J. Louise Makary at The Fourth Wall, Vox Populi
on view May 2015
by Ryan McCartney
J. Louise Makary’s This is Where Wool Comes From is a challenging 2-channel video work centered on the movement and interaction between two figures, one played by director Makary herself and the other played by artist and fellow filmmaker Madsen Minax. The channels comprising the piece are looped individually and out of sync, constituting a narrative split apart, with individual incidents to be (re)ordered by the the viewer’s sense of continuity. This split foreshadows fundamental questions presented in both the content of the piece and our engagement with it.
One channel plays at around six seconds, centered upon a large, masculine figure (Minax) coldly carrying a shoeless and ambiguously unconscious, incapable, or uncaring figure (Makary) on a path through a dense green wood. Presented on a small monitor mounted above eye-level to the left of the door, it quickly sets a sinister tone, albeit not without a curious note of complicity, more implicit than explicit; Makary intended this piece to be noticed upon exiting the space, although the narrative chronology of events places this footage as “first.” The second channel is a significantly larger projection cast upon the back wall of the exhibition area. It begins with an abrupt, weighted sound—presumably that of the carried figure being dropped to the floor, quickly followed by a first-person view of light and fractured images penetrating the darkness of ill-fitting slats which constitute a derelict, weather beaten shack. We, sympathetic viewers, have become alert.
What follows is a highly choreographed grappling struggle between the characters, wordless opponents within the confines of this single, forgotten room. The camera intermittently hangs on tangled limbs, on stress and grip, sweat and the dirty soles of bare feet. The audio is equally physical, largely consisting of the brushing sounds of coarse fabrics and grit, punctuated by the labored breath of focus and exertion. The performance has a feeling similar to that of a true wrestling match, but it is quite clear throughout that Minax is completely dominant, ultimately dragging Makary across the floor, hoisting her up and down – at times with no resistance, at other times in spite of it. There is no mistaking the difficulty of watching this, particularly considering the apparent relationship between the sexes, and yet, interestingly there are several moments throughout the video where the struggle subsides, the pair grows calm, and there is a genuine moment of tenderness, caring, and perhaps of empathy. This empathy, or the proposition of it remains unresolved – sharing of feelings between characters, performers, their dualities, and us. Near the mid-point of the video, the camera zooms out, and we are presented with a comparatively long, static shot of Minax holding Makary: part compassion, part protection and entirely theatrical. Later, Minax lifts Makary to her feet, as if coaxing her to stand, and the pair share a close embrace, another respite. This does not last long, and ultimately the loop ends in a graphic pose of complete submission—a sort of neck hold/head lock— and we see slivers of light through slats again, accompanied by a sudden dizzying surge of buzzing cicadas. Minax lets go. Makary bolts out of the shack.
The choreographed interaction here is based on the shearing of sheep, which is a specific choreography in and of itself. The participants (both shearer and sheep) arrive at a consistent and repeatable outcome, resulting from the creation of a series of movements that could be used as a standard. Invented around the 1950’s by New Zealand Shearer Walter Godfrey Bowen, the “Bowen Technique” is now model procedure, minimizing stress placed on the sheep as well as improving the quality and efficiency of fleece removal. In translation from a utilitarian dance-with-livestock to a human performance, complications foreground themselves. For instance, the “Bowen Technique” is performed with and against the resistance of one of its participants – the sheep – and while we understand that the shearer cares for the sheep and its well-being, as its harm would do neither any good, it is nevertheless aggressive. Here, the artist has created a document in which she plays the resisting party. This is clearly a contradiction of control, but certainly not a negation within this role. The artist has chosen to perform with and against a more physically and structurally (choreographically) dominant performer, maintains clear authority of the project as creator, yet places herself as subject at mercy of narrative, and questionably at times when adopting limp, lifeless posture, as object acted upon.
This is Where Wool Comes From is a fascinating, complicated record of struggle and necessity, power exchange, and ownership. In watching, we are witnessing artists place themselves in potentially uncomfortable positions, becoming characters brutish, cruel, desperate, helpless, despondent—intimate, physical, inseparable. The participants are characters and themselves, subjects scrapping in their own medium, in a narrative with minimal plot, allowing fiction and reality to become a part of a new image of self, a questioning of where fact lies. Can a work be equal parts aggressive and empathetic at the same time?
In this regard, I keep returning to another piece as I consider This is Where Wool Comes From: Georges Franju’s 20-minute black-and-white documentary Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes) (1949). Franju spends much of the film in and around a slaughterhouse explicitly recording the killing of livestock, most remarkably the death of a horse by a shot to the head and the cutting of sheep’s throats by a butcher with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The viewer’s initial reaction is that of disgust, repulsion, and denial. However, we ultimately know that this is reality, that this execution is impersonal and it now happens at industrial magnitude. The real disquiet is in the boredom of the butcher with the cigarette, not his morals and ethics, but his humanity and where it lies.
In the wall text accompanying This is Where Wool Comes From it is stated that Madsen Minax is transgender. Without this explicit acknowledgement there would be no reason for a viewer to be aware. Gender roles may be assumed when a viewer first regards Makary’s piece, and they fall along uncomfortable lines as submissive feminine and dominant masculine characterizations. This near simultaneous acceptance then rejection of expectation or normative behavior is part of a questioning and the continuous peeling of layers and an examination of self, a claiming of agency and rejecting of assumptions, a defiance of these expectations, an embrace of humanity, in all of its ugliness and conflict. We become aware that no matter how violent the piece may seem at times, there is no easy butcher in this fiction. When you shear a sheep, you try to remove the fleece in one piece, as quickly as possible.
Ryan McCartney is an artist, curator and co-director of the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia. His work can currently be seen in Other Selections, at The Center For Art in Wood through July 18, 2015.