed with skin.
“The Denial of St Peter” - 140x270cm, materials: inverted sandpaper, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, chalk.
“The Investiture of Abbaton” - 140x270cm, materials: antibiotics, opioids, sandpaper, blood, dead skin cells, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, chalk. Sandpaper primed using the naked soles of the feet.
“KEENING GARDEN DOOR”, 2019
‘Keening’ was a Paganic Gaelic funereal practice, a performance of ecstatic grief in the form of wailing. Often unacquainted with the bereaved, the assigned Keener acted as a proxy for mourners to express their grief vicariously. Historically, the role of the keener was assigned to female, matriarchal figures, lacking a direct representation of complex male grief.
Here, the artist performed a male equivalent of the keener. Over the course of a year following their father's death, the artist performed four "male" keenings upon quartz crystals, charging them in transubstantial manner with the sonic energies of loss. The crystals, carried through successive iterations of the work - each reflecting the first four stages of grief. In 'Keening Garden Door' the charged quartz were set like teeth into a doorway. Over a mix of different soils, including some from their father's grave, the artist keened a fifth and final time - preparing to pass through the Door into Acceptance.
“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”
-Ophelia, ‘Hamlet’, W. Shakespeare
Historically, the queer’s self-actualisation is dogged by pathology at the hands of heteronormativity, its associations rooted in abjection, these artefacts embodying themselves sexually via internalised homophobia in self-fulfilling prophecies. Self-destruction characterises many a queer’s road to their self-reconciliation, if indeed that end be ultimately met at all.
Inspired by the analyses of queer theorists Leo Bersani, David M. Halperin, and Tim Dean of the death drive’s exhibition in queer sexual praxes, the artist here reinterprets the Shakespearean role of Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover who ultimately took her own life, through a contemporary lens of gender and sexuality in video portraiture.