ROBERT SLINGSBY: EXCESS(IVE) BAGGAGE essay by Hazel Friedman May 2007.
"Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms." - Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
"We should be willing to sacrifice liberty for freedom". These are the words, uttered without a trace of irony, by a young woman interviewed in one of the many documentaries broadcast in the aftermath of 9/11. What the interviewee possibly meant to say was that certain liberties should be sacrificed in the interests of security. While the inadvertent contradictions of her statement are unmemorable in themselves, her words nevertheless encapsulate the mindset that has prevailed in the aftermath of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.
Although Robert Slingsby probably hasn't watched the abovementioned documentary during which this ingenuous statement was made, beliefs such as these have formed some of the fodder feeding his current exhibition. In this exhibition, entitled 'Clearing Customs', Slingsby's iconography revolves around the trade-off between security and personal spaces. He has depicted the world as a grotesquely comical x-ray machine, a voyeuristic peep show where self-ownership and privacy have been not merely bartered, but martyred for the "greater good" of global surveillance.
Cataclysmic events and the politics of control are not subjects one would normally associate with Slingsby's iconography. South African artist Neville Dubow elegantly describes him as a new millennial "strandloper" (which translates from Afrikaans into beach-walker) "a free spirit combing the beach, marking and making, transferring meaning from detritus to jewel box." Although his early work executed during the 1970s and early 1980s fits under the rubric of social critique, one tends to associate Slingsby's subsequent iconology with "other" ancient worlds, particularly those inhabited by the Nama of the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape of South Africa. It is the jagged, desolate lunar-like contours of the Richtersveld that still serve as Slingsby's creative and spiritual loci. Inspired by the San petroglyphs produced thousands of years ago, he has made it his life's mission to record their topographical markings, to study their interconnection with ancient studies and to facilitate greater acknowledgement of their spiritual rites of passage as a means of accessing parallel realities. Part magpie, part archaeologist he has lovingly excavated, restored and transformed the fragmented residue of a neglected history into luminescent artworks spilling over with multilayered motifs, and painted with a psychedelic palette. Like the ancient alchemist Slingsby transforms trash into treasure, imbuing the most mundane bits of flotsam with an iridescent magic. In fact he seems to fit most comfortably in the world of alchemy and archetypes. Occasionally he makes a pit stop or guest appearance in the material world before returning to his inner homeland of shamans, spirits and signs.
There is something innately child-like in the symbols and causes we hold most dear to our hearts. And Slingsby's art is predominantly, pathologically, the product of an acute, almost inchoate, emotional instinct. Yet the sometimes quixotic aspects of his work camouflage a profound cognitive sensibility in which intuition and intellect converge and seamlessly merge. This makes him something of an anachronism in a postmodern world characterised by recycling, not originality; and cynicism, not faith. But he is also a humanist and cultural activist. "It is impossible not to be profoundly affected by the changes in the world since 9/11," he observes. "The way that we perceive everything has shifted dramatically through the restructuring and amalgamation of public and private space. This is most evident in the invasive tentacles of Big Brother creating the false illusion of choice".
Sure enough, nearly six years after the cataclysm, the world post 9/11 is insidiously, inexorably altered. "Everything has changed'' has become the axiomatic mantra among politicians, pundits, prophets, and profiteers. We now live in an age characterized by instant access to, and a surfeit of, information. Yet never before except, perhaps, within the vice of totalitarian societies, has the collective public mind been so malleable to manipulation and control. This is a world in which democratic lands of the free and homes of the brave have become sites of suspicion and surveillance. Ostensibly progressive societies have increasingly become paranoid control states subject to constant monitoring. Surveillance equipment and x-ray machines are now permanent fixtures on transportation systems, video cameras are stationed throughout amusement parks, CCTV systems stand positioned on every street corner and recording devices pick up even the most innocuous conversations in public spaces. This was once the stuff of sci-fi and Big Brother scenarios. Now, it is the norm. The world has become the locus of the watcher and the watched. The enemy is no longer out there, but embedded within. And nowhere is the ubiquity of surveillance more evident than in the ultimate site and metaphor of movement, namely the airport.
"I was at Heathrow, feeling weighed down, fatigued … jet lagged, and it struck me how utterly vulnerable and violated we are under this constant surveillance and how normal it has become to be constantly invaded at these places of flux" recalls Slingsby. "I also had the feeling of excess, of a surfeit of stuff that we carry with us, not only in terms of physical luggage, but of psychological baggage."
Slingsby has produced works that encapsulate this sense of excess in order to "unpack" the layers of "stuff" that seep from public places and corrode private spaces. If there exists a central metaphor for 'Clearing Customs', it is undoubtedly the suitcase. Slingsby has produced paintings and wooden and bronze sculptures depicting the suitcase as more than merely a metaphor of a journey or a mobile container of personal artifacts and fictions. The suitcase serves to contain, preserve and protect from invasion. It is both a metaphor of mobility and ownership. It contains the armoury of the researcher, conceals the arsenal of the criminal and encapsulates the identity, status and aspirations of the traveler. But Slingsby's suitcases are also multisensory skins which, when ruptured under the eye of the x-ray machine, expose the most intimate innards of the self. .
As the exhibition title 'Clearing Customs' suggests, the work evokes a site of transit. But simultaneously the double entendre of the word "customs" also suggests an exploration of mores, habits and culture and otherness - a discourse which has obsessively preoccupied Slingsby throughout his oeuvre. Loosely categorized in terms of medium, the works include wooden suitcase sculptures comprising personal artifacts; bronze suitcase sculptures featuring female nudes in provocative poses; acrylic paintings rendered in brash, garish cartoon hues; and as series of portraits resembling painterly mug shots. Themes of excess and exposure serve as recurring refrains, with canvases and sculptures alike seeming almost sag from an excess of clutter that threatens to spill into real space; as well as through the overlapping of motifs and images specifically associated with travel and technology. The wooden suitcase sculptures, for example depict suspicious items exposed by the scanning machine, such as revolvers and daggers, alongside more benign personal artifacts and objects, which recur in the paintings. Similarly the cartoon-like cyborgs interacting with the seductive nudes in bronze suitcases 'Pretexting' and 'For your protection' reappears in the paintings, in a more stylized format. And each work is depicted in cross-section, dissected like the subject of a scientific experiment, or presented from an aerial perspective, as though seen from an omniscient x-ray eye hovering overhead. This perspective serves to augment the sense of disempowerment pervading Slingsby's body of works. In this show, all is stripped bare, yet the responses provoked by these works are paradoxical, particularly towards works in which Slingsby has incorporated the female nude as subject and object. Unexpectedly, perhaps, Slingsby's inspiration for these contentious forms emanates not from the anthologies of feminist discourse but from a more traditional source; namely, the art of Auguste Rodin. "I happened to visit an exhibition of Rodin's sculptures at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and I was touched by his genius," recalls Slingsby. "Somehow Rodin had networked into the primal core of my emotions. After seeing that exhibition my creative bucket was full."
Although seductively fleshed-out, Slingsby's nudes are depicted with astute irony. They recline or drape themselves over luggage conveyors and under scanners, as though posing with erotic props. They are sexualized genies popping out of suitcases, splaying their genitalia for the concealed cameras as though for a Hustler centerfold or a porn movie. And the ever-attentive security cameras are perfectly positioned to snap away at their private parts and violate their privacy. In these works the naked women becomes complicit with technologies of visualization, reinforcing the deeply predatory nature of a photographic consciousness. Sex, and sexuality, Slingsby confirms, are central actors in the high-tech myths structuring our imaginations. In a world dominated by artificial intelligence, the final frontier for stimulation remains the body. This is pornography's most efficacious weaponry.
Yet Slingsby's nudes evoke an ambivalent response from the viewer, one that is as covetous of their sexual allure as it is condemnatory of their subjugation. Indeed Slingsby has tapped into one of the central contradictions of post modernism: the lubricated, dotted line between pornography and aesthetic irony. Whereas postmodernism ostensibly trades in parody and metaphor, pornography delivers the reality-effect, "bringing the obscene on-scene" with as few ceremonial trappings as possible. But between the two paradigms lies a slippery slope indeed. And in many respects, Slingsby suggests, the camera has replaced the mirror as the ultimate tool (and weapon) of narcissistic self reflectivity. Be they webcams, CCTV systems or other tools and weapons of a digital age we bask in their reflected light, all the while recoiling from their implicitly violent intrusions. "The pleasure principles of the voyeur, to see everything, and the pleasure principle of the exhibitionist, to show all, have shifted from the fates of private drives to social norms," writes cultural theorist Peter Weibel . Simply put, narcissism, or being in love with one's own image means identifying with the mediated image of oneself to the extent of no longer being able to identify oneself apart from it. Men are made to look, while women are made to be looked at, or so the cliché goes. Yet we all possess an appetite for seeing or, as Jacques Lacan put it: 'appétit de l'oeil'. After all, it is through the eyes that we ingest and digest 'the other'. Slingsby articulates this axiom literally, in 'Outside-inside' by painting eyes that seem to meet the viewer's voyeuristic gaze while simultaneously surveying the antics of a child, depicted in the centre of this painting. The inference is ominous, mitigated only slightly by the brightly patterned motifs decorating the surface of the painting. In the bronze suitcase sculptures spilling their supplicating female nudes, Slingsby evokes an extreme representation of this visual appetite as it unfolds in the representation of the male gaze and the female body. The voyeurism of the former is essentially cannibalistic, while the returned gaze of the latter is one of abjectness and seductive servility. 'Pretexting', for example, depicts a semi-reclining African nude. Initially she reminds us of those "ethnic" postcards, displaying the assets of nubile, naked tribal women under the guise of "ethnography." But it's not the ethnicity of her features that serves as the dominant focus, but rather her engagement with the cyborg that sits across her lap. On one level this unexpected coupling suggests the fusions of two outsider identities; it also might denotes the convergence of western civilization and its technological tools with traditional African society, predicated on the ideology of "west is best.' Simultaneously it evokes the exploitation of women of colour as the preferred cheap labour force in science-based industries, not to mention the world-wide sexual market.. Slingsby touches on several dualisms that have been persistent in Western traditions, all of which have been systemic to the logic and practice of hegemony and subjugation. Chief among these are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive. But reducing the semantics of his imagery to an illustration of binaries does a disservice to the profundity of Slingsby's vision. Accessing the complex encryption beneath these simplistic polarities entails relocating the epistemology of control within the context of a post 9/11 era. The portal towards a greater understanding may be opened via the image of the cyborg - a hybrid of machine and organism that once belonged uniquely to the world of science fiction. But this is no longer the case. The latest arsenal of the war against terror offers an example of what machines with 'predatory capabilities' might be like. The cyborg has become a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality constitutes our most important political construction. And let's examine our social reality post 9/11: ubiquitous man-less machines that record our prints, control our movement and curtail our autonomy, while governments extol the virtues of this excess of scrutiny in the form of smiley cartoon faces on airport brochures and consumer-friendly advertisements . In work 'For your protection' one of Slingsby's cartoon-like cyborgs seems to have seduced the naked buxom babe into a state of post-coital bliss. The close ties between sexuality and instrumentality, Slingsby seems to suggest, have rendered the body both as a source of private satisfaction- and as a utility-maximizing machine. The cyborg has become our ontology; and biology has been converted to cryptography. Modern states, multinational corporations, military power, welfare apparatuses, satellite systems, medical reconstructions of anatomy, commercial pornography - all of these depend intimately upon electronics. Micro-electronics is the technical basis of simulacra; that is, of copies without originals. The only means of differentiation is through bar-coding - a unique identification number assigned to each item tracked. In works such as 'Drawing the line' Slingsby depicts an effete male nude, designer luggage in hand, suspended against a backdrop of bar-codes, while the surveillance cameras discreetly snap away. Slingsby seems to be commenting on the uniform, standardised language wrought through globalization and universal systems of control, in which individual resistance to conformity disappears and heterogeneity can be disassembled, re-assembled, invested and exchanged, like commodities and pork-bell futures. Like the cyborg, the bar-code system has mediated the translation of labour into robotics, sex into genetic engineering and mind into artificial intelligence. The boundary-maintaining images of base and superstructure, public and private, material and illusory have never seemed more fragile. These mechanical simulacra imply, as US critical theorist Jo Alyson Parker observes, that we are ourselves programmed products of cultural forces and mere manifestations of the prevalent discourse that inscribes us .
But the nubile slave can assert power over her ostensible master. Although passively sexualized, Slingsby's nudes are not involuntarily submissive. In work 'A wide net', for example he depicts a nude, with stylized mask-like features . Reminiscent of Picasso's seminal painting 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,' she becomes a site for the interrogation of identity versus persona as well as the exploration of self and cultural division, both of which are conditions that reverberate in contemporary psychoanalytic and social theory. Slingsby's evocation of self-division and otherness is effectively suggested through the mask, which evokes a sense of entrapment and dislocation within another's discourse. The mask also serves to foreground sexual desire as a locus of power relations, thereby reinforcing Foucault's claim that "power and desire are joined to one another" . It suggests the programmed nature of gender and sexuality and the social masking that give rise to all forms of conditioning - be they politically, culturally or sexually driven - that divide the authentic self from the multiplicity of cultural representations with which we are subjected from birth . Only by removing the mask and revealing the mechanisms of power do we have any hope of resisting them. But Slingsby's depictions of masks also refers to the shamanistic power that masks provide, which reinforces the continuum between the themes in this exhibition of works and his ongoing belief in the power of ancient societies to enter parallel universes and attain a higher consciousness. Access to these alternate realities is gained through structured rituals that may permit us, if only briefly, to see beyond the limits of our own perception. But Slingsby remains avowedly non-didactic in his articulation and exposition of "other" states. His sense of irony is playful as opposed to prescriptive while his creative nutrients are experiential rather than academic. In work 'Carrying every frame', for example a nude assumes the glamourised pose of a 1950s bathing suit model as she balances atop an open suitcase on a luggage conveyer. Instead of planes buzzing around her head, as in work 'Thorny issues', Slingsby has depicted robotic dragonflies, whose significance is particularly loaded within the context of military aviation history. It was, after all, the British who developed the Dragonfly HR.Mk1 - the Royal Navy's first helicopter squadron, which was also used for civilian flights and by the air forces of Japan, Iraq and France . The sense of invasion on all fronts and in all forms reinforces the terrifying ubiquity of war in the aftermath of 9/11. The frontlines are located in trenches of amusement parks and city streets, along the borders of transit lounges and in the nooks and crannies of the body. The war has become utterly normalized and we are either oblivious to it, titillated by it or cowed into passive, anaesthetised compliance, like Slingsby's nudes.
Are we programmed performers, dancing to a choreographed beat beyond our control, or have we all become professors of paranoia, dredging up conspiracy theories with an almost fundamentalist fervour? Although Slingsby doesn't ask this question directly, in many of his works the intricate clutter of objects and motifs suggests that our excessive baggage is more of the mind than the material world. This is reinforced, paradoxically by the dragonflies in work 'Carrying every frame'. Crossing and combining with that of the butterfly , the dragonfly is not merely associated with military choppers but is, in fact, an archetypal symbol of change. It signifies the transcendence of self-created illusions that limit growth. As such, it symbolizes the self-actualisation that accompanies maturity. In a sense, the dragonflies in work 'Thorny issues' subvert the ominous refrain running through 'Clearing Customs'. Not only do they infer a potential threat, but also the hope of redemption. Like the bunny in work 'Outside-inside', they suggest that a Blakean return to enlightened innocence is not impossible . Slingsby is a master at sleight of hand in his ability to subvert preconceptions and slip between the cracks of conformism. One might read this show as yet another rite of passage in a career characterised by creative initiations and rebirths. From an iconography inspired by ancient codes and engravings Slingsby appears to have shifted to the argot of contemporary encryption. Yet 'Clearing Customs' does not signify a departure from his ongoing concerns, but rather a continuum. As with his earlier output, Slingsby's artworks are the products of a meticulously crafted, obsessively ordered, labour-intensive process. He still protects and displays his precious found objects in box-like installations that sometimes resemble mounted playpens, or miniature pageants. The surfaces of his paintings and sculptures remain richly textured and his characteristically exuberant palette is more spectacular than ever. His series of portraits in this show might be read as a critique of the mugshots snapped by facial recognition systems installed in airports which are capable of culling through millions of records at high speed, in order to identify criminals or terrorists. Yet Slingsby's mugshots are also reminiscent of the portraits he has painted of the Nama in Richtersveld. The signature striations and markings on his works might refer to finger-print devices and scanners. But equally they recall engravings on the Nama petroglyphs, and the spiritual footprints of this ancient society. The spirals and other decorative doodles bursting from the surfaces of his work attest to the continuum of archetypal imagery between past, present and future, and the possibility of attaining an augmented consciousness. His use of speech bubbles in some of the paintings might imbue the paintings with contemporary comic book humour. They also provide commentary on the fact that writing has been crucial to the Western myth of the distinction between oral and written cultures. But the speech bubbles in 'Clearing Customs' are conducting a one-way conversation. They are clearly being seen, but not heard. And while the urgency of his message should not be ignored, Slingsby's humour and playful, brash cartoon strokes serve to soften some of the more sinister edges.
There might well be places where the seemingly omniscient eye of the surveillance camera cannot reach, and spaces that GPS satellite tracking systems cannot monitor. Although the mechanisms of power might appear omnipotent, Slingsby nevertheless offers the possibility for resistance. The baggage has indeed become excessive. But, as he suggests, there are creative, enriching and liberating ways of lightening the load.
UPDATED 6th September 2012