Monday, October 12, 2009

The candour of Canucks


“…when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality?”

When my Canadian mail was hand-delivered to me this week in the US, I caught up on an issue of Macleans a month late. Lianne George’s article “You’re Teaching Our Kids WHAT?” about pleasure-centered sex education caught my eye because the introduction mentions the Toronto store, Good for Her.

I had a flashback to my visit to the store in the dead of winter to pick up a rush order for sequin pasties to use in my cupcake bra (something I need to arrange again for my exhibition, Titillate, this spring at Gallery 1313). The store offers a sex-positive environment that by all accounts should make anyone comfortable. In principle, I am an ardent supporter of the sex-positivity movement. But, as I have let on in past blog posts, I find that I can walk the walk academically, but not talk the talk personally. Blushing with embarrassment, I am sure that I was as red as the pasties when I went to pick them up, wanting to cry out to the non-judgmental staff, “They aren’t for me—they are for art! ” It didn’t help that I was feeling unlike myself already. Wearing extremely heavy makeup for the photo shoot, I felt the impulse to add, “I don’t normally wear this much makeup. I’m a feminist!” as if one precludes the other. Interestingly, this discomfort is notably absent when I am performing for the camera. Although I have always thought of this process as strictly documentary, it begs the question, when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality? When does ambivalence become acceptance? Perhaps the existence of this blog post indicates that the moment has arrived.

Being linguistically oriented, I can pinpoint with conviction the first time I encountered the word ‘ambivalence’ (as I can with many other words). It was in high school while researching Pablo Picasso, who was as much a womanizer as an artistic genius. The interplay between his personal and artistic aspirations struck me, but I was especially affected by the ambivalence towards women prevalent in his work. The very concept of ambivalence, this irreconcilable tension, has become central to my artwork over time; an excerpt from my artist statement reads “Hopeful and hopeless, the cocooned forms appear to simultaneously break free and become further bound.”

Artwork, particularly of the conceptual vein, is a safe haven for avoidance, non-fiction writing less so. In contemporary art, ambiguity is a virtue, a sign of sophistication. The interplay between my personal and artistic aspirations has always been nebulous to me, but it was a comfortable situation because no artist wants to give away all of the answers. However, as I read George’s article about the information gap facing teens who want details about healthy sexual relationships, I realized that I have been struggling with my own information gap as an artist. Beyond the obvious feminist agenda, what drives my practice? Moreover, what is with the pervasive sexual ambivalence? The best I could do a year ago was to say that there was sexual ambivalence, let alone deconstruct it.

The Macleans article, which describes the progressive direction of sex education in Canadian high schools—Alberta notwithstanding, where students can be excused from class when sexuality and sexual orientation are being discussed—was clarifying because it made me reflect on my own experience as a student. The very year that my male elementary school teacher was arrested and charged with sexual abuse, the replacement teacher introduced the book, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle (1973, Lyle Stuart Books) and our gym teacher introduced the all-powerful anonymous question box. No counseling took place after the teacher’s arrest, but it should have. I don’t doubt that we were all affected on some level, as victimization takes many forms and not all of them dovetail with the law. No wonder sexual ambivalence reared its ugly head in my artwork and I became wary of men. The disparity between sex-negativity and sex-positivity in a single year was too great to wrap my prepubescent mind around.

Through the process of immersing myself in sex-positive feminist writings, exhibitions and events as content for this blog, maybe I have subconsciously been trying to bridge the gap between sex-negativity and sex-positivity, between ambivalence and acceptance. Instead of finding clarity in these logical sources, I found it in the unlikeliest of places. It seems that the cocoon metaphor that I have been using in my sculptures is not just a safe haven for avoidance, but an apt metaphor for my life, a reminder of the importance of gestation. Patience is a virtue after all, not ambiguity.

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