What is more pornographic, a display of flesh or the deliberate and often violent oppression of people’s sexuality lives and loves for the sake of political points scoring?
‘Dream Merchant’ was a collaborative performance resulting in a series of photomedia works developed in 2005 by Liam Benson, Sari T.M. Kivinen, Victoria Lawson and Naomi Oliver. It was also a live performance that occurred at Blacktown Arts Centre in 2008. Both components of ‘Dream Merchant’ appropriated and embodied Norman Lindsay’s mythological subject matter of satyrs, fauns and nymphs, re-situating them in contemporary Western Sydney.
The performances were intended as a critique of photographic subjectification and explored Lindsay’s political provocations via our experience of queer dance culture; the AIDS crisis of the 80s; the work of Nan Goldin and closer to home, of Tracey Moffatt. ‘Dream Merchant’ was initially exhibited at Kings ARI in Melbourne (2007) and later at Blacktown Arts Centre (2008–09), and more recently at Mosman Art Gallery (2015). Next year the exhibition will travel to Broken Hill Regional Gallery as a part of the Broken Heel Festival (created to reflect the city and the Palace Hotel’s appearance in ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’).
We are now writing to reclaim ‘Dream Merchant’ as a queer provocation. We are responding to a review in Runway, Issue 13, ‘Dead’ by Josephine Skinner which undermined our critique of queer repression in Western Sydney during the work’s exhibition at the Blacktown Arts Centre. Skinner’s review compared Lindsay to Hugh Hefner. She discussed US officials in the 1940s burning his work as porn; she described Kivinen’s part in the performance as a ‘nymph-clubber-slut’ and Benson as ‘hairy pole dancer transvestite’. The deliberately ad hoc was treated as gauche.
We wish to put forth our own consideration of these matters by addressing how we are affected by this ongoing project and its outcomes.
It’s 2005, the trucks are parked and we’re in a strange place. We’re walking along a back street in outer Western Sydney, recalling memories of conjoined flesh, wearing costumes from another era. Some of the costumes we’ve hired and some we’ve created. We’re grappling with the darker aspects of Lindsay, such as his politics, the exploitation, the subjugation, the occasional hinting at a lack of consent. We are considering the affects of his displays, now our displays, of provocation on this still conservative community, late at night, in the middle of winter. We’ve negotiated who will be clothed and who won’t be. We’ve discussed how much flesh would be on show. As the ‘photographer’ Tori also decides to perform, to participate.
Some time later, we begin to regard the images with some suspicion. There’s an unsettling feeling as some of our images, those in the carpark and playground and near the big truck take us years to process, physically, affectively. Those dark winter nights around Springwood, Emu Plains, Penrith, and Parramatta have remained with us. They haunt each of our practices uniquely, recalling the sharing of dark stories, arguments about the translation of Lindsay’s images into our own visual concepts and perceptions. Out of this miasma we created a secondary performance for the night of the opening at Blacktown.
This performance was informed by Liam’s queer practice, which thrived on the strength of the female protagonists and their costumes. Naomi, Sari and Tori were acutely aware of the power of female drag, both as Drag kings and Femme drag. This was a power we wanted to draw on as we discussed Lindsay’s suggestions of lesbianism, sexual promiscuity and polyamory. Sari and Liam chose to display the most flesh. We realised we each have a very different perception of nudity. Sari was informed by her Finnish culture, and specifically the normality of the nude body in the sauna. Free of judgment for her, and for us, the nude sauna body is not sexualised, nor is it sensualised, it just is. To enter the sauna with your bathing suit—in Finland—is taboo. The sauna is a place of acceptance for all bodies. Her acceptance and openness responded to our previous experience in queer environments and we found a safe place for us to perform within, together.
Baring flesh in ‘Dream Merchant’ (in the photographs and the live performance) purposefully responded to the nudity of Norman Lindsay’s drawings and etchings. Nudity in the vein of Lindsay is charged, sensualised and sexualised, a mirror to our own desires. It is both light and dark. There is something uncomfortable about it. In his practice mischievous mystical creatures corrupt innocence, incidents occur. The performance draws on surveillance, and a critique of drama.
A betrayal, through the act of injurious speech, causes a further level of exposure to take place. We discuss the review by Skinner and find that we made ourselves vulnerable and that vulnerability was misconstrued as exhibitionism, as shameful. Our experiences of bodily invasion were put out there, making people uncomfortable, as we allowed ourselves to feel this discomfort, to transmit it. We had not displayed the commercialised, touristified body of Las Vegas or the Moulin Rouge. It was the body of the private party; the invitation to the intimate space; the rejection of the grotesque, the making beautiful owing to a society that rejects and demoralises and occasionally kills and we’re not just talking about la petit morte, though of course that also arrives. Collectively we’ve experienced friends dying from AIDS, we’ve experiences bullying and the repression of our difference and not at all straightforward sexualities. We’ve experienced people reeling from us but we’ve also experienced love.
In the ten years since we first performed we’ve also experienced how lucky we are to be able to exhibit this openness. The bodies of Nan Goldin, Patrick Staff, Juan Davila and even Tracey Moffatt’s display and exhibit a number of political positions all sharing a willingness to fall, to be vulnerable, to revolt. The gap, the imperfect, the intimate arises from friendship that doesn’t fail to be provocative. We might argue amongst ourselves but an outsider with little or no experience of the field objectifies, represses, uses language we don’t recognise. They ignore the sovereign. They colonise. They settle. They forget to intersect with the parts of the work they are affected by. They are power over, not power with. In the fight for marriage, equality is nominal to them. They forget that people have died without those rights. To be a nymph, a clubber, a slut, a pole dancer, a transvestite or none of those labels, is a personal choice.