By Liam Kane
Insect, animal and human hybrid freaks are projected onto the dark gallery wall; they begin dancing to the music of The Brutal Poodles, pair up and end up forming a circular orgy and then it’s all over. I’m trying to describe Sydney-based artist Deborah Kelly’s five animated collage characters and their performance in her projection work entitled Beastliness. This video, animated by Christain Hiennrich and Chris Wilson, accompanied an ongoing workshop collaboration project run by Kelly to construct the world’s largest collage, exhibited at Artspace in August. The exhibition, Make More Monsters, provided a lot to think about.
I am interested in the work of contemporary collage artists, and, despite the fact that Kelly does not exclusively work in collage, her current work seems to encapsulate all that excites me. Collage artists have the ability to synthesise society, the body and the world of images; and to reassemble them in a way that is profound and often amusing. Kelly’s work is unique. She has gathered and stored images since her teens and, over the years, has stitched them into characters that seem to reflect on the human body, our sexuality and where it is situated within the animal kingdom.
Kelly’s recent work is the latest development in a trajectory in art history that began with surrealists. It is easy to draw comparisons between Kelly’s work in this exhibition with books produced by the surrealist Max Ernst in the early twentieth century. The most striking similarities between the collages of Kelly and Ernst are the notions of creating human animal hybrids. Hybrids feature heavily in Ernst’s book Le Femme 100 Tetes (The Hundred Headless Women), published in 1927. Photographs of well-to-do people with their heads replaced by a hawk’s face or perhaps a moth’s abdomen are commonplace in Ernst’s graphic novels. Likewise, Kelly’s characters are odd amalgamations of animal and human limbs.
It’s a pleasure to see the legacy of the stranger and raunchier surrealists like Ernst in the work of contemporary artists. Kelly’s projection work seem to be close to how Ernst’s works would have looked, had they been animated. The two artists appear to operate in the same headspace when they create hybrid monsters, despite the 70 years that separates them.
I watched Kelly’s striking characters grind one another on the wall and laugh, understanding that I was observing some kind of absurd peep show. Maybe I was the butt of a joke. Don’t get me wrong, it was actually very funny, if somewhat awkward, to experience the characters’ performances, especially on my own. In hindsight, it was humorous to find myself shifting uncomfortably as the sexy-legged creatures began to copulate.
My response might have been part of the exhibition’s purpose: to make the viewer feel slightly uncomfortable yet still remain amused. This exhibition seemed to suggest that although the artwork has a great deal of depth, we don’t have to take it all seriously. The use of humour as a tool to provoke and engage with the audience has been a tactic of many collage artists.
The use of animation in Kelly’s exhibition can be placed in the context of the development of the collage aesthetic. The fusion of two-dimensional static collages and animation is one of the main attractions of this exhibition as contemporary collage is carving itself a new field in media arts. Kelly is well aware of and situated within this field. The perverse characters, fixed onto hand-woven Italian paper neatly framed away from the projection, moved about their sexual performance in the stilted and jutted way that you would expect. Animation makes the imagined performance and dynamics of static collage works a reality.
Works such as Prey Tell Soft Suitor, 2009-2010, make a strong and direct point, especially after these creatures were animated: when it comes to sexuality, the line between humans and the animals becomes blurred. This may be why the video is entitled Beastliness.
Often such imagery in the collage aesthetic is criticised for being too direct. What is wrong with an artist being direct when it comes to expressing their ideas? Occasionally I think; enough with subtlety, give me eroticised body parts and lots of grinding if sex is what you’re talking about. Kelly ignores tendencies to be witty and subtle; an attitude which I cherish among collage artists.
There was more to this exhibition than the projection and analogue collages. Away from the screen a most engaging dynamic was revealed. A row of tables lined the back of the room where people had laboured over their own work using images provided by Kelly: I was standing in a workshop. Scattered unrelated images, rollers and glue and piles of heavy books lay about. The gallery space had become an artist’s studio. During the exhibition Kelly had run a series of workshops where the audience fixed their own collages on to a 10-metre long roll of paper. By the final week, the volume of work created by the audience was substantial and interesting. Kelly plays with a perception of collage as a scrapbook practice in which anybody could succeed because it does not require the same level of formal training as more established traditions such as drawing and painting. When the audience’s works were placed in this gallery context they gain certain legitimacy. Perhaps the participation element of Kelly’s installation is a way of combating restrictive views held about collage artists.
Collage is still widely considered to be a mere tool of the painter or illustrator, despite the fact that it has own distinct conceptual boundaries and an aesthetic entirely separate from these traditions. It is particularly relevant to the way we perceive our fractionalised world and has a capacity to provide a means for a visual interpretation of culture, society and politics. Deborah Kelly’s exhibition represents the independence of collage as an art form and reveals its conceptually and aesthetically progressive nature. Collage is risky; it can be rude, sexualised, flirtatious, often humorous, and direct to the point. It always proclaims its own legitimacy as a unique practice.
Deborah Kelly: Make More Monsters, ARTSPACE, Sydney, 20 July – 21 August 2011.