Kei Miller: Languages beyond Meaning

Laura Facey - Radiant Red, stained wood, National Biennial 2012

Kei Miller

As the National Biennial 2012 draws to a close, we are pleased to provide you with yet another perspective, contributed by Kei Miller, Jamaican poet, novelist and essayist.

It has not been my habit to write about art – to transcribe the awe I sometimes feel standing in front of a piece, or to jot down the fleeting thoughts that might cross my mind while viewing a work. Part of this is self-doubt, of course. I have never studied the visual arts, and I suspect it has a language which I don’t know how to speak.

And then again, there is another feeling I have that the best art actually speaks its own language – something beyond words – and that this business of translating paint or ceramic or film into syllables and punctuation marks, a semiotic medium which it resisted in the first place, is always a kind of reduction. Perhaps I have taken Susan Sontag’s warning to heart – that to talk about art is too often an act of trying to interpret it – to give it a meaning.

Of course at this year’s biennial, much of the work is full of rigorous intellectual content, but nothing that I would call ‘meaning’. This word ‘meaning’ suggests a neat and sometimes too-tidy conclusion, while I suspect our best Jamaican artists are more interested and drawn to the many and messy layers of exploration that precede such flat finalities.

Ebony G. Patterson - The Observation (Bush Cockerel) — A fictitious History, video installation (detail), National Biennial 2012

Ebony G. Patterson – The Observation (Bush Cockerel) — A fictitious History, video installation (detail), National Biennial 2012

I am grateful that Ebony G. Patterson has not yet concluded her fascinating exploration of not-quite-male/not-quite-female bodies. And the work does not seem anxious for conclusion. The bodies she represents seem to move both robotically and gracefully across a much wider spectrum of gender than we tend to imagine let alone acknowledge. What might start out as masculine in Ebony’s work can easily end up feminine; what might start out effeminate can end up butch. But more interesting than these binaries are the many other points along the spectrum; Ebony’s bodies pause at and perform many other genders – genders that have not yet been named by language. ‘Masculinity’ for instance, seems to be a plural thing in Ebony’s work and so embraces the effeminate man, not as someone whose behaviour is antithetical to manliness, but rather as a possible and authentic version of it. The dainty flowers that hang in her video installation this year end up not only contrasting but also perfectly complimenting the soft beauty of her men.

When I step out from the tropical, slightly magical cave she has created, back into the bright lights of the gallery – I am not conscious of anything so simple or smug as a conclusions, only of a fascinating journey.

O'Neil Lawrence - Son of a Champion 4, National Biennial 2012

O’Neil Lawrence – Son of a Champion 4, National Biennial 2012

In another work – this time by O’Neil Lawrence – what I am struck by is not its meaning, but its evocative strength, the way it draws on an archetypal theme and so resonates with many of us who have had to escape the large shadows of our parents. In Lawrence’s portrait the father figure looms large, but in the background; it is a geographic placement that makes the figure simultaneously overpowering and distant, present and shadowy.

Meaning here is either absent or abundant. Take your pick. Much more interesting is the raw power what is being evoked, what is tugging at our hearts.

And there are other conversations happening in Lawrence’s work – what I might blunderingly call its metamediality (does such a word even exist?). This is art that is delightfully conscious of itself as art, and willing to engage in a conversation with its own processes, for of course Son of a Champion 4 is, in part, a photograph of a photograph.

Judith Salmon - Pockets of Memory (detail), installation, National Biennial 2012

Judith Salmon – Pockets of Memory (detail), installation, National Biennial 2012

I do not know if Judith Salmon has been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, if she has seen for herself how the crevices are stuffed with hand-written prayers, and if she might have been thinking about this while she was creating her work Pockets of Memory. This might be a resonance that I bring to the work, but then the work quite literally invites us to bring things to it. An interactive piece, it asks us to not only view passively, but to also engage – to come to it with our own memories, our own bits of memorabilia and add these to the embroidered pockets, just as pilgrims add their own prayers to the Wailing Wall every day. Salmon has created a kind of altar, open to the multitudes, and so meanings also become multiple, inexhaustible even, and brought to it by you and me.

Laura Facey - Radiant Red, stained wood, National Biennial 2012

Laura Facey – Radiant Red, stained wood, National Biennial 2012

In a piece as striking as Laura Facey’s Radiant Red, meaning did not factor into how I enjoyed and was humbled by the work. If there was meaning in Radiant Red, I didn’t detect it, and this, Facey’s work contrasts with her other installation – her scattering of phalluses, so rich in myth and symbolism. The mounted combs however, seem, to gain draw on another kind of power, an energy that comes from their composition, the juxtaposition of the two blocks of wood, the cleanness of the craft, the blocking of the colours, the oddity as well as the simplicity of the final piece.

But all of these are words I am adding after the fact. The first time I walked through the biennial, I walked around without language, simply nodding and feeling overwhelmed by the ways our artists see and reflect upon and trouble the world we live in.

– Kei Miller

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4 thoughts on “Kei Miller: Languages beyond Meaning

  1. I’m to see the National Biennial tomorrow and after this glimpse of what is in store I feel like I may be overwhelmed. Miller’s words brings just a depth of emotion to these few pieces and I can completely imagine that I may not want to leave after getting there.

    • This is a convincing beginning to “Craft speak to Craft as works of Art.” The writing craft in search of Meaning in another terrain. Much of this has been missing in Jamaican Art for awhile. Thanks Kei. Hope to see more of this from other wordsmiths.

  2. Pingback: Kei Miller: Languages beyond Meaning | Repeating Islands

  3. Pingback: EDITORIAL: An Invitation to Critical Dialogue | National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

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