Cantata: A Play of the Trace

Gallery 101, Collins St, Melbourne

Touch your own skin
by Rob Garrett

Lyn Plummer’s sumptuously embellished plaques, curtains and chasuble tease at the well-worked seam between two familiar garments – sex and religion. Couple this, as she does, with notions of the cantata (a choral narrative) and the trace (what can never be present) and her work amounts to a provocation to engage with ideas of power and presence as well.

Look at the twin curtains hanging either side of the dark sheen of the chasuble and say you don’t recognise flayed flesh; feel the pain; think of your vulnerability. Consider too, the opportunity to think about how women’s power has been classified when regarding the obsessive bead-work of the Madonna and Child against the several panels that reference the cunt – plump, red, glistening. What do you make of the fetishistic loops of hair and tags of fur, or the bloodlike trails of thread from the chasuble?

Across and between these surfaces Plummer has obsessively inscribed an indecipherable text. The marks that look like writing resist enunciation. Can you read them? I can’t. They look like writing – as marks they have achieved this much structure of difference. That is, as a pattern they are different from other patterns that are not writing, such as, for instance wet pubic hair pressed against pale skin. But internally, within the structure of lines and loops of Plummer’s inscriptions, there is insufficient structure of difference to constitute the marks and spacings of actual writing. These are almost the play marks of a teenager creating the simulacra of an imaginary and important text – a most self-satisfying gesture. Here they tease as well. They refuse the reader. What is going on here?

One way to read Plummer’s scribbling is by reference to Jacques Derrida’s notion of the trace-structure of language in which, at the very time legibility is presented it is also effaced. Without going into too much detail about Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, it can be said that when he writes of language, his insistence that legibility be always, necessarily accompanied by erasure, is strategic. It is the strategy of using the only available language while not subscribing to its premises. He describes this as the strategy “of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself.” [1] Here is the logic for Plummer’s attraction to the word “trace,” for her repertoire of corporeal, sexual and religious iconography is deployed with a similar strategy in mind in this exhibition.

What has Plummer borrowed under erasure? She has borrowed the revered and the reviled body, and the authoritative word and its copy – ritual – from the heritage of the church. But these same things are borrowed from the apparently contrary legacy of various feminist engagements with the maternal and the sexual. If all of these are borrowed without subscribing to their premises, then the viewer is asked to undertake a reading of the exhibition that will turn thinking inside out. It is a little like being asked to trace the continuous surface of a Möbius strip with your finger and decide which side is which. Cantata asks us to read and re-write the-word-become-flesh-become-word without nostalgia for a defining yet absent, presence. Touch your own skin as you take in this show.

Rob Garrett © 2000
Art Historian and critic
Head of School (2000-2002)
School of Art
Otago Polytechnic

[1]. Jacques Derrida, cited in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (trans.), “Translator’s Preface.” In Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1994, p.xviii.