The most powerful statements are succinct ones.
I TRUSTED YOU.
Responding to this issue’s theme of ‘lies’, Sydney artist Agatha Gothe-Snape wraps runway with this single damning statement. It graces the cover like a bold public decree, without context but laden with connotations. The decoratively framed, hand-drawn lettering recalls early 20th Century billposters intended to capture our attention and draw us in. Once inside, the statement dissipates into a repeat pattern, a continuous rumination on broken trust and betrayal.
Is this a very public act of revenge and self-empowerment following the end of an intimate relationship (à la French artist Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, 2007)?1
There is more at work here than meets the eye. Gothe-Snape’s I TRUSTED YOU (2009) is not directly autobiographical. There is no personal vendetta or cathartic process on display. The context is the artist’s investigation into reconciling disparate sources and influences—personal versus universal experience; local versus international influence.
‘I trusted you’ came to Gothe-Snape via YouTube.2 The words are the lyrics (in their entirety) of a song by the late American comedian Andy Kaufman. In 1977, Kaufman took to the stage of NBC’s The Midnight Show and for over 3 minutes belted out ‘I trusted you, I trusted you / I trusted you, I trusted you’, in the style of a cliché, repetitive pop song. The live studio audience went wild for him, cheering him on as the words—repeated over and over—became more poignant and his expression more sincere. Watching the performance online you see Kaufman fully embody the words, reaching a near primal scream in the chorus. Returning for an encore, he points an accusational finger at individual audience members and even his band.
In Kaufman’s performance and Gothe-Snape’s interpretative transcription, the subject—‘YOU’—remains anonymous and is not necessarily singular. Everyone has been trusted. And everyone has been lied to. Whether the experience is between friends, lovers or an individual and their super fund manager, broken trust—based on lies—is everywhere, all the time.
Agatha Gothe-Snape, Every Artist Remembered, 2009, collated performance stills, Firstdraft Gallery (clockwise from top left: Agatha Gothe-Snape , with Anne Kay, with Richard Goodwin, with Justin Trendall, with Mike Parr). Photos: Kelly Doley and Mitch Cairns.
Gothe-Snape’s use of the subtly political poster format—a format she favours as the most direct means of communicating—reminds us of this mass shared experience. The clever use of this format also recalls a multitude of ‘personal’ addresses that have come before in propaganda, advertising and the visual arts, from James Montgomery Flagg’s ‘I WANT YOU’ recruitment poster of 1917 to Barbara Kruger’s Why are you here? (2000). But there is no call to action or rhetorical response implied in I TRUSTED YOU. Only self-reflective meditation on a theme that reveals melancholy and strength in equal measure.
In considering the theme, Gothe-Snape has given form to her own personal experience of ‘lies’ through reference to Kaufman. She states:
In my experience it is the lies, half-truths and concealments that have the potential to destroy the trust that constitutes the foundation of a relationship. In the repetition of the statement ‘I trusted you’, I hope this work will operate in a similar way to Kaufman’s, ebbing between cliché, banality, accusation and declaration … [capturing] the universal human experience of what it is to be lied to.3
She also succeeds in creating an homage to the Kaufman performance, the cover acting as a kind of transcription as she consolidates Kaufman’s work into her own visual style.
In her practice, Gothe-Snape exemplifies the cross-disciplinary artist, drawing on often-disparate influences and source material. She chooses the most direct medium or combination of mediums—from performance to print making, painting and installation—to realise an ongoing exploration into personal and historical artistic practice. Her work strikes the delicate balance of being simultaneously self-referential and outward-looking to the world at large. In her words:
My work is concerned with attempting to understand what it is to make art and be an artist in Australia today. Unlike previous generations of Australian artists who have appropriated images from art history in order to renegotiate their relationships to those histories, my work is literally about a dialogue between art making in the past and present, as well as between the spheres of [the] local and international. The fundamental question my work asks is: How do I, as an Australian artist, allow both the ghosts of the past and present, and the local and international, to ‘speak’ in my practice? What strategies can I employ to conjure these ghosts, and what forms do these works take? And finally, how can I invoke histories, without being swallowed up, or possessed by them?4
These questions are answered in two recent series of works.
Firstly, an ongoing series of small-scale, untitled gauche ‘posters’, each of which features the name of a cultural practitioner who has registered on her radar. The group of names is broad—from art historical heavy-weight Kasimir Malevich to the YBA icon Tracey Emin; from local art identity Robert Lake to personal acquaintances and peers like artist Shane Haseman, and actress Alison Bell. Gothe-Snape meditates on each name and then, using a restricted colour pallet, forms a graphic to accompany the lettering. The illustrations that result are a combination of the abstract and the figurative. Often a ‘target’ motif reoccurs, as it does in the ‘O’ of I TRUSTED YOU. This could be read as part mandala, part Jasper Johns pop target,5 or simply as the artist centring herself and finding her mark.
This collection of unique, intimate posters does not glorify but quietly and respectfully celebrates the ‘presence’ of these individuals in the world at large, and more specifically, in Gothe-Snape’s compounded knowledge of both those who have come before her and those working contemporaneously to her own art making. By meditating on these names she is considering her own position as an artist and responding to the influences that surround her. These works also invite the viewer (or reader) to recall their own associations with the artists, or respond to an unknown name through the form and tone of the graphic signifiers.
The second work that responds to Gothe-Snape’s core questions is an ongoing project entitled Every Artist Remembered (EAR). Initiated in 2008, EAR combines performance and drawing with a strong conceptual premise. Two performers must engage in a two-hour dialogue consisting solely of the names of artists that come to mind. Accordingly, each performance results in ‘every artist remembered’ is an act of commemoration and an exploration of relationships and multiple histories.
The EAR project has seen three renditions, the most recent of which took place at Firstdraft, Sydney, in June 2009. There Gothe-Snape made appointments with nine Australian artists, diverse in their ages, disciplines and career stages.6 Each was invited to undertake the EAR dialogue with Gothe-Snape while sitting in a homely installation reminiscent of the 1970s conceptual era (wooden arm chair, coffee table, pot plant, crochet throw). Together they were surrounded by large, uniform sheets of white paper that were transformed—over the course of the show—from minimal voids to written testaments of the proceedings. Gothe-Snape began each performance by saying the first artist name; the collaborator then responded with another name. Gothe-Snape recorded the names on the paper as they went, creating name ‘drawings’. Importantly, the names were not recorded in the order of their recollection, instead they were intuitively placed on the page.
Gothe-Snape kept her instructions to her co-performers minimal, reminding them in the introduction text, exhibited at the entrance to the gallery, that ‘THERE IS NO VIRTUOSITY’. Consequently the performers (even those who entered the space with an idea of the artists they wanted to contribute) embarked on a Jungian-style word association ‘game’ that lead into unknown territory. The names often followed one trajectory (associated, for example, by art movement or style) but then turned to evoke associations that surprised even the performers themselves.
What was left at the end of these performances was nine written records of this oral process—with some names repeated, some misspelt, embracing the imperfect nature of the exercise. Some of the most interesting moments occurred when an artist was known by one performer but not the other, or when a name (even a well-known one) simply drew a complete blank.
The sense of commemoration left in the records is democratic—local artists find themselves alongside international figures of art history; colleagues are placed in relation to names learnt in high school. We find groups of artists who have had a personal influence on the performers, some whose names simply share a phonetic similarity.
What is sadly erased in the drawings is the relationships between the names as they are vocalised. These are revealed in the anecdotes told by the performers, pieces of information adding to the historical significance of who is remembered by whom, and why. The audio recordings are all that retain these connections and these become interesting documents in themselves. They record not only the names, but also the moments between Gothe-Snape and her co-performers as they carve out their own relationship over the course of the 2 hours. The level of trust (achieved in varying degrees in these performances) facilitates the process of remembering as the performers feed into one another.
Trusting in one’s own memory is also centre stage in EAR, serving to remind us that histories are not definitive and chronological, but constantly evolving, repeating and branching off in new directions. In this post-post-whatever moment, we find ourselves living in a time where trusted sources of knowledge can be human beings acting as individual search engines.
Gothe-Snape finds herself floating among established and evolving histories, where a single artist’s name can ricochet in the mind of the artist and audience, sparking memories and associations yet to be recorded. Language is most poignant when it is simple and direct—Gothe-Snape shows us that a repeated phrase or a collection of nouns can create non-mimetic triggers for deeper associations. The trust, in the end, is placed in the artist—to scrutinise and give voice to their epoch with both curiosity and sincerity.
1. Calle received a ‘break up’ email containing the parting words: ‘Take care of yourself’. She did this by publicly exhibiting the email and asking 107 women to interpret and analyse the letter for her.
2. YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSYV-nEE300.
3. Email from Agatha Gothe-Snape to runway board, 10 August 2009.
4. Email from Agatha Gothe-Snape to runway board, 10 August 2009.
5. For example, Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1955).
6. Debra Dawes, Mike Parr, Noel McKenna, Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Richard Goodwin, Anne Kay, Rachel Scott, Justin Trendall and Elizabeth Pulie.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 15, Lies, Summer 2009-2010, pp 5 – 9.
Elizabeth Stanton is Communications and Publications Manager at Raven Row, London. Before this, she was Programme Coordinator at The Showroom, London. From 2012 until 2015, she...