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. Continue reading