By Chris Rusak
What can you remember? Memory — ethereal, disruptive, deceptive — fools and assuages. A product of watching and listening, this faculty is a key mode in human experience, and is one of the elements, at least in theory, that separates us from more vicious, less sentient, animal counterparts. Artist Mathew Hale is watching, and listening, and perhaps mourning, and the spectacle of his work, an examination of the spaces between the past, memory, and the present, is currently on display at Ratio 3, San Francisco, collected as a show titled MA THE WHALE, until June 22nd.
The show consists of a multitude of collages: a menagerie of physical objects, a coterie of seemingly disparate characters, and a spectrum of narratives entwined like high-pile shag. Centered amongst this mix is a large installation and, most importantly, the presentation of Die Münze (2009-2011), an audiovisual tour de force which acts as preface, prelude, prologue, or epilogue, depending on how you fancy your interpretation. This slideshow, which screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011, is narrated by Astrid Proll, notorious not only as a German, post-World War II, radical anti-imperialist, but also as a convicted accomplice to bank robbery and former prison escapee. Her inclusion is one of several historically important figures depicted throughout Hale’s works. Still, Proll’s presence is significant. After escaping prison in Germany she fled to London, where she changed her name, later returning to her homeland to study and work in photography. Similarly, Hale was born in England, expatriated himself to Germany, and has studied and now works with photography. But, this simple kinship bleeds even deeper, and revelations of such slowly emerge from his sensorial abstractions, narrative creations which prod at the role culturally-influenced memory has in societal perception, as well as how depth psychology affects one’s subjective realization.
Die Münze is a short work with the weight of several feature films. To summarize it is difficult. Lush imagery in vivid color and deafening black and white flash before us in a seasonal sequence, each moment of the work metered as another compartment of a slide carousel. Music, the hum of the projector, the click of its turning mechanics, all hold one’s attention as much as tightly-wrapped packets of silence. Proll speaks in German and English, primarily the latter, and elaborates places in time. On one hand she acts as objective narrator, a deviant chaperone escorting us through sensual adventures. She tells us stories of characters we vaguely see: friends in a park, the inhabitants of a cottage, strangers on a train, little known painters, blue chip artists, lesbian lovers and lost little boys. On the other hand, she is our mother, warning us that each mirror has two faces and lamenting with us the dichotomous, infinite nature of time in which we mortally participate. Lastly, she embodies Hale’s surrogate mother, a large symbolic figure with constant presence, a whale swirling in the swimming pool of his psyche.
In fact, it’s hard not to think about Die Münze — and, independently, Hale’s accompanying collage work — without a psychoanalytic bent, since his work heavily relies on veiled symbolism. For the viewer, Hale even opens a door to an empty therapy room in the lower-left corner of Page 54 of MIRIAM’S BODY (2013), one of his collage compositions, which depicts the illustration of an empty couch and chair in a typical therapeutic setup. Adjoined with a statement on temptation, the infliction of punishment, and a metaphor of drawing, the illustration and its surrounding elements engorge a choppy report of sex, sadism, and even a saccharine perversity in the art market. Words jotted over texts attempt to use comedy to deflect inquiry, lightly masking a collaged, clipped story of a woman’s adjudicated whipping. Juxtaposed with these is an invitation — perhaps re-appropriated by the artist to himself or perhaps a completely fabricated ephemera of memory — to participate in a drawing exhibition. Emblazoned with the logo DRAWING ROOM, it summarily acts as not only an unwritten subtitle to the work, but as the connective thread between its elements; a good psychoanalytic therapist, as they listen to the interwoven, sexualized memories of their patient in an effort to reap knowledge from the fields of their ego, maps and draws each session’s conversation, typically four to five days a week. So, too, does a farmworker plow the field daily to feed the masses, which Hale incorporates as the main, visible female protagonist of this work. But, this artist clearly feeds himself with substantive, meaty ideas, whipped from sensory experience, sights and sounds imprisoned in a dark memory bank escaping into light. Fantasy interweaves with history, the resulting sketch of reality used to contextualize oneself into a subjective present, and Hale’s work attempts to assert that this process is not just that of a creative collage artist, but our own.
Find a psychotherapist, buy them a drink (they could likely use one after listening to so many traumatic fantasies), and beg from them a tool of their trade.
“First, tell me about your mother,” she replies.
Hale acquiesces as well. His feminine archetype holds MA THE WHALE together, gives birth to it, rules over it, protests against some its decisions. Powerful women like Queen Elizabeth and Rosa Luxemberg stand beside frolicking, coital pairs of women and fresh placenta dripping off new life. But, this newborn enters a visceral world filled with paper dolls, born of the artist’s sharp edges. Page 192 of MIRIAM’S BODY (2013) — another collage in this grand novel, named by a convention of chance Hale that discusses in a 2010 interview with Sam Williams — intimates his recollection of the attendants to his birth. The event is recalled as cinematic, pornographic, and traumatic. A Hollywood scene is veiled and inverted as a lesbian tryst unfurls outside the vision of one nurse, her shadow instead a voyeur from afar. Sharp Xacto blades lie about, a necessary tool to this artist’s practice as well as an obstetrician who cuts the cord, yet we wonder to what extent Hale’s cord now still exists. The same sharpness recalls the act of circumcision boys often face in their early days, a redaction of the future by dissecting sensory organs. Hale frequently employs redaction, as he does here, crafting revisions to his historical perceptions. Naked pink Post-It notes dot the surface, blank reminders of time wiped free, a time which has been split apart from itself like the bisected wristwatches which enter and exit this photo album through its dashed lateral edges. More stationary detritus, trimmed red lines, connect placenta with graffitied panties — MA’s panties. While no men are seen here, this fantasy of the mind of Janus, the mythological god of cyclical beginnings and endings, leaves as many questions for the viewer about societal perceptions of masculinity, misogyny, and maternity as it tells us about the births and deaths of the artist’s mother(s).
Scattered throughout Die Münze are references to important artists: Méret Oppenheim, whose Teacup (1936), a dreamlike object, examines the intangibility and fallibility of cognition; Hans Haacke, whose plexiglass cubes represent the panoptical containment of a perfect memory, yet stand empty; and Lucio Fontana, whose slashed canvases break through the illuminated surfaces of painting and reveal a darkness once traditionally contained; each enriching Hale’s incisive inquiry into duality. In fact, die Münze means coin, a two-sided token to which we attribute value. Each artist, like Hale, questions the value of revelation. In a twist of the knife, Hale includes a slide of the book Das Zeitalter der Extreme (The Age of Extremes) by historian Eric Hobsbawm, its cover depicting one of Fontana’s slashed paintings. Surrounding Hobsbawm, however, remains a controversial discourse about revisionist tendencies to his otherwise lauded, scholarly contributions. Though Fontana did not revise the history of painting, he certainly changed its course, but as Hale picks up on this visual conflation and includes it in his work, he notes the ability to change the future by revising one’s own past. The fidelity of cognitive memory directly affects the nature of our presence, something examined in Christopher Nolan’s equally complex Memento. In some ways, Hale works to revise history, shuffling polaroids between decades, but also conflating celebrity personalities with the banal to spectacularize quotidian emotions. But, like Hobsbawm’s book, Hale assembles his interpretation of history to form political critique of the common diametric rhetoric endemic in powerful nations, reaffirming every artists’ role in society as a theorist.
While not always blatant, politics patiently walks through most scenes of Hale’s world. Constant challenges about Germany’s role in World War II, the role of Communist philosophy and critical theory in society, and the Capitalist-driven economy are distributed like propaganda leaflets. Page 164 of MIRIAM’S BODY (2009) dovetails Hillary Clinton into an Islamic neighborhood to confront dead fathers, products of the politically fueled military-industrial complex. An uncircumcised penis graffitied with the word ISLAMIC reminds us of the cultural divide that also fuels emotions of terror. In Die Münze, Hale quotes directly from Herbert Marcuse, one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, noted for their heated critique of capitalist culture, but chooses words which speak about subjective experience and not economics. “As cognition gives way to recognition,” one line of this particular slide reads, “the forbidden images and impulses of childhood begin to tell the truth that reason denies.” Though at times Hale’s compositions come across merely as photographs of the haphazard piles on a studio floor, altruistic goals are intentional, direct, and palpable. However, Hale also redacts sentences from the entirety of Marcuse’s quote, a fact deceptively absent on screen. The absent words discuss the “conscious re-creation” of happiness and the mode of cognitive memory in this feat, a nod by Marcuse to Freud’s reality principle, concerned with balancing short-term pleasure and long-term sustenance. By redacting these words, Hale not only acknowledges the often-present absence of this check-and-balance in contemporary capitalism, particularly noted in the recent 2008 American financial crisis, but also the perverse behavior of international warmongering. “The psychoanalytic liberation of memory,” says Marcuse, “explodes the rationality of the repressed individual,” and rationality explodes here, indeed.
Amongst the dissection of rationality in Die Münze, a small, easily unnoticed memory is briefly liberated. In a brief flash of black and white one sees a group assembled in the snow, perhaps on a frozen lake, a cold wind dampening the cackles of children on sleds. A curious creature seems out of place, what appears to be a fish, resting at the foot of a man for no perceptible reason. A discerning viewer will recognize this cue and recall Michelangelo’s The Prophet Jonah (c. 1500) from The Sistine Chapel. Jonah, of course, was swallowed by a whale. Perhaps Hale is our modern-day Jonah, a prophet, whose message is encoded throughout this effort. If one carefully listens to the concluding words of Die Münze it becomes clear. MA THE WHALE, a beautiful exhibition — engrossing, anxiety provoking, amusing, and by turns bereft — does not pretend to hold any solutions. But, it does confirm the power of imagination, as a palliative for being and as a return, by way of our pasts, to presence.
Chris Rusak is an artist currently inhabiting San Francisco.