THE SELF -PORTRAIT IN CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY
In the series Them (2002-) Treacy is completely disguised and seemingly absent from the final image. Through a labour-intensive costuming process that involves deconstructing and re-creating existing pieces of clothing, he contrives to conceal himself until he disappears. The process hides all traces of the artist’s gender and race, and in some cases it is not possible to tell whether he is a human or an animal. It could be argued that the photographs are in fact the antithesis of self-portraiture as the self evaporates in to a created void. In fact the images pose the question of where the self is located, and whether, through subterfuge, it is possible to eliminate it altogether. For Treacy the answer is yes. The portraits intentionally obfuscate aspects of the artist’s identity; they allude to displacement and absence, aptly illustrating the dissolution of-not only the artist-but also the human-a practice that can be traced throughout the history of self portraiture. The masked creatures loom out of a black void to be photographed in a forensic, ‘objective’ manner, evocative of ethnographical portraits of others during the nineteenth century. The clothes, completely transformed from their original function, become souvenirs or trophies of a hunt. Clothing becomes Treacy’s skin; often stained and worn, the garments metamorphose and mould around his body. This transformation, which should seem revolting, is strangely erotic and intimate.
‘When locating the clothing, I take on the role of explorer. That is not to say I wear a pith helmet; more that when I am alone in an environment which I sense had a furtive history-what I term a “fertile ground”-the clothing becomes totally coded in its context and ceases to be mere clothing. The humans who once occupied it become alien and I am left to piece the clothing together based only on a sense of its charged presence.’
– SUSAN BRIGHT
What circus is this?
What strange ghosts are they that loom out of the darkest black, the last place in our dreams?
They are us and they are Them.
They are the work of Danny Treacy.
They are figments of his imagination and desire.
They are made from recovered clothes.
They are from those lonely places – the woods, the wastelands, the car-parks.
They are re-stitched and re-fashioned: re-modelled into junk monsters.
They are nightmares of the catwalk, prowling around the outskirts of style’s dumb extravagance.
They belonged to the unknown and the anonymous.
They are the lost, the deranged, the sexually driven and – who knows – the dead.
They are the sinister carnival playing in the street. They are the music we dread to hear.
They confront us and they defy us.
They take a chance on our presence. They take a chance on existence.
They are Danny Treacy dressed-up.
They mask his identity.
They become the confined space of his transgression.
They are charged in this way.
They are the places where he is close to Them.
They are awkward. They are contorted.
They are the body harnessed, the body pinched, the body stitched-up.
They have those Frankenstein, stiff-legged poses. They are B-movie cut-outs.
They are Dada and they are Pop.
They are the friends of Surrealism: shouting anarchy, whispering perversion.
They are sampled pieces, cross-dressed collages, mix-gendered melodramas: part nasty, part nice.
They are the suits, the jeans, the rubber gloves.
They are the workers and they are the dancers.
They are the porno tea-break, the sexed-up secrets.
They are rough trade. They are the soldiers.
They have the armour and the equipment.
They are medieval, the spice of old England.
They are the danger-men, the shit-kickers.
They are ready. They are tooled-up.
They are tight and they are fit.
They are soiled and stained and perfectly formed.
They are the shapes around which menace lingers.
They are intimate and they are a violation.
They are the victors and the victims.
They are the kiss and the tell.
They are true and they are false.
– David Chandler, Professor of Photography, University of Plymouth.
While we may aspire, we have still figured the unknown through ghosts, gods, aliens and demons. Our doubts over biogenetic developments and the new controls promised over nature also find cultural form in the monstrous and in re-articulations of Prometheus’ downfall. Indeed, our origins are imagined in violent primal myths. Our future can be seen as a grim ecological uncertainty. We draw upon and wrestle with these states in the search for purpose and understanding. And still we aspire.
Those have stemmed from Them. This is an ongoing project where Treacy gathers abandoned clothing found in offbeat grounds and neglected spaces. These are dark underpasses, desolate riverbanks and lay-by overgrowth. They are on the other side of hoarding. His finds are assembled as if to appear as figures of retribution. They are perverse and macabre. Deviant. They are described by Treacy as the furtive fruit of these fertile grounds.
Those are born on grounds of transgression. We sense the temporal frailty of the Law in neglected space. The outsider and the freak lurk beyond its scope. We must negotiate the terrain on their terms, beyond civility. The discarded materials speak of bizarre infractions and inexplicable behaviour to the innocent eye. The excess is disturbing.
The sculpted objects hold this history in their present form. The rotting insole, the un-braiding threads and fungal growth also speak of reclamation. The original acts are silenced, meanings rebound, memory is inert. Those are archaic.
Those visualize the aspiring life forms of the underworld. Cellular structures, mitochondrial elements, seed pods, egg-like protrusions, vaginal and phallic shapes abound. They speak of dormant life forms and potentials unlocked.
They stimulate an awareness of our own instinctual responses. Those #19 exaggerates childlike proportions in its assemblage and so we are inclined to nurture and protect. For Those #45 we might presume pathogenic intent given its aberrant colouration and its origins in abandonment and transgression. Of course, these are the pleasures of horror and sci-fi in that the monstrous both attracts and repels. All too often in these genres, the downfall lies in trust.
These forms speak of our own origins. Secular understandings picture our beginnings as a product of the arbitrary. The question of purpose is limited to a wilful elaboration of life. Purpose is indifferent to and unbound by morality. Think of the crew of the Nostromo in Alien (1979) and their reactions to the creature. For Kane, the discovery of a possible life form is one of tentative curiosity and wonder. Even when the full horror of its hostility is revealed, the android Ash articulates the Corporation’s fascination: “I admire its purity … a survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”. The alien mirrors a corporate ethic that can thrive on the raw competition of free market forces. This is one horror. Another, as Ripley recognizes, is where the alien’s dedication to procreation is absolute. For Barbara Creed, Alien re-articulates a patriarchal myth of the monstrous-feminine in the form of the amoral primeval mother. Other facets of this mythology are echoed in Those #38 and #41 in the reproductive forms evolved to allure, entrap and destroy (the vagina dentata). Once again, this is the stuff of modern horror.
These forms also speak of our own origins in terms of organic instability and sexual ambiguity. One senses the evolving structures probing their environment, elaborating and mutating in response to bodily forces and external stimuli. There is an assurance and a shrewd creativity in negotiating hostile terrain. Elizabeth Grosz speaks of sexual difference as a ‘morphological bifurcation’ which marks a crucial event in the evolution of life. Sexual attraction and selection, in all its sensory richness, ensures biological difference through genetic variation. Grosz calls this the ‘becoming-other that seduction entails’. Sexuality is seen to be marked by an excess, prone to profligacy in life’s drive to elaborate. Such excess is counterbalanced in our own thinking by an insistence of sexual specificity and bodily difference as the stable base of much cultural production. The various protrusions, orifices and hermaphroditic qualities found in these photographs – indeed, the teratological theme of the work as a whole – function to undercut such assurances.
It is in this sense that the fictional aspirations summoned in Those are profoundly destabilizing. They are constructions after all, dramatized by the sharp illumination of the object against a primal darkness. The implication is that a greater truth can be uncovered by an intense focus on the neglected and the overlooked. In this way, Those are forensic.
There is a clear link between the artistic process and forces underlying the elaboration of life. The provocation and perceptual play at the heart of the work find their counterpart in the instinctual probing of the precarious life forms summoned forth. Both would seem to work on and from contaminated resources. For this, the work is subversive but in ways we do not trust – or have yet to trust. These wanton malignant spawn are born in the absence of civility. They are beyond comfort. They are alone, neglected, auto-regulating and beyond control. The work is subversive in that the bodily forces of life brought into focus lie beyond the neo-liberal drive for increased surveillance, profiling and securitization that mark the times we live in. Ultimately, the lure of Those is gothic.
Gavin Murphy, Source Photographic Review, Autumn 2013, Issue 76
New Perspectives in Photography
Anyone completely honest with themselves would acknowledge that their intellectual passions and hobbies and even scholarly or professional pursuits are motivated, at least in part, sexual interests, from curiosity to full fetish. Arousal is one incentive that compels London-based artist Danny Treacy to visit marginal or isolated areas, collecting as trophies garments abandoned by strangers in circumstances that he will never know but can project upon. “If I find a pair of knickers in a car park, the reasons for them being there are quite obvious,” explains Treacy. “But there are many other more passive items of clothing that allow me to project my fantasy of how they arrived.” All items are somehow sexualized by the act of collecting; the mysterious circumstances that led them to be abandoned in a public place give them an erotic charge, and the frisson Treacy feels at finding a soiled jacket or a single, filthy shoe comes from his awareness that these banal objects are artefacts of a stranger’s intimate history.
Currently Treacy is producing and photographing a series of sculptures using found fabric, entitled “Those” (begun 2005). The forms in the images resemble orifices, organs, fingers and other body parts, which he dubs “protuberances, the parts of the body which stick out or intrude into space”. Treacy’s intimate portraits of each object against a black background contrast with his trophies’ sensual textures and erotically suggestive forms.
For his ongoing series “Them”(begun 2002), Treacy accumulates a collection of garments that he lovingly re-tailors into a composite costume for the explicit, highly detailed, life -size self –portraits, standing and facing the camera, covered completely with other people’s clothes, emerging from an empty black background behind him. Treacy believes that “the process is as important, perhaps more important, than the resulting image. If the motive is sexual, then why not go in and portray that instead of pretending the motive is purely intellectual?” Instead of trying to reassemble or repair the abused pieces of clothing, Treacy uses them to build creatures whose distorted resemblance to the human being inside them evokes horror-movie aliens and monstrous presences; the fact that each item was a potential witness to whatever happened to its former owner makes the work genuinely threatening. The arresting slickness of their textures and the distracting forensic presence of stains and burnt patches make potentially comic incongruities frightening. The complex gendering of these ominous creatures’ bodies displays a mixture of masculine and feminine attire, including in one instance a men’s suit jacket and a bleached wedding dress.
“Them’ also allows me to be very close to people, to strangers,”Treacy explains. “When I am in these constructed suits in which people have lived and functioned and may have fucked or died, I put myself in the closest proximity to them. Proximity motivates me, plus the intimacy gained and its subversion. Another driving urge is the time spent in the locations and with the materials.”Treacy’s work brilliantly and powerfully evokes Georges Bataille’s encomium on sex, death and perversion in his 1939 essay “Le Coupable” [Guilty]: “How sweet to enter filthy night and proudly wrap myself in it.”
-Ana Finel Honigman
Shaman of Slough
At First Thursday this month, a number of artists who paint came by Blue Sky for our opening, and several commented on the fine, painterly qualities of photographer Danny Treacy’s work. In particular, Portland’s Hayley Barker was so taken with Treacy’s series, “Them,” that she jumped at the chance to guest-blog about the exhibition for us:
Danny Treacy’s show, “Them,” is a cross section of various types of Others: the half man/half woman, the scapegoat, the faceless worker, and the biologically ambiguious. I meet Danny Treacy’s work as a painter and as a fellow aficionado of all types of monsters: those that we construct to house our fears, to project that which is repugnant onto, and also those hybrid, unclassifiable life forms whose ambiguous edges threaten to disrupt the boundaries of our selves. How appropriate then that this show called “Them” is more about “us” than it is about “them.”
A little background on the artist’s process: Treacy, a London-based artist, collects discarded clothing and materials and constructs costumes from these clothes. He then photographs himself wearing the costumes. He considers these photos to be self-portraits wherein the self has been eradicated.
Focusing on the photos hanging in the main gallery space, I noticed a few commonalities. All of the works are printed so that the figures are “life-size.” They meet us in a fully frontal position; their bodies are facing us and so we stand almost face to face (if they have faces?). All of the faces are covered, though not headless. In every photo the “feet” almost touch the bottom of the composition. Each incarnation of the artist is pictured in a completely black space—a space that sometimes encroaches on the edges of the figure’s silhouette, and at other times creates a crisp edge that defines the being’s fuzzy hairs or contours. Almost every costume is “dirty,” and some more than others. And every costume allows for a multitude of projected identities: no discrete skin is revealed.
Each photo in this show has a story to tell. Them #5, 2005, is the mouse-like one. I see in it the king of the mice, a scruffy ruffian mouse lord; the only one that almost could be adorable but escapes cuteness upon closer examination. In it we see Treacy wearing a mouse costume constructed from a few pieces of clothing. He looks to be wearing the arms of a coat as pants. The coat is a faux fur coat with a gnarly red velvet lining, sticky in parts. The fur mask covers his head and one eye type form is barely visible. Anyone who ever has visited what is lovingly referred to as “the bins” knows this kind of article—the bins is where all the crap that Goodwill cannot sell in its stores goes: the dirty, the broken, the worn-out, and the misshapen. This is what Treacy is wearing. Up-close viewing is where a physical repugnance comes into play. You can almost smell the sweat, the moth-balls, and the grime. You can see the dark bits of what looks to be coal or gravel. The fur on the coat is matted, visibly soiled. The mouse’s paws are mismatched: coming from the torso we see one orange hand that resembles a sock puppet with a red mouth. His stance is resistant, almost proud. He looks ready to take you on. He is abjection made proud—a whole made of cast-off parts.
Then there is Them #1, 2002. This is the one that is most obviously gendered, both male and female. The seat of an old pair of jeans engulfs the head, which is an elongated, flattened shape that looks too slender to enclose a real head. The man half is wearing a work boot; the woman half wearing a red pump. Across its chest is a patchwork of tough and soft fabrics, sewn with some edges frayed and others lovingly folded under and stitched—“clean seams” as my grandma would say. The most disturbing aspect of this portrait is the wrongness of the placement of the seams. One can only imagine the body for which this was made. Imagining it—it is a body that moves very differently from mine: perhaps the right leg hinges back at the hip instead of forward. It must move very haltingly. Think of every alien in every scary movie you have ever seen. They move differently than we, too slow, too fast, too different. Also important is the way that they edges of this form disappear into the background. It is an “open form”—one without hard edges. This technique makes one think that there could be more to this form, beyond what is in the light, beyond what we can observe from this vantage point. Perhaps something even more horrible?
Thinking in painterly terms, I am reminded of others who have treaded this territory. I think of two Spanish painters, Velazquez and Goya. Velazquez for his portraits with very dark backgrounds and Goya for his so-called “Black Paintings,” works picturing monstrous and fearful beings.
Looking at Velazquez’s “The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra,” c. 1645, is an interesting counterpoint to Treacy’s work. This portrait shows an elaborately dressed dwarf, sitting, legs outstretched, intelligent eyes meeting ours. We see a man who in his time was a court jester, a man who was marginalized and most likely ridiculed for his stature. That said, the portrait is complicated by the fact that the dwarf, Sebastian, is given an opportunity (via the painter’s composition) to look back out at us, and through connecting with his gaze we somehow get closer to knowing him and what his life experience was like. He becomes specific, contextualized: a real man. This portrait works very differently than Treacy’s portraits, in that his faceless beings never get to make eye contact. Treacy’s “Them” are physically incapable of looking back, denied the ability to stare back, mostly eyeless, and so we can only look harder, hoping to get a glimpse of some kind of articulation of self or expression of individuality. They are the Other, almost completely defenseless yet proud somehow. Even when completely bound up, Treacy’s selves remain defiant. Eyeless, their bodies feel full of vigor. They, like Velazquez’s Sebastian de Morra, will not shrink if you stare too hard. Resolutely not “Us,” yet caught up somehow in our power structures and our systems of valuation, the violent systems that make just a few powerful and most others degraded.
Which brings us to the last I’ll focus on, Them #20, 2007. It is the one that looks like a stingray from afar. The structure or body beneath the cloth has been completely redefined by the draped fabric covering it. It is a massive triangular life form. It is grey with dark marks that resemble a strange batik: Rorschach tests, x-rays, bat wings. This is the most ambiguous form. It could be microscopic or it could be massive. It almost has eyes, little dark smudges where his head could be. And it makes me think about the way that these re-configured materials have had a life prior to the costume. There are psychic traces from previous uses. In all of these works, the immaterial is made physical: the history of each item, its erotic life, has been revivified, re-embodied. I think of a coupling between 2 unlike species, a conjuring. Treacy’s intimate engagement with these discarded skins is what I found most unsettling and most intriguing. I sense that the grimier the raw material, the better. If history can leave traces on objects, than Treacy is an archeologist of these traces. He is a shaman of slough.
Hayley Barker, September 2010
Danny Treacy’s Antitypology
According to Ann Hollander, clothes as such are treated in the West as ephemera moving somewhere on the surface of life, hence the ease of treating them as something trivial1. Gaining objectivity and seriousness in relation of something else, attire is undoubtedly endowed with power, and this power can be seen thanks to art. Artists shaping the image of clothes mould their own image. It also happens that it is the outfit that begins to play an independent or even dominating role. Danny Treacy, a young artist living and working in London, took an interest in clothes in relation to his graduation project at Royal College of Art. It developed into a project lasting to this day and it instantly directed the attention of critics to him. The Them project released an instinct of a collector in the artist. Treacy’s collection is, however, quite extreme, allowing to deem him a creator not afraid to ‘get dirty’. In search of abandoned clothes once belonging to some strangers, the artist sets off to secluded places: streets, car parks, rubbish dumps, cemeteries. It is there that the found clothes reveal something desperately lonely. As Treacy admits, each of these garments emanates many different feelings, triggering a reaction in him. When he is faithful to his style of behaviour and searches ‘in the right places’, ‘a reaction from clothes directs his senses and decisions.’ He becomes a kind of a guide for clothing, its liaison with the world. Thus, the shape of the project is also determined by unknown events that led to concrete clothes being found by the artist and becoming a part of his project. After the stage of a difficult quest, the garments found become connected (sewed) into new wholes, making a new composition. There is no specifically determined way of preparation of clothes for the project. After the phase of de-construction, either unravelling, cutting or tearing, it is the outfit that ‘hints’ the direction of reconstruction. The author never uses his personal clothes and does not accept ‘gifts of clothes’. The core is the experience that directs the artist to create new wholes from the clothes he finds. For Treacy, the next stage, that is putting on the outfits (made of clothes of people he does not know) to take photographs, is fundamental in the process of project creation. He describes it in the following way: ‘I disrupt the sense of my individuality, immersing myself in the individualities of their previous owners. Somewhere in the process of searching and collecting, de-constructing, sewing, putting on and finally standing in the attire in front of the camera, I feel that in the final picture I am blurred, I do not reveal any part of myself, anything about myself. Another instance of going beyond sex, race and form’. The stage of ‘de-construction of others by proxy (their clothing), is followed by a moment of intimacy when the artist processes the garments so that the clothing becomes his flesh. In this way, Them reveals ‘transformations triggered by clothing. In the crowning stage of the performance in front of the camera, Danny does not reveal his face; his figure, almost completely covered by clothes of strangers (or rather with what has resulted from combining them), becomes ‘a whole without a form. (…) He puts himself closest to others, closest to strangers, without their physical presence… Wearing clothes in which people breathed and died, perhaps had sex, he is close to them’. On the one hand, he makes a sort of anti-autoportraits, and on the other -disconcertingly familiar portraits. After all, these are rather unusual images in which much more remains concealed than revealed. The choice of the photographic picture as a medium for the project additionally makes it kind of ‘slip away’ due to the absence of a three-dimensional physical object. The artist decided not to present the project as a series of sculptures on purpose, because of the control that the process of taking photographs gives him. As he stresses, in the case of photography, as opposed to sculpture, there is only one possible standpoint. It is also paramount for him that while the final photographic image is being made, he finds himself inside the clothes. One of project interpretations directs us to the possibility of making use of the found clothes in order to assume the identity of their former owners. In this way the artist, putting on strangers’ clothes and hiding behind them, behaves as if he assumed the identity that these garments carry with them. Clothes that he found remain the only trace of strangers. Treacy’s artistic concept could be therefore compared to efforts of a detective or archaeologist striving to reconstruct from the preserved material traces an image as complete as possible of those who left these traces. On the basis of this picture, he aims at synthesis in the form of a new identity in which he envelops himself for the moment frozen in the frame. Undoubtedly, such an interpretation includes also elements bordering on a magical procedure based on the conviction about mysterious migration of the identity via clothing from one of the users to another: from the one that abandoned a garment to the one who found it. This migrating identity acquires in it a character of a quasi-material substance closely connected with the body and its discharges, perhaps someone’s personal smell. It is worth pointing out that Treacy abandoned the initial idea of searching clothes for the project in their ‘natural’ concentrations, such as e.g. public laundries. As he admits in his conversation with Ana Final Honingman9: ‘I realized that the clothing would have been washed clean of all bodily residues and there would be no mystery’: such garments would be ‘washed’ from these substantial smells of identity and consequently deprived of this magic. Treacy does not go into detail about how this magical identity transfer actually works: maybe he does it purposely so that magic remains magic. However, these are not by any means all possible interpretations and the author sent, as if on purpose, contradictory signals to confuse us about his intentions. Does he really deal in Them with identities of people unknown to him, stored in a mysterious way in clothes that they throw away? Is it really an attempt to create a synthetic and transitive identity from them? The title (Them), which is a refusal to give a name and define the identity, suggests that the artist’s idea may as well be to create brand new figures, so far non-existent, from the found material whose history will remain inscrutinable forever. In this interpretation, the artist becomes a kind of a self-proclaimed demiurge. He shapes matter anew, he makes it speak with its own voice and tell stories unclear and enigmatic like dreams. In this way, carefully cutting, stitching and trying on second-hand clothes, Treacy constructs figures that he describes as ‘anonymous and timeless, yet still vivid and independent’. The author, ‘getting closer’ to them by putting on something as intimate as their clothes, remains invisible himself, though. Thanks to that, every figure has its own identity because they all tell their own ambiguous and unique stories.
1 Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, Avon Books: New York, 1978 p. XIV
– Katarzyna Majak