Modulations: Cantata ReConfigured

Modualtions #1, Ashburton Gallery, Ashburton New Zealand
Modulations #2, Sourthland Gallery, Invercargill, New Zealand
Modulations #3, Forrester Gallery, Oamaru, New Zealand
Modulations #4, Eastern-Southland Gallery, Gore New Zealand

Shifting Skins

The artistic practice of Lyn Plummer involves many intricate and painstaking processes - stitching, binding, knotting, beading, embroidery - the medium of her installations which carries the greatest charge however, is also the least corporeal. This is because Plummer is a manipulator and transformer of space. When Cantata: A Play of the Trace II (2005) was installed in Dunedin, the sterile white cube of the Hocken Gallery underwent a transfiguration. Plummer utilised the near symmetry of its exhibition spaces to present her works in a precise, formally ordered layout, which evoked the solemn dignity of ecclesiastical ceremony. The outer two galleries came to resemble intimate side-chapels, contemplative spaces flanking the more forcefully dramatic nave and chancel of the central gallery.

The multimedia installation series Modulations: Cantata ReConfigured will draw upon works produced for Cantata I (2000, Melbourne: Gallery 101) and Cantata II (2005, Dunedin: Hocken Gallery). However, rather than attempting to replicate these exhibitions, the new installations will respond to the possibilities offered (and challenges presented) by each gallery space. The installations will also include new works developed in response to the individual sites. For the first exhibition, the smaller of the Ashburton Art Gallery’s two spaces has been conceptualised as the sanctuary of a church. The viewers’ movements both here and in the larger gallery are constrained and directed by the addition of floor based pieces, which had not featured in previous manifestations of the installation. The shape of subsequent displays will be determined by Plummer’s continuing role as both creator and curator.

By responding so closely to their adopted environments, Plummer’s installations both capitalise on and enhance the character of galleries as secular, ritualised spaces. The art historian Carol Duncan has explored the reverential environment created by art museums, and the associated behaviour this elicits. She links this to the secularising tendencies of the eighteenth-century enlightenment, where the elevation of art and aesthetic experience as major topics of critical and philosophical enquiry ‘can be understood as a transference of spiritual values from the sacred realm into secular time and space.[1]

This series of installations also functions as a form of pilgrimage or procession, moving from one ceremonial space to another, and undergoing change in response to each encounter. ‘Cantata’ describes a text or narrative set to music, language utilising another art form as its method of communication. The ‘Modulations’ of the title thus suggests changes in such features as pitch, pace, tone and emphasis, and consequently upon the connotations of the original installation. After all, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that directs meaning. During its pilgrimage, this multimedia ‘text’ will be added to, subtracted from and re-anthologised. The meaning of language is never as stable as we might like to assume. Here it is
rendered even more fragile - allowing itself to be rewritten by the artist and reread by the viewer.

Fellow pilgrims, who witness the installation in a number of different spaces, will experience these subtle changes and the shifts in potential interpretations they produce. However, even the isolated viewer plays an essential role in the realisation of the work through their involuntary role as a performer in the ritual. Duncan notes that a ritual site always involves an element of performance, as a place programmed for the enactment of something. This need not be a formal spectacle, it may be something an individual enacts alone by engaging in some kind of structured experience.[2] Since 1982, Plummer has archived unedited all written responses to her installations, from scholarly reviews to casual jottings in visitors’ books, preserving these as a ‘trace’ of each memory provoked. She also hopes to change the nature of the space that the works inhabit, leaving an ‘after-image’ in the memory of the viewer-participants, long after the exhibition has been dismantled.[3]

Memory is an important theme in Plummer’s work. This is particularly evident in her engagement with skin as a delicate membrane which mediates the boundary between the individual’s inside and the outside world. Sensory experiences, both of pleasure and pain, render the skin a bearer of memory. At the same time, the cutting, piercing or marking of skin - or adoption of costume as a second skin - is central to many rituals. The words of Allen S. Weiss offer a succinct summation of concerns Plummer has long explored in her installations:

The body is memory, where the wounds inflicted in initiatory ceremonies and vindictive punishments become the scars that remain the trace of one’s own suffering, a suffering that creates both self-consciousness and its ethical double, social-consciousness. The scar turns the body into an icon. The intensity of the knife’s passage and the memory of blood’s flow are transformed into a symbol - the mark of passage into society and its regulated systems of value and exchange.[4]

Indeed, body and icon are conflated in many of Plummer’s works. A core element of the Cantata installations is the exquisitely worked surfaces of the shaped stretchers. Their arched forms recall numerous features of church architecture, but especially the mitres worn by Bishops - a symbol of patriarchal and ecclesiastical authority. A number of these possess surfaces suggesting scarred and bleeding flesh. Others incorporate strands in human hair, something considered desirable in some contexts (and parts of the anatomy) and abhorrent in others. These works explore the capacity of the body to simultaneously seduce and repulse. The glistening translucent red of Opus #7 - ‘Presumed immutability of skin’ recalls
the glow of rubies, while at the same time resembling matted locks of hair set in congealing blood.

Plummer’s installations are not concerned with a disembodied spirituality, but with reclaiming a spiritual life that is far closer to bodily experience. Traditionally, the Church has privileged the soul, coded as masculine, over the mortal body, tainted by original sin and associated with the feminine realm of the sensory. These dichotomous elements are however united in sacred relics. The bodily remains of saints were decreed to be holy and often attributed miraculous powers. Cantata boasts several intricately fabricated reliquaries of glass and gold. The Reformation similarly focused attention upon this relationship, with a chief point of contention between Catholics and Protestants being the actual corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharistic host. This sectarian division underpinned the development of the sumptuous Baroque style, conceived as a direct appeal to the bodily senses in a bid to arouse spiritual empathy.

In the figure of Christ the godhead was rendered corporeal, the word became flesh. His human sacrifice is the central symbol of the Christian faith - suffering as the means to redemption. Christianity - the Catholic Church in particular - has elevated sacrifice and suffering. Numerous saints and martyrs present pain as heroic and holy. Maybe this celebration has rendered the Church blind to the suffering it has caused so many others - women in particular. At the same time it was celebrating the horrific martyrdoms of saints as a testament to their faith, it was enacting similar tortures on numerous others through inquisitions and witch trials.

Certain rituals have also involved the voluntary suffering of willing participants. Several ‘mitres’ feature small hand whips, like those employed by flagellants when contemplating the suffering of Christ. The surfaces of others suggest the painful hair shirts worn as penance for sins. Indeed, in some accounts of exalted states the boundary between agony and ecstasy becomes blurred. As Saint Teresa recounted, ‘It is impossible to describe or explain the way in which God wounds the soul, or the very great pain He inflicts on it […] But this is so sweet a pain that no delight in the whole world can be more pleasing.’[5]

The tendency of organised religion to punish or suppress the body often relates to its links with sexuality. As Paul railed against the bodily, ‘The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness’ (Galatians 5:19). Plummer’s work examines the parallels and intersections between sex and religion. A number of pieces feature clitoral or vulva-like forms - perhaps a comment on the absurdity and injustice of celibate males dictating the reproductive rights of women. For centuries art has been used to aestheticise and naturalise systems of authority. Here, as elsewhere in the installations, Plummer engages with the visual heritage of the Church, so as to deconstruct and bring into
question the practices and ideologies it represents. The visual language of the oppressors is employed to commemorate the unrecorded experiences of their marginalised victims.[6]

In Opus #19 - Spread - pin - feather, the vagina-like opening also resembles a gaping wound, suggesting the parallels between sexuality and suffering. This has been decorated with invitingly soft down, which simultaneously resembles a repulsive discharge. A forest of pins marks the contours of the opening, recalling the ambiguity that frequently exists between pleasure and pain in both the sexual and spiritual. The classic symbol of this is Saint Sebastian, his beautiful naked body pierced with arrows, his eyes turned heavenward and lips parted in ecstasy. Here Plummer has feminised the concept, presenting the scarred/sacred skin of Saint Sebastina.

Mieke Bal identifies the ‘second-person narrative’ as a key feature of the continuation of a Baroque sensibility in contemporary art. She contrasts the first-person narrative approach, where the tactility of the artist’s hand is emphatically present in the artwork, with the third-person, where the artist attempts to eliminate reference to their working process. Bal suggests ‘visual erotics’ as a new, alternative kind of tactility which,

‘as distinct from expressionism, is not based on the inscription of the I in the work, but on the inscription of the strongest possible dynamic between the I and you grounded in a sense-based attraction that is not limited to vision.’

She argues that this evocation of the body and appeal to the senses - especially that of touch - attracts viewers regardless of their sexual interests. She invokes Christopher Bollas’ notion of the ‘trisexual’, where the ‘body of desire no longer signifies sexuality but the memory of gratification.’[7] This notion is applicable to pain as well as pleasure, and is strongly evident in Plummer’s inherently empathetic surfaces.

The skin’s surface connects the private sphere or the individual’s inside, with the outside public sphere. In the past this spatial division has been employed to dictate the respective social roles of men and women. The traditionally female crafts of the domestic sphere are central to the production of Plummer’s work, with fabrics her primary medium. A luxuriant vestment replaces the altar as a central focus of her installations. Such processes as binding, embroidery, knotting, stitching, lace-making, and sewing - like much female experience - have been marginalised by official histories. In her art Plummer reclaims these practices in order to address this exclusion.

For centuries the Church has presented itself as a salve for the disempowered, offering them hope of a heavenly reward for their suffering. At the same time, it has often re-enacted the very forms of oppression from which they were seeking comfort. Plummer’s installation is suffused with mysticism, suggesting how religion may awe the vulnerable into a complicit submission. It seems contradictory that such esoteric practices should be wedded to an inflexible dogmatic certainty. Many of her ‘mitres’ are inscribed with an indecipherable text. They stand as inscrutable Rosetta stones, marked with a ‘signifier of the signifier’ but one which refuses to signify. After all, Derrida has claimed that the ‘age of the sign’ - that unification of the concept and its symbolic corollary - ‘is essentially theological’.[8] Plummer holds no such pretensions of interpretive authority or certainty, but instead embraces the shifting visual and conceptual possibilities offered by reconfiguration.

Ralph Body, © June 2007

[1] Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, London and New York: Routledge,
1995, p.14
[2] Duncan, p.12
[3]‘Lyn Plummer’, in Nevill Drury and Anna Voigt, eds., Fire and Shadow: Spirituality in Contemporary
Australian Art
, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, p.160
[4] Allen S. Weiss, Iconology and Perversion, Melbourne: Art & Text Publications, 1988, pp.15-16
[5]The Life of St. Teresa of Ávila (1588), translated by J. M. Cohen, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1957, p.209
[6] Domingo Córdoba, ‘Sacrificing the Body as a Ritual Act of Recalling Memories and Histories’, in
Cantata: A Play of the Trace II, Dunedin: Hocken Gallery, 2005, p.7
[7] Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp.177-188
[8] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore and London:
John Hopkins University Press, 1976, p.7 & p.14.