Waxing faith: Matthew van Roden’s ‘Apocryphilia’ at the NCCA

Matthew van Roden: Apocryphilia , exhibition installation view, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, March 2019; photo: Fiona Morrison

Matthew van Roden: Apocryphilia, exhibition installation view, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, March 2019; photo: Fiona Morrison

Matthew van Roden’s first major solo exhibition was the culmination of a master’s thesis investigation into the qualities of wax in its relationship to printmaking and video projection. Installed in four parts at Darwin’s Northern Centre for Contemporary Art during March this year, ‘Apocryphilia’ made manifest a confronting, visceral and transgressive aesthetic in which wax serves as both a form of printed text and a fleshy textural surface on which the artist creates multimedia self-portraits.

Considering ‘Apocrypha’ refers to biblical texts, and to things of unknown or doubtful origin, Van Roden has defined ‘apocryphilia’ as ‘an orientation, a desire towards text, specifically apocryphal text’. This desiring orientation imbues the relationships between the artist’s material process (of wax), his subjectivity as a queer body (of flesh) and his biography as a former Pentecostal student (of text) with palpable and compelling determination.

The exhibition’s six spaces formed a series of conceptual and escalating stages reminiscent of the stations of the cross. This journey began at street level with the earliest of Van Roden’s works: a set of nine paddles, each printed with the phrase ‘YOU TRAIN YOUR CHILD’. Inside the gallery, this work was followed by I AM A TEXT, a wall of digital and wax plate prints mounted on wooden panels. These hung opposite a video of Van Roden addressing the viewer in androgynous drag regalia, superimposed onto excerpts of text from The Second Book of Maccabees. Below the video, a plinth supported an open bible, the majority of its pages gutted. The third work, titled THE//WORD//BECOMES//FLESH, comprised nine text-scarred wax boards installed in grid formation, and projected with a video of the artist undulating in stark and distorted tonalities.

The exhibition culminated in the main space with its titular work. Here, a moving dual-form image of the artist was projected onto a fleshy disc of wax. Melted directly onto the surface of the gallery walls opposite were two competing and repeated statements: ‘NORMATIVITY IS THE CANONISATION OF THE BODY’ and ‘THE APOCRYPHISER WILL RIP THROUGH THE SEAMS OF THE EPISTEME’.

Declaring that his ‘queer body is always reading biblically’, Van Roden created with ‘Apocryphilia’ a relational space between the seemingly contradictory drives of his fundamentalist textual past and his re-territorialised queer present. In doing so, the artist affirmed his queerness as an apocryphal relation to heresy and the periphery, with wax becoming the binding yet fluid medium that names, unites and destabilises the divine word of God.

Carmen Ansaldo, Darwin