Them, Danny Treacy (Manchester, 1975-): Stitching Selflessness. – Valérie Morisson, Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté, EA 4182
‘Vulnerability has become a central category of the contemporary’, Jean-Michel Ganteau argues (Ganteau, 4). The visual arts undisputably reflect this shift towards affects particularly in the field of portraiture and representations of the body in art : ‘Contemporary artists tend to shun the idealizing nature, completeness and singularity of traditional portraiture in favour of vulnerability, inconsistency and multiplicity’ (O’Reilly, 49). Many contemporary photographers have revisited traditional portraiture, including self-portraiture, but very few of them have as radically as Danny Treacy[i]. Them, exhibited in London in 2008 (The Photographer’s gallery), investigates the precariousness and vulnerability of the forgotten and the voiceless while conjuring up images of the fantasized other, in other words, the monster. The series is made up of life-size photographic self-portraits shot with a large format camera in which the artist is camouflaged under self-made attires. Disappearing entirely under the assembled clothes, he relinquishes all form of individual representation in favour of haunting archetypal images.
The series is the result of a process of investigation and collection which led the photographer to the dark edges of our societies, to places where people experienced pain or pleasure. It started in 2001 as the artist had been commissioned straight photographs of high-rise blocks of flats in East-London that were to be demolished. While visiting the flats, Danny Treacy came across abandonned pieces of clothing that he eventually assembled to form uncanny costumes that he wore for the final portraits. The (self) portraits are endowed with an unidentifiable sense of danger and violence, still heightened by the forensic lighting defamiliarizing the figures and the size of the photographs. The series partakes of the aesthetics of the mascarade, a genre which has long enabled artists to explore their own fantasies and/or to voice political ideas more safely, under the protection of the mask or costume. Costuming has indeed always been both liberating and subversive. But Them is also a performative and an experiential investigation into alterity and vulnerability as this paper, straddling the fields of art history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and cultural history, purports to demonstrate.
The camouflaged self
While one may understand Them as an artistic continuation of postmodernist self-portraits in disguise—by Cindy Sherman, Tracy Rose or Yasumasa Morimura—the artist’s project is significantly different. Rather than questioning the relevance of self-portraiture as a reflection of one’s singularity and integrity so as to foreground identity as a social or cultural construct, Danny Treacy resorts to multiple impersonations to restore empathy. Unlike Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits in diguise, which Craig Owen analyses in The Allegorical Impulse as a process of dispossession (Owen, b)), Treacy’s photographic portraits counter parodistic or deconstructionist disembodiment by mainting undecidability : the faceless individuals that are shot remain anonymous and unidentifiable. As a matter of fact, the defacement of the subject imposes a perceptive trouble whereby the whole body becomes a monumental punctum so to say (Barthes, 25-28, 43-59[ii]). Playing roles does not result primarily in deconstructing personhood—as is the case in postmodern self-portraits in costume—but in reinstating an affective response that conditions an ethical stance.
The viewer is first unsettled by the erasure of facial features in the portraits. Looking at the figures in Them, we might first be misled into thinking that the figures are inanimate mannequins. Knowing that the artist lies beneath the costume is then all the more disquieting, facelessness being fundamentally inconsistent with portraiture and self-portraiture. The more conventional use of make-up or masks differs from the total absence of facial features in Them. Even in Hew Locke’s or Aldo Lanzini’s works, in which human faces or figures disappear under a heavy cluster of objects or crochetted masks, the outlandish characters are endowed with facial attributes. It has long been acknowledged that the eyes are the very core of a portrait, or a self-portrait ; they provide an access to the soul of the sitter and establish a contact with the viewer. In Them, such a connection is rendered impossible. In his essay on the mask, George Bataille notes that the face of the other is a beacon of intelligibility and humanness in the chaos of the world so that the mask plunges the individual into deep solitude and terror as it confronts him with animality and death (Bataille, 1970, 404). The mask is the dark, ominous epitome of chaos[iii]. In the series, the sense of isolation and wretchedness is further compounded by the fact that no part of the artist’s skin is visible, his hands being covered by gloves. Given that the skin is an interface and a point of contact with the others, the camouflage is here tantamount to radical social separatedness. Faceless and metaphorically mummified, the artist stands against an ominous dark background in an ambiguous position which evokes both surrender and defiance. Whether the figures are perpetrators or victims is difficult to determine but the covering-up of the face brings to mind images of gagging, torture, or mutilation. Such associations are strengthened by the forensic light and frontality.
The strangeness of the series is further compounded by the fact that, unlike Nick Caves’ playful and faceless creatures for instance, Treacy’s figures remain visibly human though deprived of personhood. This discomforting physical liminality shatters our secure categories as we teeter on the thin limit between the familiar and the unfamiliar, overwhelmed by an uncanny uncertainty. In his essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, Ernst Jentsch contends that the uncanny is based on intellectual undecidability, particularly when we are unable to decide whether a figure is animate or inanimate. He quotes the examples of the automata, the wax figures, the mask and the disguise (Jentsch)[iv]. Like Freud, he discussed E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales, whose aesthetics seem to percolate in Them. The viewer is indeed immersed in a realistic freak show or mad house ; the contrasted lighting and black backcloth make the nightmarish figures come into light as if they suddenly stepped out of unfathomable darkness. Owing to its regular composition, the series of self-portraits also reawakens the fear of the dopplegänger, which, according to Freud, is a source of uncanniness when it unleashes our abhorent repressed features[v]. The ghostly presence of the dopplegänger disrupts time and introduces a fissure within the flow of reality. As Andrew J. Webber notes, ‘like all ghosts, it [the doppelgänger] is at once an historical figure, re-presenting past times, and a profoundly anti-historical phenomenon, resisting temporal change by stepping out of time and then stepping back in as revenant.’ (Webber 9) Such take on the motif of the double leads one to key it to Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of ruins as facia hippocratica in that both raise ‘the enigmatic question of the nature of human existence as such, but also the biographical historicity of the individual’ (Benjamin, quoted in Owen a) 70-71). Seen from this persepctive, Danny Treacy’s works may be construed as human ruins or death masks wavering between absence and presence, with their spectrality disjointing time, their fragmentariness and imperfection operating as memento mori.
Dressed with mismatched pieces of clothing Danny Treacy’s grotesque avatars and jester-like figures conjure up images of cinematographic perverts and monsters. Their besmirched rags signal their marginality. Some wear stained working clothes while others display ropes, ties and belts arranged so as to evoke perverse habits ; the clownish appearance of some figures, with large gloves and mismatched shoes is as scaring as the horrifying presence of characters in burnt or soiled clothes. The light which reverberates unevenly on this sundry patchwork of fabric still heightens the effect created by the deviation from normative dress-codes. As the artist sewed the fragments together with no prior knowledge of sewing and no preconceived design in mind, the attires are not conceived to imitate ordinary clothing but result from an urge to reassemble the heterogenous.
As François Dagognet notes, contemporary art has reasserted the value of discarded materials, worn-out objects and waste. Dagognet’s materiology offers an alternative to philosophical dualism by valuing the fragment, the abject, the ruined, the decomposed, the rotten and the sullied. Following in the path of other contemporary artists, Danny Treacy uses scraps, waste, filthy and smudged pieces of clothing as artistic material. Whereas traditional portraiture immortalizes the sitter in an elegant costume, Them stages decomposed garments bearing the trace of organic stains, that is to say, sartorial ruins. As Dagognet notes, cultural practices and art have often aimed at covering up materials considered impure or imperfect with more valuable and pure ones (Dagognet, 54-56). This applies to costume and dress : the embroidered, finely cut dress, made up of precious fabric and elaborate patterns inspired from the Fine Arts is meant to contain and conceal the corporeal body and its defects. Danny Treacy’s bricolage of sullied rags, these ‘infra-objects’ (Dagognet, 61) inverts such process and reasserts the singularity of the abject materiality of clothing. The tattered, fragmented, besmeared infra-costume metaphorically stand for the botched body, not unlike the inverted skin of an écorché.
Even though no direct contact is established between the person beneath the costume and the viewer, the dress is laden with autobiographical traces. As a matter of fact, it tells the stories of the forgotten : the fragments of cloth are metonymies for the injured or neglected bodies of the disappeared. As the artist notes, ‘they belong to the unknown, the anonymous, the lost, the drunken, the deranged, the sexually driven, and who knows, the dead’[vi]. The testimonial value of cloth in Them is reminiscent of Christian Boltanski’s 1988 work, Réserve Canada, which refers to Holocaust victims through garments. The clothes become the metonymic mortal remains or relics of those who suffered and died. Similarly in Them the fragments of fabric become lay shrouds permeated with painful memories and standing for the disappeared. In this respect, Them and Réserve Canada are both sartorial archives and monuments to the dead drawing the viewers into a silent, solemn mourning ceremony.
Danny Treacy’s recycling of worn and dirty clothes calls forth potent images of defacement. The stains, tears and wear in the fragments of fabric reintroduce corporeality while evoking past lives, wounds as well as physical hardship. The conventional beauty, restraint and elegance of classical portraiture gives way to disharmony, excess and uncleanliness. If rituals of purity, deriving from the ideal of cleanliness, are fundamental to the constitution of human societies, stains are equated with pollution, contamination and defilement. Defects on the human skin and body as well as stains on dress have always led to exclusion or stigmatization. As Mary Douglas demonstrated in her landmark essay, Purity and Danger, cleanness and dirtiness are keyed to deeply-entrenched cultural and social perceptions of order. More psychoanalytical approaches account for repulsion and disgust experienced in the face of uncleanness. The stains on the clothes in Them are what Freud considers as the repulsive traces of animalness in man (Bousseyroux, 39)[vii]. Georges Bataille’s seminal essay on abjection, Abjection and Miserable Forms (1993, first published in 1934) as well as Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horrors, An Essay on Abjection (1980) have led to the theorization of abjection as the process and result of extreme exclusion leading to dehumanization, shared disgust and aversion, as well as powerlessness. What is abject is unacceptable, unassimilable and threatening. This complex notion is both constructive—in that the individual has to abject in oder to constitute himself—and disruptive—insofar as the abjected subject is denied humanness. Hence, expulsing the abject enhances the stability of the community, with defilement and waste being seen as a threat to order. In their essay on accidental stains as legal evidence, Prudence Black and Peta Allen contend that the traces of blood, semen or other matters on clothes are viewed as defacement and exemplify Kristeva’s notion of abjection (Black, 135). Stains are therefore construed as moral blemishes which shatter the moral order normally materialised by dress and clothes. Yet, as both Bataille and Kristeva argue, the abject always lurks behind, hovering over our minds and cultures, because its otherness is from within (Kristeva, 18). Now, if the title of Treacy’s series, Them, liguistically introduces a separation between them and us, it emphasizes the impossibility of ridding our psyches of the haunting presence of the outcast : however hard we try, we cannot keep the abjected out, it resurfaces even in the clean and pure space of the art gallery.
Restoring social visibility
Stigmatization, which is encapsulated in the exclusionary function of the title for the series, is not solely tied to the process of abjection but hinges on political mechanisms that, in the wake of Kristeva’s analyses, Nikolas Rose and Imogen Tyler have exposed. British sociologist Nikolas Rose wrote that ‘since at least the eighteenth century, the political imaginations of most European countries have been haunted by a succession of figures that seem to condense in their person, their name, their image all that is disorder, danger, threat to civility, the vagrant, the pauper, the degenerate, the unemployable, the residuum, the social problem group’ (Rose, 1999, 254). The characters in Them epitomize this archetypal figure. They are the wretched, the scum of the earth, the outcast rejected beyond the collective space, confined to peripheral or liminal zones through complex and multifaceted power strategies[viii]. The ‘fortress city’ is designed in such a way as to avoid contact with the abjected untouchables (Rose, 254) The tower blocks that Danny Treacy explored while working on Them resemble concrete monsters. Through Britian, these under-class dwellings have been reviled as tales of horror spread, with the blocks concentrating minority tenants and social outcasts. Even John Major famously referred to these ‘grey, sullen, concrete wastelands, set apart from the rest of the community, robbing people of ambition and self-respect’[ix]. The loneliness of each figure in Danny Treacy’s series mirrors the fragmentation of society and ensuing sense of isolation that many critics have identified as a symptom of liberal economies. Imogen Tyler conjointly exposes social abjection and the decomposition of the collective in neo-liberal Britian while putting forward possibilities of resisting marginalization. Her contention is that political discourse taps into archetypal notions of uncleanliness and abjection to reach a ‘disgust consensus’ (Tyler, 38). Tyler’s psycho-social understanding of abjection underscores representational strategies at work in both rejection and resistance. In Them, the absence of a situational background elicits a perception of the figures as icons of abjection triggering the social anxieties that lay behind cultural representations of the scapegoat. The figures straddle the realms of the real and the symbolical.
Them may be understood in the light of Judith Butler’s notion of vulnerability and untouchability (Butler, 2004) as well as in the light of social invisibility, a notion foregrounded by French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc. The latter argues that the ordeal of precariousness inflicts both social and symbolical injustice because the outcast is denied the fundamental right to the other’s recognition (Le Blanc, 2007, 22). This deprivation of recognition leads to social vulnerability and invisibility. Le Blanc observes the bland anonymity of individuals who are potentially exposed to precariousness and brought to social death (la mort sociale[x]) (Le Blanc, 2007, 246). The absence of social acknowledgment or reciprocation transforms the individual into a mere object, thereby reducing him to a state of invisibility (Le Blanc, 2009, 12). The face, as both le Blanc and anthropologist David Le Breton state, is the core of social existence so that when the outcast’s face is not acknowledged by the other and the reciprocation fails his humanness itself is denied (Le Blanc, 2009, 39)[xi]. Judith Butler similarly argues that some individuals are viewed as less human than others and are only partially recognized or not recognized, hence their lives are unlivable (Butler, 2006, 14). These analyses are predicated on Levinas’ idea of the face to face encounter as the foundation of human existence. Facelessness, which translates social invisibility into visual terms, is therefore one of the most terrifying experience of the destitution of humanness. ‘Being without a face is tantamount to being relegated to the margins of humanity, it means having to wait for being recognized as human, standing at the very threshold of the institution of humanness’ (Le Blanc, 2009, 56)[xii].
As the metaphorical gag in Them makes it clear, socially invisible people are left without a voice : the outcast is the one whose voice remains unheard (Le Blanc, 2009, 56)[xiii]. As a matter of fact, Le Blanc contends that social invisibility entails a symbolic decomposition of the face and a silencing or muting (Le Blanc, 2009, 37)[xiv]. He holds that the visibility of the face is secure only when the voice of the individual is heard (Le Blanc, 2006, 45)[xv]. The absence of face, gaze and mouth in Them are the markers of social invisibility. Besides, the impossibility of being dressed properly echoes the impossibility of fitting into the social norms which underlie social reciprocation. Some of Danny Treacy’s figures do resemble homeless people or vagrants whose bodies are ‘retournés en corps maudits, inassimilables’ (Le Blanc, 2009, 18), as are the bodies of Jeanette Winterson’s proteiform narrator in Sexing the Cherry or Colum McCann’s characters in This Side of Brightness. Undoubtedly then, Le Blanc’s description of a ‘mutilated social integrity’ (Le Blanc, 2009, 37) finds a visual equivalent in Danny Treacy’s fragmented and faceless figures even though, as we shall see, the work is an attempt at resisting social disintegration.
While the seam, like any border, articulates inclusion and exclusion, stitching together fragments of fabrics or social relics is a means of reinstating a collective dimension, of recreating an alternative wholeness without aiming at integrity. The textile metaphore has often been used to describe the link between beings ; therefore stitching fragments of worn clothes together is tantamount to reconstructing a disrupted social tie in an attempt at resisting social and individual desintegration.
From praxis to the ethics of vulnerability
The artistic apparatus chosen by Danny Treacy counters social invisibility by putting into the limelight our complicit reliance on norms and by initiating an ethical response. The artistic praxis at work in Them is complex and may be viewed from various perspectives : it hinges on collecting, recycling, performing and exhibiting, with each phase articulating aesthetics and ethics as we intend to demonstrate.
Recycling in contemporary art has often been viewed as an environmental commitment. If other works by Treacy are underlain by ecological concerns, in Them, recycling is keyed to an ethical and artistic response to precariousness. The artist collected the clothing in marginal places (car-parks, graveyards, railways, riverbanks, wasteland) that he explored in an early stage of the creation process. Photography has a specific link with walking, the photographer being a flâneur : as he roams the city or its outskirts, the photographer is open to unpremeditated encounters and impressions. ‘This stage is critical, the artist explains, it is the point at which my senses are guiding my every action. I’m looking for clues to show me I am in the right kind of space. I’m fully aware that previously these spaces have been defined with terms such as ‘Edgeland’ (Marion Shoad), ‘Crapola’ (Philip Guston), ‘Bastard Countryside’ (Victor Hugo), ‘Dross-scape’ (Alan Berger) the key here however is that they constantly elude definition, are in constant flux, liminal. Personally, this is where the attraction and the challenge lies, the undefinable, the unknown’[xvi]. The artist is like an archeologist, looking for remains of past lives, gathering scattered fragments to reconstitute a picture of our civilization. The collecting process is a means for the artist to assert his own social identity, his commitment to real life and his eagerness to place his work in contemporary society. Collecting tattered garments is a commemorative act which is conducive to an ethics of vulnerability in that it triggers not just empathy but a mutual exposure to frailty. Treacy also compares himself to a psycho-geographer wandering places which create a specific state of mind. He stresses the feeling of solitude which imbues those places as if this quietness was a prerequisite for the encounters with fragments of otherness. As a matter of fact, these liminal, excentric places have absorbed traces of people seeking refuge from a society that excluded or expulsed them. The places that the artist roams are haunted by the presence of people once engaged in illicit activites or people cast out of society. ‘I believe that this ‘other’ have also recognized in these spaces the ability to push against the boundaries by which we all live. And it is precisely in these liminal environments that they are able to do so. The spaces, by being strictly uncategorized, allow a personal re-defining’.
If wandering and collecting enhance subjectivity and an openness to the others, the impersonation enacted by the artist furthers the relational nature of the work. Countering the dematerialization and commodification of human relations, many contemporary artists conceive works relying on interpersonal contacts and eschewing the biais of representation. As Nicolas Bourriaud observes, many contemporary art practices may be equated with fertile social experimentations (Bourriaud, 10). The process experimented, rather than the representation itself, is crucial to the artistic statement. Though Them does not conceptually document or display its own creative process, the experimental and performative nature of the work cannot be overlooked. The artist’s experience and experimentation is noteworthy : ‘In one particular flat, I came across some items of clothing. It immediately felt ‘appropriate’ to remove my clothes and to fully dress in the found clothing, this was something I had not previously considered. There was no intellectual rationale behind this, it was entirely intuitive. I had a large format camera and tripod so I positioned the camera, for the first time, facing inwards, back at myself, fully clothed in a stranger’s belongings. The resulting image was almost a complete failure, but within it I recognized a tiny element that felt successful, the dressing, or rather, overdressing’. Undressing is a act of self-dispossession which facilitates empathy towards the dispossessed. One must stress the difference that exists between the represented figure that is purely visual (a perception by the viewer) and the body that is performative and related to the artist’s experience of clothing. Treacy’s performative photographs, which are site-specific works, partake of performance, living sculpture and photography.
Clothing, which is extremely normative, has always played a crucial role in social negotiations, power relations and self definition. It is not simply a way to fit in society but also a tool for negotiating or subverting social constraints. ‘Clothing, and the body that wears it, are a means of proclaiming and identifying difference or solidarity. A person is undeniably of the time and place in which he or she lives, and cultural norms are imposed on the body in innumerable ways (…). The body (…) is a living embodiment of societal pressures, expectations and needs ; but taking command of one’s own image can also be a strategy of protest and survival’ (O’Reilly, 77). As Anne Hollander shows in Seeing Through Clothes, clothing is not merely a direct social or aesthetic message but a form of self-perpetuating visual fiction fashioning self-image. Dressing is a creative act, as is re-dressing, cross-dressing or over-dressing. While self-portraiture has traditionnally been predicated on the assertion of individual singularity, in Them, the artist covers his own self to the point of forsaking his identity to explore precariousness through embodiment. The title of the series encapsulates the artist’s absorption of a collective yet anonymous identity. While selfies invade our image-saturated world, Treacy comes up with what we could call unselfing images. The costuming and impersonation was a critical shift for the artist who conceived ‘an image of a figure that was not me but was made by me and that spoke, in part, of the actions of others’. As Danny Treacy recalls, ‘the experiences of collecting the clothes, the process of stitching, the smells, the textures, were beginning to change from something that was about my experiences into a figure that seemed somehow independent, animated with its own character. At the moment of exposure to film, there is a dissolution of myself as artist and an announcement of the figure as ‘other’ which takes my place. I have worked, alone, on each costume for many hours, un-dressing (I’m always completely naked underneath), dressing, altering, stitching, adjusting, un-picking, tying, cutting, sewing, re-dressing. It is here that I respond to what the clothing offers up’. Costuming is an under-studied practice even though performance art has recently evidenced its potency. Performance artists are not actors as they do not necessarily take on roles : ‘they are simply projecting a self or a persona through posture, through body language and through their clothing. They are acting being themselves, or, to put it another way, constructing a performance self’ (Howel, 16). Treacy contends that overdressing induced a contact between the clothes and his skin which fostered an unexpected sense of intimacy : ‘In this way, the found clothing became a substitute for skin. So while recycling can be used as a term to describe what I do with clothing, I feel that re-forming or re-presenting may be a more suitable term’.
The untouchability which accompanies, according to Judith Butler, social exclusion is countered in a radical way since dressing up in the outcast’s clothes restores a hyperbolic physical contact. The direct experience of clothing elicits a sensory approach to precariousness that counters the abstract discourse and detached data on poverty. The performative aspect of the work offers an alternative to the voyeurism that Susan Sontag criticises in Regarding the Pain of Others. The individual body, conceived as artistic material, becomes the vehicle for a political message. In Vulnerable Subjects : Ethics and Life Writing, G. Thomas Couser argues that the closer the intimacy between writer and subject, the greater the vulnerability or dependency of the subject (quoted in Ganteau, 23). This statement could be applied to Treacy’s performative photographs as by impersonating the Other through costuming he absorbs the identity of the Other in an act of self-exposure.
Staging the carnivalesque othered self
After collecting and performing the third stage of Treacy’s praxis which requires investigation is the display of the othered self and the encounter with the social and cultural scene. As Susan Bright has noticed, many contemporary artists use space as a stage in order to embody various characters who, far from being mere realistic figures, are either stereotypical or achetypal (Bright, 100). Many photographers draw their inspiration from the theater and there is an undeniable Skakespearean dimension in Treacy’s figures. The dirty, assymetrical, gloomy costumes evoke abnormality or madness and conjure up images of horrible fantastic creatures either ghosts or warriors. Other attires including fur transform the artist into a half-human half-animal creature which rekindles our deepest fears of bestiality. The menacing characters seem to emerge from a sinister comedy or a grotesque carnival. But such wilderness is lodged within ourselves : ‘It (my practice) is about finding a wilderness, discovering the wilderness that does still exist even among the everyday’, the artist notes.
Even though the portraits in Them differ from carnivalesque figures in that they do not harbour a collective liberating performance, some notions related to the carnival enlighten their suggestive force. From Bakhtine’s seminal analysis to anthropological contextualisations of the carnival, the notions of reversal and subversion have been highlighted. The carnivalesque moment has been construed as an escape from normative and hierarchical societies and one that lets wilderness resurface albeit temporarily. As Michel Agier notes, the carnival has always been a time and place of social reversals as well as of popular vindication (Agier, 39) as the oppressed or subservients are given a voice through disguise and excess. The carnival traditionally features the fantasized other, the scapegoat who embodies the wilderness and the devilish or the uncivilized. Some of the figures in Them are reminsicent of the beggars as well as the defiant representations of death, both among the traditionnal figures of the carnival. In a text on Charles Fréger’s series entitled Wilder Mann, Robert McLiam Wilson argues that in the midst of our unnatural technological societies looms a subversive urge for a return to nature and primitivism. The mixture of male and female garments or the use of fur in some of Treacy’s compositions evoke Bakhtine’s notion of reversal while the aggressive, unsettling appearance of the figures materialize the wild impulses that lay dormant in most people. The masks, used to an extreme form in Them as they obliterate the faces completely, are crucial to the liberating energy of the carnival since, as is the case in Them, ‘the costuming generates a play on identity and otherness, reality and the imaginary. It others the self’ (Mallé, 202). Interestingly, the participants to a carnival spend time elaborating their costumes and conceive of this preparation as an individual quest for another, deeper, more archaïc self (Mallé, 43). This experimental dimension is present in Danny Treacy’s work as the making of the attires proved an important moment. McLiam Wilson notes that the figure of the wild man—the opposite of the civilised, norm-compliant individual—has haunted our cultures for ages, adding that the wild man embodies the darker side or inverted reflection of the sacred figure of the hermit (McLiam Wilson, 11). During the carnivalesque ritual, the wild man is a solitary figure who reinserts singularity in the group and replaces the id, in Freudian psychoanalytical terms, inside culture. Carnivalesque rituals are cathartic moments : ‘The liminal space which these monsters occupy, by being ‘betwixt and between’ humanity, monstrosity, the Other, the familiar, and the un/known self, becomes our platform of discovery and critique. (…) Monsters break the conventions we hold to steady order and control by being both inside and outside ourselves—we split and converge, disassemble and reassemble at this event horizon’ (Ni Fhlainn).
It is noteworthy that the wild, solitary figures impersonated by the photographer emerge in the ritualized space of the art gallery to disrupt the comforting rationalism of cultural spaces and their norms. Undisputably, the wild man encapsulates our deepest fears, being a grotesque, vaguely comical deformation of ourselves or a sexually dysfunctionnal alter-ego. By taking on the appearance of the monster or the wild man, we re-lodge the Other within ourselves (McLiam Wilson, 12). The monster is not a wholly external phenomenon, nor can it be entirely separated from our own nature. Similarly, the figures in Them are the haunting revenants of our repressive societies, the scapegoats of cultures that fail to respond to man’s fragility and suffering.
Echoes of vulnerability
In a fascinating body of the monstrous body, Margrit Shildrick states that the monster (Shildrick, 2), under all its possible guises, or the ‘differential body’ (Schildrick, 1) remains a disruptive form because ‘the monster is not just abhorent, it is also enticing, a figure that calls to us, that invites recognition’ (Shildrick, 5). The figures in Them inevitably touch us and involve us in their own becoming. The vulnerability that we perceive in Them is also ours. Therefore, the monster and its avatars foster multual vulnerability ; they create visual and affective echoes. Vulnerability, in the Levinasian perspective, is premised upon interdependance and opposed to the autonomous subject. In Them such interrelationality relies on collecting, impersonating and exhibiting.
Such an echo in vulnerability, circulating between the imaginary wearer of the clothes, the artist and the viewer, is premised on the multiple strata of undecidability that have been underlined. Does Them belong to portraiture or self-portraiture ? Performance, photography or sculpture ? Are the characters imaginary or real ? Perpetrators or victims ? Scaring or laughable ? More similar to us than different from us ? Should we shiver away or sympathize ? The viewers are left in a grey zone, invited to ponder their acceptance of exclusionary norms. Indeed, ‘any being, Shildrick argues, who traverses the liminal spaces that evade classification takes on the potential to confound normative identity, and monsters paradigmatically fulfil that role’ (Schildrick, 5).
The compelling presence of ‘them’ in the gallery testifies to the possibility of resisting exclusion through an ethics and aesthetics of vulnerability. Set in motion through performance and photography, Danny Treacy’s vulnerable avatars bring to mind Colum McCann’s character in This Side of Brightness, evokingly named Clarence Walker. In the end of the novel, the latter steps out of darkness as if ressurected after he has found how to share vulnerability. Treacy’s characters could similarly walk clear of their painful past once a shared social sense of vulnerability has been restored. In McCann’s novel as in Treacy’s photographs power relations are deeply embodied and spatialized. The underground abode of the outcasts, sheltering their botched bodies and tattered clothes in the novel as well as the dark background in the images territorialize the abject body in invisible places which may be construed as the obscure and sombre site of deep-seated archaïc fears. Eventually the revelation of the repressed monstruosity which lies dormant and hidden below the bright surface might spark a metaphor of photography itself.
I am extremely grateful to Danny Treacy for his kind collaboration. The writing of this paper would not have been possible if the artist had not provided ample details about his work.
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[i] See the artist’s web site at http://www.dannytreacy.com/
[ii] Barthes defines the punctum in the photograph as the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. (…) A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).’ (Barthes, 26-27)
[iii] ‘Car LE MASQUE EST LE CHAOS DEVENU CHAIR. Il est présent devant moi comme un semblable et ce semblable, qui me dévisage, a pris en lui la figure de ma propre mort : par cette présence le chaos n’est plus la nature étrangère à l’homme mais l’homme lui-même animant de sa douleur et de sa joie ce qui détruit l’homme, l’homme précipité dans la possession de ce chaos qui est son anéantissement et sa pourriture, l’homme possédé d’un démon, incarnant l’intention que la nature a de la faire mourir et pourir. Ce qui sans cesse est communiqué de visage à visage est à la vie humaine aussi précieux, aussi rassurant que la lumière. Quand la communication est rompue du fait d’une décision brutale quand le visage est rendu par le masque à la nuit l’homme n’est plus que nature hostile à l’homme et la nature hostile est tout entière animée de la passion sournoise de l’homme masqué’ (Bataille, 1970, 404).
[iv] ‘In games, children strive by means of grotesque disguises and behaviour directly to arouse strong emotions in each other. And among adults there are sensitive natures who do not like to attend masked balls, since the masks and disguises produce in them an exceedingly awkward impression to which they are incapable of becoming accustomed’.
[v] On the various takes on the dopplegänger, see Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger, Double Visions in German Literature, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.
[vii] Dr. Sigmund Freud, foreword to Captain John Gregory Bourke, Scatalogic Rites of all Nations. A Dissertation upon the Employment of Excrementitious Remedial Agents in Religion, Therapeutics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc., in all Parts of the Globe , New York, American Antropological Society, 1934.
[viii] Rose defines abjection as ‘a matter of the energies, the practices, the works of division that act upon persons and collectivities such that some ways of being, some forms of existence are cast into a zone of shame, disgrace or debasement, rendered beyond the limits of the liveable, denied the warrants of tolerability, accorded purely a negative value.’ (Rose, 255).
[ix] John Major, ‘The Future of Cities’, Speech to the Social Market Foundation Conference, 1995.
[x] ‘L’homme mortel, dans ce nouveau contexte, c’est moins l’homme ramené à la nudité de son corps, exposé à la limite qui est la limite même de la vie, que l’homme potentiellement séparé de la vie sociale, exposé à la mort sociale qui le voue à la perte des attaches’.
[xi] ‘Ce qui s’impose au subalterne, au précaire et à l’exclu, ce sont des défections, qui s’entretiennent mutuellement, du visage et de la voix, envisagées comme autant de privations de visibilité et d’audition, en lesquelles l’absence aux autres (absence de visage, absence de voix) ne donne pas lieu à la relève par l’autre qui vient porter sa voix et son visage au secours de la vie effacée’. ‘Etre sans voix revient alors à se trouver démuni en son visage même, sans possibilité apparente de le reconfigurer, tant l’épreuve sociale que subit une vie rendue peu à peu invisible ne peut donner lieu à une réparation évidente.’
[xii] ‘Etre sans visage, c’est alors être placé au ban de l’humanité, c’est devenir un humain en attente de confirmation d’humanité, un humain situé sur le seuil même de l’institution de l’humanité’.
[xiii] Le marginal est ‘celui dont la parole est pour ainsi dire sans portée : l’invisibilité sociale se comprend alors comme le fait de n’être personne’.
[xiv] ‘Si être rendu invisible, c’est perdre peu à peu son visage, le voir s’estomper dans le regard de l’autre glissant sur lui, la perte du visage est précipitée par la perte de la voix. Défaire le visage est alors la marque d’une vulnérabilité extrême contre laquelle la voix ne peut aller car elle est elle-même emportée dans ce processus de fragilisation’.
[xv] ‘Le visage n’est jamais assuré de sa visibilité tant qu’il n’est pas garanti par une voix dont l’audition est l’épreuve sociale par excellence’.
[xvi] All the statements by the artist are extracted from an unpublished interview with the artist (Summer 2016). Quoted with his kind permission.