January 17, 2010

on a day unknown

It may not be immediately obvious how Jason E. Bowman’s new show “Untitled (on a day unknown)” at the Whitworth Art Gallery resonates with Damien Hirst’s “Nothing Matters” at the White Cube for me. On first viewing of the simple installation of court artist drawings, pinhole camera photos and quotation panels from the 1936 trial of 29 gay men in Chester, I found it lacked something. At the artist’s conversation yesterday, the discussion centred on the temporal re/dis/location of oppressive attitudes and violence against gay, lesbian and transgender identity. Jason had worked with a group of older LGBT people to reconstruct the trial – the choice of which was to span 3 generations of gay experience from pre-war oppression through 50s-60s legalisers to his present. It was in this discussion that I put my finger on what was missing – everything. I realised that the exhibition is fundamentally a structured absence. The archival process is a presence that represents a series of absences:

- the absence of a title
- the absence of time, the figures in the images are modern surrogates for the original defendants
- the absence of participants – Jason commented that the participants carry layers of secret knowledge developed through the project
- the absence of the artist himself, he doesn’t actually make any of the work on display
- the absence of technology – images displayed use rudimentary technologies (pin-hole, drawing)
- the absence of images from the time,
- the absence of the subsequent histories of the trial victims
- the absence of presence at the trial – court rules disallow drawing so the court artist has to make written notes and then draw from them from memory (I would love to have seen those notes)
- the absence of LGBT experience in mainstream consciousness
But (especially as a heterosexual) this absence is experienced a powerful analogy of knowing the unknowable. So what made me link this experience with the Hirst paintings? The experience of absence: in Bowman’s show absence is a central presence; Hirst blandly offers an absence too, an absence of insight or serious intent.


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