It starts with a flicker of light, hard white from the pool, the kind that hits you and makes your eyes split. This video by Jordana Bragg opens the exhibition ‘Tainted Love’ at Canberra Contemporary Art Space (until 12 October). The show is named after Soft Cell’s synth-pop cover which soared to become a 1980s gay anthem, paralleling the rolling dark tidal wave of the HIV epidemic. Curated by David Broker, the exhibition takes six different artist perspectives on love and delves into ideas of loss and longing. Developed as an idea during the 2017 vote for same-sex marriage, Broker’s selection of artists speaks to voices from the LGBTIQA space but ultimately stands free from a resolute position. The works of Troy-Anthony Baylis, Bragg, Karena Keys, Angus McGrath, Nathan Nhan and Suzanne Treister intersect in their responses yet speak frankly in their individuality.
Bragg is both boy and girl and neither at the same time. Shaved head, inked and tattooed, the camera rolls over tanned Sunbaker-like shoulders as Bragg sits by a window, still but for the faint breath of a curtain. Palm trees sway over a heart-shaped pool. Later, shirt off with a black shadow carving a ‘V’ on the chest and smoking a cigarette, Bragg looks at us with sullen, challenging eyes. The colour red weaves through the video, draining a stained-glass tulip on the door and echoed in the fading break lights of a car as it pulls away. We connect and disconnect with Bragg, caught in the push-pull of desire as the heart goes cold.
The sense of distance and trauma is also explored in Baylis’s work. Denied knowledge of his ancestral Jawoyn country, the artist explores a longing for the home of his bloodlines, a place he has never visited. Emotional Landscape 17 (2008) and Emotional Landscape 19 (2009) are large canvas ‘episodes’ that resonate in their warm black-red surfaces. Rhythmic lines of paint also carry a repeated ‘X’ in white-out correction fluid, referencing both the final kiss that seals a letter and the whitewashing of Australian colonial history.
Loss and embodiment are evoked in Keys’s works which hang from the ceiling like disco skins cast off the bodies of their wearers. Wrapped and glued, painted and tucked, they are visceral in their pearlescent surfaces, echoing Eva Hesse’s fragile soft sculptures yet with a darker gut of colours. The abject quality of them is not lost, with a compacted golden lump hanging alongside a silvery fall. We don’t look at Keys’s works, we feel them. They are both inside out and outside in – gleaming, lustered internals.
With such gestures, ‘Tainted Love’ draws you into its darkened space of conflicted feelings: could love somehow mark the death of us? Somewhere along the way, do we lose ourselves to it, for better or for worse?
Rosalind Lemoh is a 2019 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia.