Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gays, obituaries and evolution

Charles Darwin bequeathed us two great social constructs:  childhood and homosexuality.  Previously, they were aspects of the same amorphous lump – of being human – but evolution’s “survival of the fittest” blowtorch inevitably singled-out human states of non-breeding. 

The evolutionary role of one’s first 15 years or so being sterile seems straightforward – decent preparation for the all-important next stage of life, breeding – but the anxiety in the 0-14 (ahem) mounting yard, preceding puberty’s starting-gate, was altogether new.  Instead of childhood being a ride to adulthood, it became something ridden.  Life was a race, so natural parental qualms about their own genetic mediocrity (“nature”) led to a brand-new hothouse environment for nurture – aka childhood.  It was, I stress, a social construct founded on anxiety: parent-jockeys, all too aware that their “horse” may not have the pedigree of others in the race, trying to compensate for this in other ways, all in the ticking-time countdown of childhood.     

Homosexuality’s evolutionary role is no doubt a thing that has received serious academic pondering.  For this, and other reasons I’ll try to write on this only as someone along for ride (as opposed to being ridden).  Again, we start with the post-Darwin construct of childhood – the construct of homosexuality starts as parental anxiety crystallised, as disappointment (real or imagined).  In crude evolutionary terms, nature has fired a blank.  Then enter Oscar Wilde – the gay man whose wit the upper classes can’t get enough of, and whose homosexual predilections for the lower classes would amount to evolutionary sabotage – if only they were acts of breeding, in both senses of the word.

Gay identity (which is largely to say, gay sex) is a fantastic counter-evolutionary circuit-breaker, then.  It admixes class (and race, when miscegenation was taboo), and so keeps the breeding “fittest” (upper classes) on their toes, in more than one way.   (Oscar Wilde was arguably an earlier Bradley Manning – a shocking traitor to the class who trusted him, yet someone who leaked exactly what they needed to lose at the time, for their class’ long term survival).  In breeding, as in capitalism and the public intellectual realm (and probably any given ecosystem at all), broad liquidity is a necessary, if fraught imperative.  You might say that the micro-exchange of bodily fluids (or not) in gay sex thus ultimately prevents the whole macro-shebang from getting lopsided, and toppling over.     

Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way, to an obituary for the late Christopher Pearson, who died suddenly on the weekend.  The shrill fundamentalism of most of the comments on this page (including many that you would call well-meaning) is a salient reminder that evolution can be a bitch, too.  

On one level, you could regard the disrespect shown to Pearson as simply the tearing down of a tall-poppy (or dim-witting of a bright wit) – with a margin of encouragement here being provided by the knowledge that Pearson has no children, or life partner (AFICT) to take close-up offence at offensive comments. 

Yet I think that there is something bigger and systemic here – the bon mots, and other gay evolutionary circuit-breakers (non-biological nepotism, anyone?) do end, more or less absolutely, with death, while breeders, in contrast, can view – and be obituarised in  – death with some consolation.  Alas, then, for gays:  evolution gets the emphatic last word – until the next gay child is born to perplexed parents, anyway.

Sidebar: Christopher Pearson and celibacy as a gay Catholic – setting the bar low

Pearson’s gradual slide, from being a gay liberation founder in the early 1970s (previous URL), into almost-celibacy from the mid-1980s (at the height of the AIDS crisis, when he was in his early 30s), is sketched out in this 2009 Oz column.  If the AIDS crisis was the initial catalyst here, his 1999 conversion to Catholicism (in his late 40s) sealed the deal, well sort of:

“Making a commitment to regular examination of conscience was unexpectedly therapeutic. It led me to trade in my double bed for something more austere, observe the Lenten fast and try, for the most part, to avoid low bars.” (emphasis added)

Ah, “low bars” – seemingly said with an Irish twinkle, but certainly not a Wildean one; Wilde rather relished setting the bar low in his sex life, and could not have mentioned “low bars” even semi-seriously.  That Pearson gets away with such a slippery euphemism (for what I interpret as an admission that he was not completely celibate, post 1999), is testament to the power of the particular sub-culture that he adopted (or vice versa), alongside – but arguably quite separate to – his conversion:        

“The welcome I got, especially from people in the Latin mass community, was a warm one. Mostly Irish and working class, its gatherings often involve shucking oysters or shelling prawns, washing them down with Guinness and singing folk noir ballads . . .”
The wholesome picture that Pearson affectionately paints of his adopted family (if I may term Adelaide’s Latin mass community that), indeed seems bigger than any occasional sexual lapses/shenanigans by Pearson.   But Christopher – and may you rest in peace – I’m not sure whether, at least for a tiny moment, you may have got carried away with your adopted family’s craic, and lapsed into kitsch – the ancient, evil, heterosexual counterpart of camp.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Of bad carpentry, embroidery and dildos
[NOTE: originally posted about 1pm AEST; updated about 5:30 pm same day]

What is correct art gallery protocol for the aftermath of a police raid?  This is something I had never pondered, until I found myself outside a locked-up Linden gallery in St Kilda, around 12:45pm yesterday.  I hadn’t known until later that afternoon of the reason for the unscheduled closure, but certainly I’d had a feeling for a few days, after an article ran on the Herald-Sun website on 29 May (1), that the current exhibition at Linden gallery (“Like Mike”, 18 May to 7 July 2013) might not run its full term.

As it turned out, I was just an hour or two too late to see the uncensored exhibition (or maybe a remnant part of it at least, see below), and/or the drama of a police censorship raid in action.  I’m assuming that the raid probably happened around Linden’s scheduled weekend opening time, 11am. There seems to be no detailed information available on this, however, and perhaps even more strangely in this amateur-media saturated age, no internet photos/video of the police raid in action, AFAICT. 

To return to my opening question, Linden gallery’s management have so far just stuck their head in the sand – at the time of writing, there is no information on their website nor on their landline phone answering machine.  Yesterday, there wasn’t even a humble notice on the locked front door – which would have been some minimal consolation for those like myself who had made the journey to see the exhibition.  

And to answer the correct art gallery protocol for question: personally, after a police raid, I’d convene an immediate protest/media-conference – but if this not Linden gallery management’s style (which I think is a safe assumption), then the other main option would seem to be exactly what they have done – that is, clam up like the Catholic Church faced with paedophiles in its ranks, and hope that the  scandal somehow blows over – or at least becomes someone else’s problem/“inheritance” (2) down the track. 

Paul Yore, the artist at the centre of the raid, is right to be angry that – as appears to be the implication in today’s Age article  – the whole “Like Mike” exhibition is now over.  On first impression, this is a disservice to all the other artists in the group show, at least.  However, even if unintentionally (and certainly gutlessly) Linden gallery management may have done Yore a favour by not continuing with a remnant show on a censored basis.  Viewed generously, this is more like the artists themselves collectively going on strike, than a management lock-out.

As to the nitty-gritty of the alleged obscenity, Paul Yore’s voice-only interview on the Linden website should be compulsory preparatory listening.  Yore is a young gay man, raised as a Catholic.  Issues of gender identity and sexuality are enshrined, you might say, in his art.  For this exhibition, he made a mega shrine/grotto – “a mountain of junk that you walk inside”, I think he terms it in the interview – out of bits he sawed-up out of previous, smaller-scale shrines, and nailed them together for the grand new erection – hence the “bad carpentry” reference.  Of course, the embroidery part of the installation – which is not “bad”, AFAICT – is an obvious gendered contrast to the engineering side of it. 

Sitting ambiguously between embroidery and carpentry/engineering are  . . . the dildos.  Previous Yore installations, as seems to be Gertrude Contemporary art gallery director Alexie Glass-Kantor’s implication in a quote from an earlier version of today’s Age article (on the Age website last night (3)), did not feature actual dildos, but objects like plastic bananas:  

“She said one of his works, showing a Justin Bieber poster with a motorised plastic banana at crotch level, had been exhibited at her government-funded gallery in 2010 . . .

‘There will be penises and there will be vaginas and there will be phalluses and there will be plays on the body itself as a kind of, almost, playground. I don't mean literally presented, like dildos or vibrators or cocks, I mean actually more as metaphor through using $2 shop objects like plastic bananas. The Justin Bieber stuff is all to do with what things that were taboo for him [i.e. Yore] as a teenager’”. 

I presume that dildos are indeed things shuttered behind the blacked-out windows of sex shops, for legal reasons - so Yore may have been pushing the boundaries here.  But when you merge embroidery and engineering, there is bound to be a collision of some sort.  One media report says (tactfully?) that “parts” (4) of Yore's installation were removed in the police raid.   I reckon it would have been the dildos that were being manhandled away by the local St Kilda police.  Now that is art, too.  But is dildo removal reverse-engineering of Yore’s bad carpentry, or the unpicking of his delicate embroidery?

Update 4 June 2013

This morning, the Oz led the pack with the news that Paul Yore is likely to be charged with producing and possessing child pornography. The Age followed an hour and a half later. 

The possession charge is an interesting one, as (what I assume to be) the offending image (Justin Bieber with two dildos and a pearl necklace) has been widely reproduced, including in the Age (unpixellated).  It is still freely available online – so if it is indeed child pornography, Google and others are complicit also.

Interestingly enough, the Herald Sun, which of course initially unleashed the attack dogs here, has so far been silent on Yore’s pending charges.  In this strange silence, there are distinct shades of the Herald Sun’s infamous front page story on the morning of 19 April 2010, on Carl Williams being a police informer – which was suddenly forgotten about, by the Herald Sun anyway, when it was reporting Carl Williams’ murder a few hours later.  Washing away the blood from one’s tainted hands does rather take time, it seems.

Also, the pixelated Justin-Bieber-with-one-dildo (and also a pearl necklace) photo the Herald Sun has been reproducing doesn’t even come from the recent Paul Yore exhibition at Linden, but rather a November-December 2012 exhibition at the Incinerator Gallery in Moonee Ponds. What the Herald Sun coyly pixellated was regarded, by one school teacher, as suitable for viewing by older class-groups at least (Year 11 and 12), “as some of the works are quite controversial” (same URL). 

Further update 5 June 2013

Re the possession charge of the (apparently) offending “image” (Justin Bieber with two dildos and a pearl necklace) being widely reproduced and available online, I should clarify that Yore’s work was a 3D sculpture/installation, and so only partially an “image”, while the 2D reproductions are, of course, all image.  If this gets to be argued in court, it could well come down to some fine point like:  is a 3D /actual dildo (mounted on a 2D collage) more sexualised than a 2D photo of the said dildo and 2D collage?  

Also, does the angle of the dildos’ mounting matter?  The two dildos were apparently – to use an engineering expression – cantilevered (leaning towards the vertical, like Melbourne’s tollway giant sculpture “cheese stick”).  Both dildos were plumbed to be fountains – running a clear-ish, almost laminar liquid (another fine legal point might be whether the viscosity, turbulence and colour of this liquid matters).  One of these cantilevered water-(?) features pointed towards the viewer, the other towards the cardboard cut-out’s face (yet again, is there a fine legal point in the nuances of the angles here?).http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/cocurator-urges-boycott-of-controversial-gallery-20130610-2o05a.html

The Herald Sun did subsequently, if reluctantly, report Yore’s pending charges yesterday (5).  Also, for some choice background on the initial complainants, see Melbourne art blogger Mark Holsworth.  Nothing clear-ish or laminar about these three, that's for sure.  

Another further update 20 June 2013

A 11 June Age article appears to have thrown down the gauntlet to Linden’s management:

“The gallery's ‘continued silence only furthers the negative connotations around this exhibition,’ [Geoff] Newton said. ‘They should have had the guts to open and have the rest of the works on show. I would encourage artists to boycott the gallery if further inaction prevents the show from reopening.’

Linden chairwoman Sue Foley said: ‘The gallery understands the artists' frustrations and is working diligently through a number of matters with a view to reopening the exhibition as soon as possible.’”

Minus the rest of Paul Yore’s works, Linden gallery duly re-opened that same day. Gallery director Melinda Martin, in an email to Geoff Newton, explained the decision to censor the remnant of Yore's work, while keeping the rest of the exhibition open, was that the remnant of Yore's work was awaiting classification from the Australian Classification Board, which would “provide advice and guidance to us about the nature of the content of the work for visitors to the gallery” (same URL).

Not surprisingly, given the gallery’s lengthy and unexplained period of closure, the sole customer on its first afternoon of re-opening appears to have been a security guard (ok, and presumably Age journo Sonia Harford also) (ibid).

These two bleak facts speak volumes, of course – art needs Big Brother’s prior permission, if not also personal attendance. 

On a related note, I have only recently come across Joe Dolce's (of “Shaddap you Face” fame) own similarly Kafka-esque encounter with Victoria Police on a child-pornography witch-hunt.  The article is well-worth reading in full.

In Dolce’s case, it eventually blew over – but seemingly only because a shaken Dolce did a lot of Internet research on his smart-phone (his computer was confiscated at the time, of course), to establish that the images in question were both unquestionably art, and widely published elsewhere, in digital and hardcopy.

The pressure Dolce felt here understandably causes him to think that the onus, to prove that it’s art, should not be on the accused in these scenarios.  But nor should rank-and-file police be expected to know the difference:    

“What happened to me was not the fault of police. After the Henson case, there were recommendations to create a body of experts from both sides of this grand divide. The government ignored them. All that is needed are some art-savvy police – people who know the difference between child photography and pornography, between innocence and intent. Otherwise anyone might expect that knock on the door” (same URL; emphasis added).

“Art-savvy police”? Possibly.  But in Paul Yore’s case, basic common-sense surely could be used instead.  If the director of the Australian Tapestry Workshop is prepared to offer Yore the workshop's full support (penultimate URL), the mind boggles at what degree of infiltration of society by child pornographers the police case against Yore must rest on – Prince Charles must be in on it too, for starters (ibid).

Yet another update 22 September 2013

Paul Yore has been charged with child pornography offences, on 6 September 2013 (election eve).  The three-month lag between police seizing the evidence, and the laying of charges, is surprising, and suggests that there was much going on behind the scenes before the decision was belatedly made.  One creaking, ramshackle system (a/the legal one) thus rather fittingly, I suggest, gets to deconstruct Yore’s ramshackle sculpture.  The stakes are high here – only one, not both of these edifices can be found to be made out of rubbish, and silenced accordingly.

Here I am not trying to be oblique per se.  My point is that there such a thing as bad law, as much as bad art.  You may think that the existence of bad art is a commonplace, or glut, while bad law is (fortunately) an exquisite rarity. Well, no – not if you throw sex into the ring, anyway. 

Paul Yore’s seized sculpture is one trial mainly, in my opinion, for being bad art masquerading as exquisite rarity.  Bad law’s turf has thus been blatantly infringed, and it must make an example of Yore and Yore alone – however illogical* this may be – to restore its status as a singular artefact, a collector’s item that will surely be savoured in legal textbooks centuries hence.

So what has sex got to do will all of this (and aren’t child pornography laws inherently good things)?  Sex is inherently both delicate and dirty; or to invoke Yore, sex is embroidery mixed with engineering. Child pornography laws do not deal with this dichotomy very well, because they de-aestheticize everything.  I am not saying that “art” is a thing above child pornography; merely that badness matters a great deal in sex, and if child pornography is assumed to be about sex, badness should also matter with it.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is such a thing as good child pornography.  Rather, I am jumping off from what should have long been a notorious set of photos, including some topless ones, of a 13 year-old girl: “unprofessional, unfocused, cropped haphazardly, with no regard for lighting.” You will no doubt have heard of criminal sexual acts closely connected with these photos, but it is very unlikely that you will have ever pondered just the “sheer badness” of the photos.  Legally, of course, assessing the focus (etc) of the photos seems trite, to put it mildly – “bad” or not, the nudeness of the photos is what I’d term an overwhelming category.  And laws or not, you are probably now thinking anyway:  What sort of an artsy pervert would be concerned about cropping in these circumstances? 

The answer is that the above quotes come from the photographed 13 year-old girl (now a 50 year-old woman) and are her long-ago, but still apparently vivid, recollections of the on-the-spot aesthetic judgements of her family, her parents in particular, upon seeing the photos soon after they were taken in 1977.  The bad modelling-shots (the pretext for the photos) triggered a family scene which revealed an act that in turn became worldwide news and is still notorious to this day.  The girl has ever since been better known as the girl that Roman Polanski raped.  Her narrative implies, I think it is fair to say, that the badness of the photos was a violation that kept on giving, or taking (you be the judge of that).  Certainly, had Polanski’s “modelling-shots” been non-shambolic, the subsequent lives of two people (at least) may well have been very different.  Which (I stress) is not to say that Polanski’s crime was aesthetic, rather than criminal assault:  rather, that bad child pornography tends to put itself on trial, anyway.  

Unlike Polanski, Paul Yore has not harmed any actual children in the making of his art; his is not a pretext, or record of a crime, in that sense.  I accept that legally, this is not wholly the point.  Equally, however, Yore is making the determined – and in my view, also a socially necessary, if courageous – point that a 12 year-old girl’s c.2010 bedroom shrine to the-then 15 year-old Justin Bieber is not necessarily as wholesome or innocent as we would conventionally assume.  Not that Yore is exploring, as such, the sexuality of 12 year-old girls (or some boys, of course) – but he is definitely unpacking some common things usually just humoured – and so in the adult scheme of things, buried – as transient crushes.  I do feel sorry for Justin Bieber, however – to be actually sexualised, like he wasn’t once a life-sized (15 year-old) Ken-doll! 

It is too easy, I think Yore is saying, to think that we all grow up and leave our squeaky-clean (or not) fairy-tale crushes behind, without trace.  As adults, we sometimes need the jolting of the intentionally bad – to put our wholesome selves, or our childhoods at least, on trial.  Yore presumably took a calculated gamble that the patent ramshackle ridiculousness of his shrine-sculpture would put the sexualised aspects of it in a rigorous context.  Instead, its very badness has only unleashed a chain of grim, literal causation. 

What seems to be beyond dispute is that Paul Yore, through his art, has (presumably) inadvertently put himself on trial, instead.  And we are none the wiser.      

*  Illogical because 2D reproductions of the offending work don't seem to be a problem. 


1.      Dana McCauley, “Offensive art involving Justin Bieber collage creates controversy at St Kilda's Linden Centre for Contemporary Art”, Port Phillip Leader May 29, 2013 11:06am

2.      Shannon Deery, “Archbishop Denis Hart begs forgiveness for Church mishandling child abuse”,  Sunday Herald Sun June 02, 2013:

“Archbishop Hart said he first learned of the horrors of the abuse crisis after becoming vicar general in 1996  . . .  He said he realised the problem had been swept under the carpet by his predecessors, including former archbishop Frank Little who he conceded kept few, if any, records of complaints and moved at least one paedophile priest to a new parish and into the lives of innocent children . . . We did inherit a situation where ... we inherited great difficulties".

3.      Goya Dmytryshchak and Andrea Petrie, “Police seize artworks, issue warrant” Age website June 1, 2013 9:30pm

4.      Albeit the same Age article also says some Yore “pictures” were removed – suggesting that it may have been instead the teenage/Bieber cardboard cut-outs that were deconstructed and removed, so possibly leaving the dildos adrift in the remnant installation, but in a presumably less controversial context. 

5.      AAP, Dana McCauley, “Art involving 'obscene' Justin Bieber collage triggers possible charges for Melbourne aritist Paul Yore”, Herald Sun, Port Phillip Leader June 04, 2013 3:33pm

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?