by Emma Drew
May 24, 2019
There was a heel bone cast in lead and hanging from the ceiling in Lauren McKeon’s exhibition Let go or be dragged, at Interface Gallery in Oakland that I’d have liked to turn into a pendulum, Foucault’s kind. In addition to demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, as Foucault’s original did in 1851, its oscillations would draw you slowly around the gallery, pointing to each carefully constructed sculpture, facsimiles of objects that carry and absorb bodily baggage. The precise, often uncanny objects both concretize and fragment the forces that act upon us, be they physical, social, or psychological, and complicate our responses to them. Just as a pin on the bottom Foucault’s first pendulum drew lines in the circle of wet sand underneath, literally tracing its motion, so do McKeon’s sculptures create an index, indicating a body’s response to certain laws of larger phenomena, and becoming icons of pain, memory, anxiety, and ego in the process.
The bungee-like Extension cord (2019, as were all works in the show) was not slack, not overly taut, but stretched and weighted down just enough by the silvery scrap of bone (made from an anatomical model McKeon is recreating in her studio), a body-based equilibrium to admire and perversely desire to disturb. Rough and partial and looking like knobby bit of metal pipe, the lead cast anchored the loop of shock cord at the bottom of which it sat perfectly balanced, a few inches off the ground. The whole piece anchored the room, a small, natural light-filled space with one unfinished brick wall. Heels are often said to “dig in,” but this one floated.
Psychic pressure point, a sterling silver cast of a pointer finger bone, also hovered nearby, seemingly in midair. Affixed perpendicularly to the wall by a thin stake painted white so as to blend in, the bone cast, while quite small, stuck out about a foot. If you were of a certain height, it aligned with your third eye, between your eyebrows where the bridge of your nose meets your forehead. The suspension was convincing, like a bullet frozen in the film The Matrix, and piercing, like a speck of dust turned talisman, a fetish object, a little psychic splinter.
Are you feeling it yet? The pressure, the weight, the downward pull, or, as in another of McKeon’s works, GPS, the hunching of shoulders? In lieu of another cast body part, McKeon fabricated a backpack—a copy of her everyday bag—and pinned it against the wall, the straps facing out ready to shoulder a load, the vulnerable underbelly almost punched in and fastened in place. Stuffed with memory foam, it called to mind the physicality of muscle memory, but the insinuation of location within the body and of the body was a more satisfying undercurrent. GPS concerns both the somatic storage of memories and experiences, and a larger state of surveillance, when cloaking device meets coping mechanism in a camouflage-lite, scaly, vinyl knapsack.
Two more replicas, each placed on the floor and filled with broken-down bodies rounded out the exhibition: The tide and the claw, a red canvas duffel bag packed with Dungeness crab shells, and Let go or be dragged, composed of two ankle weights, entwined and filled with sand. Decomposition is inevitable for all organic matter, but there is a kind of resilience via its reconstitution that becomes apparent and appealing. Reduced to sheer material, the body still weighs us down. Escape from its limitations—its aches, its pains, its persistence of memory—even via its disintegration seems in vain, but what choice do we have?
Effectively pulled around the gallery—a testament to the installation and the truly subtle but shrewd engagement of one’s own body—you were led, pointed in a direction with no end point. There was no orientation, only movement. The exhibition’s title Let go or be dragged, seems an imperative to choose between futility and acceptance, wherein resistance, and holding your ground, may hold you back, and surrender is liberating. But I don’t think it’s such an easy split, or much of one at all. One woman’s push is another woman’s pull, and the thing about most forces is that they tend to persist, to go on, transferring their energy. What is a cycle but eternal recurrence; the stubbornness of natural laws and Newtonian physics, of trauma, fears, grudges; a swell of activity and emotion and a recession into their absence; a come-up and a come-down; psychic samsara? McKeon lives and works on a boat in Sausalito, a northwestern pocket of the San Francisco Bay, amid the most interstitial of spaces—the tides—in motion when at rest. Letting go of that which does not serve may be a form of agency (and therapy) in a world of near-constant demands, pressures, and constraints but McKeon asks us to consider what happens next: if you let go you’ll be swept away, crushed, changed in form and organization, reconstituted, only to do it all again.
Last year, Interface began inviting local writers to create texts responding in some way to each exhibition, for visitors to experience in tandem, with the written works presented in conjunction with the gallery show. For Let go or be dragged, writer and artist Ross Simonini collaborated with McKeon to compose a series of directives, available to gallery-goers during the run of the exhibition, as a precursor to one of his Quartering performances, an exercise in which performers use all four limbs to map their bodies. “Use your entire body,” the text begins. It reads like a list-cum-poem, in language both anatomically specific and poetic, highlighting the subjectivity of the body: “your spleen,” “your center of gravity,” “the location of your identity.” Simonini conjured specific images and themes from McKeon’s installation, like cords, weight, and the contingency of existence. “[Use] the light that makes you visible,” he writes. “The cells you’ve shed.”
The Quartering performance, held at interface on May 12, consisted of three performers following a new set of instructions by Simonini, intoned by a measured, British female’s voice via a recording that played in the gallery. Each performer stood facing a large sheet of butcher paper hung on a gallery wall, with a bowl of black paint and paintbrush at their feet, and was led through a sequence of actions, from “Hold the brush between the smallest fingers on your left hand and outline the place on your body where illness most often begins” to “Feel how many vertebrae are along your throat and write the number” to “Place the brush between the two largest toes on your right foot and sign the art with your first and last initials.” The gallery had held an open call for performers who had “conflicts with [their] body” and Simonini’s piece engaged often and explicitly with illness and injury, making clear that while we don’t get to pick where we get hurt or infected, we do choose how we think about it and where we locate it. His directives imposed new conditions on the body, a seemingly facile attempt at control over the uncontrollable that, in their performance, read as an active, defiant kind of acceptance and admittance of its faltering, its intractable qualities. They physicalized the emotional and gave shape to the animating forces, painful and pleasurable, within us. They showed that painting letters with your toes is at once an absurd, poignant, triumphant, and ineffective action.
The performers’ final paintings—one rather schematic, one totally gestural, the third somewhere in between—compelled you to scrutinize a stranger’s construction and interpretation of their own body. Vestiges, the paintings hung for the final week of McKeon’s show alongside her sculptures while the recording continued to play in the gallery; they were particular where her work was emotionally abstract, spontaneous to her methodical making but at moments showed affinities—certain knots of lines, a certain illegibility despite formal simplicity—as if some shapes, some feelings might be universal or at least shared. As with any visual artifact, you try to decipher why it looks the way it does. I tried to work backwards and figure out first what steps were taken, what commands were given and followed. This quickly turned to the materials used, as in the paint, the language, the limbs, the background and understanding of each maker. The trick, in the end, is not to match each mark with its direction but to bear witness to the recording. Both artists transliterate feeling into form, reframing the limits of what can be visualized and how so. What does the lived experience of a body look like and how might it be made known, via index or icon, image or symbol or imprint? There are points when Simonini’s text instructs the performers to swallow, or close their eyes, or imagine something and to “Make no mark.” Do not respond. Know and trust that a trace will be left. Know and trust that the Earth keeps spinning.
Lauren McKeon: Let go or be dragged was on view April 5 – May 19, 2019 at Interface Gallery, 486 49th Street, Oakland.
Emma Drew is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.