BRENDAN FOX DISCUSSES HIS PROJECT ‘LESS GREATER EQUAL’, RECENTLY SHOWN AT THE NAG GALLERY, DUBLIN (6 – 20 MARCH 2015).
I consider the gallery space a platform from which I converse with viewers. Both curatorially and from the perspective of a visual artist, I regard ‘Less Greater Equal’ as a personal conversation. This project is a departure from my previous work, as I found myself assuming the role of both subject and auteur. In 2014 my life changed irreparably. The year encompassed the breakdown of a 10-year relationship, losing my home, my father’s cancer diagnosis and my spiraling into depression. This was compounded when I experienced a homophobic attack. During this period there was also a constant barrage of wimbeldon-esque media coverage relating to the forthcoming marriage referendum. In the seemingly endless rounds of media discussions, it’s too often insinuated that LGBT people are ‘other’, peripheral or otherwise not quite part of the cogs of society.
I found myself questioning everything, embarking on an existential quest of sorts, searching for a personal context and a means of re-establishing my own identity. ‘Less Greater Equal’, although politically motivated, is also concerned with the idiosyncratic nature of sexual identity and the repercussions of growing and existing in a socio-political landscape where one is perceived as lesser. The tension between our inner and outer selves encourages artifice in our behaviours. Carl Jung refers to this facade as the persona: “… a kind of mask designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”. (1) We all struggle with identity. We are fragile. It is through the sharing of our narratives and vulnerabilities that we can truly understand both ourselves and the ‘other’. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”. (2)
The notion of the Jungian shadow is at the core of Less Greater Equal. I share his belief that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness – or perhaps because of this – the shadow is the seat of creativity”. (3) There is perhaps nowhere the shadow and mask are more present than in theatre. The existential nature of the writings of Shakespeare, Cocteau and Beckett has propelled my process as an artist. Much like a theatre or film director may strive to find a fresh angle in a narrative, my work often pushes an agenda that has evolved through the dissection of a literary text. My practice is also concerned with meta-theatre, a self-conscious focus on form and the constructiveness of artefact.
The photographic element of this work explores notions of expulsion and marginalisation. I approached the content with a purposefully regressive, almost juvenile tone, which is further emphasised by the words ‘Fuck me’ painted on my back, in my role as the protagonist in the images. Photographer Dejan Karin, who has previously worked with David Lachapelle, among others, is a long time collaborator and there is an innate sense of trust between us. In each of the four photographic works the figure assumes a position where the face is obscured – the positioning of body is the sole conveyor of emotion. This ‘occultation’ is an extension of the Jungian mask. The headless figures and crude text presented in the photographic works are intended to be the antithesis of the emotive performance and the use of Shakespearean text within the film.
The film is in essence a recording of four performances. Each act is emblematic of a particular phase in life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death. The aesthetic temperature of the film is really the product of playing with shadow. German expressionist films influenced this aspect; atmospheric lighting and harsh contrasts between dark and light were key in conveying emotional undercurrents of a subject. The film is also concerned with the act of painting. It begins with my painting white onto black and ends with my painting black onto white. It was intended that the time and space between these two acts then becomes a grey, liminal area, confused and inaudible. The set consisted of three kinds of ladders: sculptural forms that are instruments of elevation and access. Yeats captures this aspiration to reach sustainable truth through the creative process in his 1933 poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion: “Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. ”
I collaborated with cinematographer / artist Basil Al-Rawei on the film. As part of the process we discussed the content and formulated a structure for the action to take place. There is an unspoken creative flow between us. During the shoot there was often little need for verbal communication at all. On the day of filming I found myself in the vulnerable position of disrobing in front of a crew. I began to wonder: why I was doing this at all? How had my practice and thinking brought me to this point? I felt as vulnerable as a newborn. I carried that vulnerability with me as I began to paint, developing a life size family portrait. The image reveals my four-year-old self upon my father’s knee, surrounded by my mother and seven siblings at the occasion of my sister’s first holy communion.
At the time of the performance my father lay in a hospital bed fighting cancer. As each face appeared before me like apparitions, more uncanny than familiar, I felt them witnessing the action. I felt the ridiculous injustice that I am not afforded the same rights as my brothers and sisters, that the love I love is considered lesser than theirs in the eyes of our constitution. The traditional family is afforded the position of being a ‘microcosm of society’. With this in mind I considered the statistics that suggest one in ten individuals are homosexual; within this portrait of ten I am that one.
The central act of the film is concerned with language, interiority and the struggle to communicate this state of tension. American literary critic Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare as having “invented the human” in giving us the words for carrying the “dialogue of our humanity”. (4) Bloom’s Freudian psychoanalysis of Hamlet focuses on the tension between the inner self and its Oedipal struggle to be actualised in the social world of men.
The performance involved an accelerated repetition of two soliloquies from Hamlet: To be or not to be (act three, scene one) and Now I am alone (act two, scene two). Both monologues are concerned with procrastination, existential struggle and the futility of living. The resolve of the first soliloquy underpins the idea that conscience deters us from action and therefore stops us realising our ambitions. This refers not only to the idiosyncratic nature of procrastination, but also its cumulative effect on the movement of political issues of importance. In the second soliloquy Hamlet is perplexed by the impassioned performance of an actor, observing the irony that the reality of his own situation should propel him into such passion: “
Is it not monstrous that this player here/ But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/ Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all his visage wanned,/ Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,/ A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit?/ And all for nothing .”
This idea is extended in the epilogue of Less Greater Equal, which references the opening sequence from one of my favorite films, Being John Malkovich (1999), directed by Spike Jonze. The film is concerned with identity, escapism and the inhabitance of the ‘other’. In the scene we witness a puppet dexterously manipulated by his creator in a distraught dance propelled by the realisation of his own powerlessness upon seeing the strings that control him. We understand the puppet much like the actor Hamlet observes: purely a vehicle for conveying the interior emotion that the main protagonist or puppeteer cannot.
Perhaps this body of work serves me in the same way. Less Greater Equal is an extension of myself, a contortion of references, ideas and ideologies. But I hope that at its core dwells a more universal shadow. In Seamus Heaney’s poem Personal Helicon (2006) he observes that self-exploration through an art form has much wider social repercussions. It infers that when we are shown the ‘shadow’ in others we see it reflected in ourselves. He writes: “I rhyme, to see myself, to set the darkness echoing”. This work has the same intention.
Special thanks to Norman Kelly, Lauralee Guiney and Claire Chaney.
1. C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, London, 1953, p.190
2. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, 1938, p.131
3. David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; Routledge, 2015 p.34
4. H. Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1999