Kaucyila Brooke and Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel in the Garden of Eden
The tale of Madam and Eve is an adventure story and creation myth told in wall-mounted photomontages that look sort of like comic book panels. Visiting Kaucyila Brooke’s show, Tit for Twat: Can We Talk? (at Commonwealth & Council through March 29) and watching as the generously proportioned characters pose themselves in elaborate gardens, I imagined I was seeing travel snapshots from an alternate reality: a reality where humankind springs from the loins of two robust young women; a reality where the Garden of Eden does not imply a fall from grace. In this three-part project, of which Can We Talk? is the second part, Madam and Eve are played by two friends of the artist, who were in their youth when the photos were taken some twenty years ago. Also featured is a Greek chorus of daytime talk show hosts: Oprah, Rikki Lake, and two whose names no longer come so easily to mind offer commentary on Brooke’s narrative and drive it forward.
There is an undercurrent of 1970s Feminism and of communes and lesbian separatism which places this work directly in the field of identity and gender-based art. But instead of approaching her politics with a tone of pedantic moralizing, in Tit for Twat Brooke employs the rambunctious, ebullient and satiric sensibility of Rabelais and of Cervantes. Madam and Eve might be Brooke’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, poking fun at an established culture which is conservative, self-important and corrupt. The two have fun; they revel in their own bodies as in the body of the world. Their quest is not only pre-Modern (where Modernism is a reductive search for truth), it is pre-Enlightenment; and following the lead of Brooke’s narrative one might reach different conclusions about nature and about humans than were reached under those two patriarchal constructs. Of course, one might also not do so; but either way, the journey is full of pleasure and intelligence.
I think that a spirit of careful generosity is necessary to make art. The impulse to share is human, it is the social aspect of our being. To mediate that raw desire and to create something of value is the task of the artist. It requires rigor, and it requires one to dissemble and to beguile, to teach and to do so in a manner that reflects the process of learning. Ideally, the artist asks a viewer to approach her or his work openly and without agenda; doing this a viewer in a sense creates the art through an associative process of discovery that closely matches the experience of making art. A contract is implied between viewer and artist: be intelligent, be demanding, offer me your ideas, but allow me my own. Let me, as a viewer, find my own way. Leave my conclusions about your message to me. Our desire to learn is paramount, our distaste for being taught is powerful; therefore the artist’s intent shouldn’t burden us.
“…as an attitude of approaching it [something that is not understood], I like to stay a little bit empty-headed. In other words, I try to not decide what it is I’m looking at before I get there, but to let that be revealed through the process of making.” And also through the process of looking, I tell myself as I read this sentence in an interview titled Radio, Paradise and Nuclear Power: Kaucyila Brooke about Politics and Narrative in Landscapes and Gardens, an essayistic conversation between the artist Kaucyila Brooke and Christina Linortner. (This conversation is documented in Landscape, Edition Two, a publication of research by the interdisciplinary scholarly group Eden’s Edge, about whom more here: http://www.edens-edge.org/)
I found another way into Kaucyila Brooke’s Tit for Twat: Can We Talk? through the incidental concrete poetry of a phrase turned backwards: “it-through-movements-our-with-unfolds-space-of-depth-the-and-scenes…”
In the context of the complete quote, which reads “This garden is a lyrical apparition and a mathematical demonstration. Visuality is only a potential that is then activated by motion. When our position changes, views become scenes and the depth of space unfolds with our movements through it.” My mistaken reading of the final phrase backwards caused me to turn it around in my head in an attempt to decipher its meaning. Through this action I experienced Brooke’s proposed activation by motion bodily, even while I understood the process with my brain. I notice too, that I like the words as I first read them. The misordering of words that I experienced curiously maintained the rhythm of Brooke’s writing, and it breaks the words free from the constraints of relational definition. Once again, I appreciate this artist’s sense of play.
Brooke uses hand-lettered banners within the photomontages to offer garden-derived philosophical musings: “Do you think the spring, with all its flowering plants is the apotheosis of the artwork? Or do you think mid-winter – the crucial moment of its birth – when new life forms its core, is this the truest hour?” and “There is no inert core to the garden. And no final version of its creation. to include living things is to embrace change as an inevitable element of the design that must be accommodated.” In these quotes Kaucyila Brooke makes clear her commitment as an artist to the whole of life. I am with her, in her mid-winter, looking backward twenty years and finding beauty in youth; I am also with her in mid-winter, looking around and finding new possibilities and accepting change.
Kaucyila Brooke’s exhibition Tit for Twat: Can We Talk, like her other work that I know, is joyous and intelligent in ways that feel important. (The very fact of joyousness and intelligence together in an art exhibition might be important and unusual.) In it she explores ideas of gender equality and difference; she comments on contemporary culture, not with disdain but critically, and with a sense of love; she presents us with the curious and queer notion that aging is not a matter of limitation but of possibilities. Overall in this exhibition I find love: a love of people and ideas, and also a love of questioning authority. As an artist and writer, I am inspired by her; as a person, a member of the community she questions, I’m grateful.