Andrew Paul Wood – 29 June, 2012
In many ways M(o)useings is a continuation of Morison's Kabalistic and Alchemical interests in the 1980s and ‘90s. The Alchemist dedicates themselves to the philosophical transmutation of base materials into gold. Her 1985 work Hermes used both excrement and gold, Te Papa has her Vademecum of 1986, Auckland Art Gallery has her Ten of 1997, and Christchurch Art Gallery holds within its collection her 1998 Excrement/Gold - an abstract diptych half gold leaf and half sealed dog faeces - God and Dog, the Sacred and Profane.
1 June - 7 July 2012
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.
- Jonathan Swift, “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
Julia Morison’s exhibition M(o)usings is not an easy exhibition to simply walk into off the street uninitiated. Morrison is only a collaborator, a facilitator, the raw material being provided by her beloved Chihuahua, Mouse - hence the exhibition title’s play on “musings” and “Mouse”. Doggy poo as objet trouvé? Mouse’s delicate little turds are carefully mounted in hand-crafted bell jars. Inside the jars (shades of science and the natural history museum) are rounded white mounts that have been dusted with blusher from Julia’s previous incarnation as “Madame” of the collaborative duo Madame and the Bastard with Heather Straka (One recalls Straka’s trompe l’oeil paintings of urinals). The soft curve of the mount resembles the female breast, a form echoed in the domed and nippled glass jars. I am reminded of Case 33 in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis (1886), the man with an erotic addiction to defecating on the bosoms of ladies in décolleté evening gowns.
Some of the shits are covered in gold leaf as if some holy relic of a dead saint in a reliquary, or the host in a Monstrance. In his 1988 novel In Praise of the Stepmother, Vargos Llosa draws a strange parallel between the sacrament of confession and the act of excretion - both resulting in a kind of absolution. It is that quasi-Catholic counterpoint of the physical and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane, which energises the exhibition with its frisson. In 2008 Andres Serrano of Piss Christ fame produced a whole series of photographs zooming in on exotic animal excrement. The large framed print included in M(o)usings serves only to further telescope out the ironic distance between audience and poo, poo and dog. The heroic scale of the photographic image transforms the poo into something philosophical or sacramental. It is also worth nothing that the prints are probably more saleable than the original subjects. It is with every repellent detail, every fibre and lump at maximum magnification that the shits seem least repellent - a similar effect which can be found in the coprophillic obsessions of Gilbert and George’s even bigger photographic prints.
With their pinch-ended formalism each spoor resembles the biomorphic Surrealism of Jean Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Henry Moore. The lack of consciousness that went into their original production reminds us that randomness has long featured in art from Max Ernst’s use of frottage to Max Gimblett’s Zen-inspired action splashes. In Morison’s own oeuvre we may recognise accidental echoes of the personable and cute little blob creatures of expanding insulation foam and stick-on googly eyes of Angels and Flies (2002), the mischievous organic shapes of No Names For Things No String For (2003) and more recently the tortured liquefaction blobs of Meet Me on the Other Side (2011).
Excrement has a long history in art. In medieval times it signified the sinful world, and during the Renaissance it could be found everywhere in the genre paintings of the Low Countries. It was essential in the scatological imperatives of Surrealism from Salvador Dalí to Antonin Artaud as a way of attempting to say the unsayable, taboo transcending content.
In contemporary art, the turds in the Temple of the Muses were informed by two philosophical strands. The first of these is the idea of the Abject popularised by Julia Kristeva - the investigation of things humans normally distance themselves from as being icky. The Abject was particularly interesting for feminist artists who could use it to make art about the body (the female body especially) and the things it does, and the things that happen or are done to it. It was also a useful way of rejecting what they saw as a clinical and patriarchal abstract modernism. as a metaphor for poo, and puns “cacao” with “caca”.
The other motivating idea was that of institutional criticism begun with Duchamp’s readymades. The artist flings ‘mud’ in the collector’s eye and defies the market with art that cannot be commoditised because who wants to buy shit as anything other than fertiliser? Is the artistic object authentic or intrinsic, or is it just whatever happens to be in the context of an art gallery? In 1961, Piero Manzoni canned his own poo (supposedly) and called it Artist’s Shit - a limited edition of objects which these days sell for thousands. Dalí was envious, describing the work as, “a well-known Pop artist of Verona who sells artist’s shit (in very sophisticated packaging) as a luxury item!” Our own Billy Apple did much the same when he framed and hung used toilet paper. Essentially to celebrate shit in this way is ultimately a Dadaist act of anti-art - a defiance of capitalism and the art market. Artist’s shit in a can makes a logical counterpoint to Warhol’s cans of Campbell’s Soup - the after to the before. Morison does exactly this by including individually packaged and branded doggy treats in the exhibition along with resulting stool.
In many ways M(o)useings is a continuation of Morison’s Kabalistic and Alchemical interests in the 1980s and ‘90s. The Alchemist dedicates themselves to the philosophical transmutation of base materials into gold. Her 1985 work Hermes used both excrement and gold, Te Papa has her Vademecum of 1986, Auckland Art Gallery has her Ten of 1997, and Christchurch Art Gallery holds within its collection her 1998 Excrement/Gold - an abstract diptych half gold leaf and half sealed dog faeces - God and Dog, the Sacred and Profane. In 2000 Julaine Stephenson parodied this work in the High Street Liftspace with her Harpic/Brasso. The Kabala connection suggests the shit is simultaneously the clay from which both Adam and Golem are made, and the baseness that is left behind once the mystical idea has been digested. Excrement is one of the sacred Sephirothic elements of the Kabala frequently used by Julia in earlier works along with lead, ash, clay, blood, mercuric salts, silver, gold and the ethereal represented by acrylic.
Alchemy uses the alimentary journey as a metaphor for the process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Matthew 17:17 says “Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?” - which is to use the process of eating-digesting-and defecating as a metaphor for taking on of both sacred and profane (sinful) knowledge. Sigmund Freud in his ‘Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis’ (1917) suggested that because it comes from our bodies like a baby, the first thing we physically do at birth, and is part of the body, we unconsciously value shit highly as a ‘gift’, and indeed artists are subconsciously and narcissistically playing with their own poo. As infants it is our first sculptural medium - all of which is no doubt not lost on Morison. This gets us back to Antonin Artaud, who said all writing is pigshit (the author being the pig) - reiterated more generally by Deleuze and Guattari in the theory that the body is merely a desiring machine. “It breathes, it heats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id”. Is then all art dogshit? Are all artists just dogs beneath the skin and creating a biological instinct?
But of course Morison’s modifications of Mouse’s poos with their thin coat of polyurethane are more serious than that. Perhaps it acknowledges that excreting, like birth and death, is a biological democracy that makes us equal with the beasts, a category that also includes Chihuahuas. Ultimately, though, the simplest reading of M(o)uslings is as an homage by a loving and devoted owner to her much beloved pet.
Andrew Paul Wood
Note: some of this material was presented in a public debate with Creon Upton presented at the Jonathan Smart Gallery, Saturday, June 23, 2012.