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Anne Graham’s Passing Through:
Between Performance and the Object
Susan Best
‘Eating, for example, is not reducible to the chemistry of alimentation.’
‘To be sure, in the satisfaction of need the alienness of the world that founds me loses its alterity: in satiety the real I sink my teeth into is assimilated, the forces that were in the other become my forces, become me (and every satisfaction of need is in some respect nourishment).’
– Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity 128–9

There is a strange ruthlessness in Levinas’s description of eating.
I strip what I eat of its otherness, I annex it, incorporating it so wholly it becomes me. This greedy, violent incorporation of the other faithfully follows the account of early infancy described by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Viewed in this more overtly psychological light, devouring is something like a developmental phase that precedes sociality. For Levinas, this phase ends when the welcoming feminine face comes into view and allows one to dwell or feel at home in the world. Interiority or ‘separated being’ becomes possible only when this hospitality is accepted.

This account of rapacious eating arrested or displaced by hospitality suggests that one passes through one stage to the other without residue, that inside and outside the body are somehow settled after this moment of recognition. But is the porosity of the body really resolved in this way? Anne Graham’s work suggests otherwise. Her work is informed by porosity and transitoriness: dwelling is not the safe permanent settlement of the domestic sphere but something turned outwards to be performed in the risky realm of public space, similarly the body is not the impregnable fortress built by the recognition of limits, but something still entangled with what it ingests.

This might sound like the conditions for yet another shocking encounter with the abject materiality of the body and the unpredictable terror of public space – the well-travelled terrain of much contemporary art concerned with these issues. However, this is not the sensibility we see in Graham’s work. To be sure, Art and Food has a visceral edge: Duck Breast looks scarified, bright red welts peep through the snug coating of rubber; Platzki is swollen taut like a pregnant belly; Spag Bol hooks ribbons of thin rubbery intestines; the vivid red innerness of Tom topped with chain and bathroom plug graphically telescopes the journey from inside to outside. But these sculptures are not simply renditions of the complex relations between food and the body; they are also the result of a more playful social exchange.

Graham invited nine enthusiastic cooks to prepare a meal in the Newcastle Region Art Gallery courtyard for invited guests and then responded to the meal within twenty-four hours with these sculptures. The resulting sculptures, begun as a response to another culinary artist, circulate as a further conversation with others in their relaxed lounge-like setting. Food here becomes the currency of sociability, weaving inside and outside the body into the broader social fabric. Hospitality thus continues the blending of inner and outer experience; it does not end the play between them.

What we learn from Graham’s performances is that domesticity can be a portable action, and that dwelling can take place if there is shelter for such action. Her sustained investigation into the nature of dwelling has taken her to many and varied locations: parks, railway stations, carparks, under-passes, cliff tops, retirement villages. Her raw material in these installations/ performances is the basic stuff of life. Indeed, her series of temporary tent and kitchen performances from the 1990s were crafted from the stuff of everyday life: some form of shelter, gatherings of passersby, the serving of meals, conversation and sometimes the showing of films. Staged in various locations around Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Wollongong, and in Tokamachi, Japan, these works opened the safe enclosure of domesticity to the risk of ‘chance encounters’. The blurring of art and life coupled with the surrealist surrender to chance is clearly evident in Art and Food.

This surrealist flavour is also evident in the other anxious objects in this exhibition. They, too, circulate round the body: giant combs have a kind of bodily resonance not unlike the similarly disquieting works of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois. They are not quite the objects of nightmares, but they do all have teeth. Some have captured hair, and some have rubbery extrusions as if they have passed through the body’s ambiguous borders and are now part of its circulation. The needles in the same room are more obvious instruments of penetration but their rounded forms makes them somehow more benign, more comb-like, just the tooth of a comb viewed in cross-section.

As the sculptures come into focus as a collection or constellation of objects, combs start to proliferate; they come in many different forms: rakes, fans, individual teeth. It is as if this shape or implement has a curious will to form, a will that quietly insinuates itself into very different everyday objects as though marshalling some unseen voracious energy for transformation. Objects are slowly but surely assimilated into the category of combs and teeth. An instrument for grooming the outside of the body becomes aligned with eating in its Levinasian form – rapacious incorporation.

There is, then, a curious reversal in this exhibition: ingested food does not signify eating, instead we find the character of eating in comb-like objects. The two parts of this exhibition thus work in concert to unsettle our perceptions of what is inside and what is outside the body. In the Art and Food installation eating is turned inside-out, food doesn’t simply become incorporated into the body, it triggers quirky external objects for contemplation and social play. On the other hand, combs which are designed to simply pass through and untangle the hair, to only touch or stroke the outer threshold of the body, have somehow grown large and annexed the inner functioning of eating. Such entanglements of bodies and objects must surely be one of the ways in which we make ourselves at home in the world.

Dr Susan Best teaches at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW


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