Monika Tichacek: Mirror, Mirror... - Art Collector

Issue 32, April - June 2005

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Monika Tichacek works on her appearance. Edward Colless catches sight of her going through the looking glass.

It was an unforgettable experience – or at least, it felt like it couldn’t be anything else – but, looking back, it now seems impossible to describe. It hangs there in your mind, unwilling to depart but staying obscure, almost as if it could have been a dream or hallucination or something you only saw sidelong in slow motion, like cruising past a car accident. Not that you ever get a chance to look away from Monika Tichacek’s work. Arresting is an inadequate word to explain the grip it gets on you. The three screens of her recent multi-channel video production The Shadowers corral and close in on its viewer, the way you might get surrounded by a gang in a dim alley or by predators on a dance floor. It’s a threatening experience. In a perverse way – of course – that’s what makes it challenging and exciting.

It’s the cruelty that is so alluring. And The Shadowers is a cruel work, the darkest so far of Tichacek’s elaborately beautiful, elegant fantasy sado-masochistic scenarios. A sequence of bizarrely imaginative and exquisitely executed torments is enacted by three figures in Edenic forests and in lush, dark boudoirs. The imagery is suggestive and unrelenting in its violent emotional intensity. The ornate melodramatic bonds of domination and submission played out ritualistically and fatally between the participants, however, are elusive and esoteric. Far more unnerving than simply shocking or even morbidly satisfying, the experience of viewing this panorama of brooding lust and supplication is private, psychologically attenuated, and barely communicable.

In one celebrated close-up scene from The Shadowers, the artist opens her mouth offering her extended tongue to a mode of erotic surgery, as it is spiked by an off-screen demon lover to a tree stump, using an instrument resembling a baroque hypodermic syringe or hatpin. This is romance as well as lust: painful, punishing, gruesome and also radiant. She is like a doomed queen kneeling at a block, willingly exposing her neck beneath the executioner’s axe. As if in abandonment and yielding to the lure, she lovingly caresses the side of the stump on which she is impaled. Her fingers feel their way; splaying so that her extra long painted fingernails can each be nailed, literally, to the wooden trunk by her captor. Each nail seems to spin a web of fine elastic chord that stretches into another woman’s mouth like the rays of light in a Renaissance panel showing the Virgin Mary being inseminated by God. In a swoon appropriate to divine or vampiric ravishment, this woman closes her eyes, giving in to these fibres that pull her lips outward into an engorged, distended red pout as if they were pulling out her heart. Beads of blood appear to form around the lips, crystallising into clusters of tiny rubies.

No wonder it caused a scandal when shown in Melbourne last year, during the blockbuster survey exhibition 2004: Australian Culture Now. Removed from the bustle of the spectacular main screening gallery in the downstairs zone of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, The Shadowers was relocated to a separate and relatively secluded studio upstairs to become a notorious, forbidden work acquiring an R certificate, a guard on the door, and an aura of exclusive pornography. As the besieged curators made clear at the time, Tichacek’s work deserved instead to be appreciated and understood in its original context of the best new Australian video and performative art. Alongside the Kingpins, SymbioticA and Shaun Gladwell, for instance, each of whom also breach the naturalised and socialised perimetersof human identity. While no less distinctive and startling in its incorporation of polysexuality and piercings, Tichacek’s work hardly seems aberrant in this sort of company. You can judge for yourself when you see The Shadowers installed in Sydney’s Artspace and Adelaide’s Contemporary Art Centre (CACSA) in April this year; or go to the associated solo photographic exhibitions at Karen Woodbury, in Melbourne (also in April) and in June at Sherman Gallery in Sydney.

Don’t be timid about seeing this work. If it’s any help, Tichacek’s performance and her sensibility are far removed from the sort of violence invoked by extreme body art like that of Mike Parr’s infamous self-mutilations or Stelarc’s suspensions from meat hooks. The vanguard extremism of that art was analogous to a terrorist’s demand on a hostage: the viewer was guilty – and had to suffer – for their complicity with a culture that allegedly idealised, sanitised or sterilised corporeal presence. Needless to say, that will sound deservedly old-fashioned in the era of TV shows like Queer Eye and Extreme Makeover, or when non-simulated sex is being written into movie scripts and actor’s contracts. Surprisingly, however, many reviewers settle Tichacek’s art into a similarly anachronistic complaint, expressed as an interrogation of the coercive cultural fabrication of female beauty within a gaze that is gendered exclusively as male. Accordingly, the physical exertion, contortion and pain demonstrated in her performances would both expose and act as an antidote to those familiar surgical interventions and dietary regimes that produce a Barbie-like aesthetic ideal of femininity.

But Tichacek’s work is more up-to-date and more interesting than that. It doesn’t interrogate cultural forms, or display any objection to aesthetic value. On the contrary, the artist reinstates a type of aestheticism. This is hardly the didactic tone of a documentary against plastic surgery. Instead, her imagery is flooded with the marvellously morbid erotic and indulgent pleasures of a horror movie. Although – as horror – it is delivered at the finest pitch of preciosity. It’s the kind of highly-strung manneristic imagery we encounter with that maestro of Italian slasher films, Dario Argento. A manneristic beauty is at its most vivid, and most compelling, when it is induced by a giddying degree of stereotyping and repetitive manipulation. At that point, beauty becomes an irreal and hypnoid effect of the designed body rather than an ideal form into which a real, natural body must uncomfortably fit and be judged. The ideal body is an illusion; a mistaken perception that we feel we ought to correct. The irreal body is different; it is a hallucinatory sensation, something like a pornographic overexposure, and unassailable by the judgement of the ideal.

This is the idiom in which American sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney arranges his elaborately monstrous, narcissistic and phantasmic tableaus of all-American chorus girls, oriental mermaids or Helmut Newtonesque air hostesses. When Tichacek won the Helen Lempriere Travelling Scholarship in 2001, she used it for a six-month internship in New York with Barney, who was finishing the shoot of his most ambitious film in the Cremaster series, number 3. “I absolutely loved his work,” she recalls. “I was doing a lot of latex sculptures – pinky-gold bodies – and wanted to find a surface you could experience like skin but that was still very plastic in appearance. What drew me to Barney’s work was the prosthetic material and forms he uses to create these gender-ambiguous creatures. It was these strange, elf-like bodies that I loved.”

Tichacek supported her internship by working in a clothing store that catered to the drag scene, and it was there that she met another of her heroes, the transsexual idol Amanda Lepore. “I’d seen her in David La Chapelle’s photographs,” says Tichacek, “but in the flesh – in the store, out in the New York clubs – I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. She looks unreal … completely transformed by surgery and prosthetics and cosmetics into a walking 1950s pin-up poster. Or even a cartoon figure, like Jessica Rabbit.” By the time her internship ended in 2002, Tichacek had developed a video project utilising Lepore, which was shot over a four-month studio residency in Prague. Lineage of the Divine is not just a homage to Lepore but an essay on the captivating and disturbing nature of her beauty: “conflicted,” Tichacek describes it, “not in the bad way, but as having a love-hate relation to femininity. I’m drawn to someone like her, but she is also a tormenting thing: a sign of what is oppressive about femininity. Like in my own upbringing, in Switzerland before moving to Australia in my late teens. It was very conservative there. Very beautiful and gorgeous, but strict and oppressive.”

In a sunless, airless boudoir limbo zone Lepore and Tichacek recline, pose and strut as captive somnambulist twins conjoined by the deformed burden of an immense, serpentine switch of platinum blonde hair, a kind of swollen umbilical cord that trails heavily across the floor from one head to the other. Lineage is staged in what could be the padded cell of an asylum, envisaged by its mad occupant with a décor of hallucinatory pink satin. It could be a theme room in a love hotel. Or a crypt that is morphing into a Swiss hunting lodge with fake stag antler trophies. If Tichacek is the sleeping beauty, this revisited scene of teenage anguish and self-torture is her dream. Or, perhaps it is her Nightmare on Elm Street.

Tichacek is held in thrall by the exaggerated phantasmic mirror of her own beauty: Amanda Lepore. A hybrid love-object – for whom sex is the pure, scintillating appearance of superimposed signs of desire – Lepore is delivered, like Freddy Kruger, from the dreamer’s unconscious. Although Tichacek is the dreamer and the artist, her dream (this combination of memory and disavowed desire in art) is stronger and more supple than she is. Lepore moves and even looks like a puppet but it’s Tichacek who is actually the doll manipulated by her imaginary double, with her limbs, back and neck braced in severe prosthetic supports as if her bones could break apart like soft chalk. Like the creations of those mad sciences that strive to surpass nature and natural morality – eugenics, vivisection, mesmerism – this is an art that induces an unnatural beauty, captivating in its alien artifice, and both less and more than human.

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