SPARE ROOM / 7 October to 17 November 2016
Although Neil Emmerson’s art practice is grounded in printmaking, his work engages with the expanded field of traditional print practice through the use of sculptural and installation formats, alternative materials, new technologies and the repeated image. His subject matter is political, both in terms of the critical focus it directs towards aspects of
contemporary social and cultural life and its consistent projection of gay experience into the public realm.
Neil Emmerson is coordinator of the Print Studio at the Dunedin School of Art in Aotearoa/New Zealand. He is a very highly regarded contemporary print artist with an exhibition history that spans the past 30 years including solo exhibitions at Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle (1986, 2004); Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne (1989, 1991); Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (1993); Artspace, Sydney (1994); Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney (2000); Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Booragul, NSW (1985, 2004).
Semaphore is a signaling system based on a rotational arrangement of gestures, sometimes using flags. It was designed in France in the nineteenth century as a form of communication across distance, often in a military context. We see its continued daily use in the signals of on-ground airport traffic controllers who ensure safety as the plane taxis into its final landing site. Neil Emmerson’s use of the term is at once ironic and redemptive. The gay man who has been hurled from a high building in Syria in an anti-homosexual gesture will not land safely. The photographs that were immediately sent around the world are designed to form communities of approval or dissent. Emmerson folds the original image into a dense network of pattern and sign, providing within the spaces art offers an alternative landing.
Throughout his career Emmerson has attended to situations where men find their personal choices inextricably connected with the political. Schooled in a Foucauldian analysis of sexuality, Emmerson investigates the heterotopias that offset the classic signifiers of masculinity. Mao Tse Tung’s mythic heroic young soldier Lei Feng (Gui Nan Feng 1994) was seen as an object of desire for men and women alike and is commemorated in a bridal dress made of handkerchiefs printed with the hero’s portrait. . In Habitat (2002) he worked with insider signs indicating assignation points near War Memorial Parks. In 2004 he made a series of works indicating the ways that that the torturers of the Abu Ghraib atrocities betrayed their own sexuality as they tortured their prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In another series, inhabit me (like a memory) (1993), the queered exposure of that usually private anatomical entity, the anus, was laid out in multiples for an audience for whom it is a mark of beauty.
Emmerson is a printmaker. That means that his practice is steeped in the politicized forms of the multiple, the indexical habits of pressure and repetition, the democracies of dissemination and dispersal, the habit of moving onward and outward, the sense that meaning never defaults to a singularity but moves across and within a wider field of signification. As Warhol realised, the work works best when it reaches a point at which it is repeatedly, and potentially infinitely, unique. Whether that urge for repetition is a specific feature of male sexuality or, as Hal Foster suggests, a desire for dominance over ever increasing moments of experience, to alleviate or to irritate the moment of traumatic encounter, it is a consistent feature of Emmerson’s practice. Even his large works, where the print blanket itself is used, contain doubles or triples.
Repetition is also structurally present in Emmerson’s use of the theatrical in gesture and of costume. The point of theatre is that a performance will be repeated. The individual actor steps into a role that provides a vehicle for utterances within a community of actors. In Habitat (2002) his actors have been hidden within the night and unseen, except for the as it were abandoned shoe lying beside the hedge. However after the Abu Ghraib works he began to design a series of costumes that were initially exhibited on hangers, as if they were body bags, but in more recent works are worn, inhabited by people whose faces are invisible but whose body language is made more apparent by the abstraction of their faces. These costumes are stamped with the initials G.O.D (Gay On Demand) and engage with the carnivalesque reversals of roles implicit in military organisations.
In his Goya-like reproductions of the forced performances of the Abu Ghraib victims, I was his… (2005) Emmerson drew from the already infinitely reproduced images of the victims of the Abu Ghraib atrocities. In Semaphore he draws on digital images designed to permeate targeted communities. We see a gay man blindfolded, photographed from below as he is thrown from a tall building. The photographer has focused on the strength of the man’s chest, the falling man gesture, the heads of those who threw him, looking down as he falls. The witnesses see what we cannot see, the ground on which he will break, his physical beauty thrown as a challenge to the gay viewers of this image on the net.
Emmerson commemorates this man’s death in a field of pattern and form in which the continually falling man- a trope repeated since 9/11 – will be held within a matrix of shape and pattern that stabilize that falling, keeping him in suspension, in a kind of ongoing life that resists the prejudice and hatred that killed him. Just as the photograph was disseminated in unimaginably large numbers, Emmerson counters that dissemination in a kaleidoscopic multiplying of the image within print.
Emmerson’s knowledge of print history is always active. Goya is here: Goya’s images often included the all-important onlookers’ acts of witnessing, compliance and consent. From a very different tradition and time, Emmerson has picked up the way the man’s shadow, resembles uncannily Yves Klein’s redemptive Leap into the Void (1960). The tactic of repetition insists on the connection between all of the parts. The installation is built of the repetition of the image itself, mirrored in a potentially infinite field that forms chevrons and arabesques, bridging the iconoclastic and iconic traditions of artmaking. Emmerson regards his practice as a field of queering that draws on the orientalism within which, when concealment was more necessary, it consistently found a home. One of the strengths of this work is its play between the radically straightforward image of the man falling, blindfolded, and the masked figures of those who seem helpless to stop this, semaphoring within costumes as if drawn from Noh theatre, trapped in a playing out of predetermined roles and carefully structured signs designed for a world of distance and difference.
-Bridie Lonie, 2016
Bridie Lonie is an Emeritus Member of Otago Polytechnic, a lecturer in Art History and Theory at the Dunedin School of Art and a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Otago, New Zealand.
This project has been collaboratively supported by the RMIT School of Art Galleries and the Print Imaging Practice Studio.