WAYS THE BODY CAN HELP THE MIND MOVE
Exhibition text, Vanessa Brown "The Hand of Camille" at Wil Aballe Art Projects, Vancouver, 2016
A woman works in a metal shop. She pulls the door open for air; the sun beats down on the hot parts.
“You know, there is a better way you could be doing that.”
Men strangers often have input, feel inclined to teach, sometimes read the silent treatment as a communication of intrigue; neither does it occur to them that the forced listener might know and be choosing another route. The woman operates machinery, cuts metal, designs figures, follows forms, experiments with finishes; creates objects on a scale proportionate to the strength her body has to wield it.
Meanwhile, massive or so-called ambitiously-scaled projects continue to be erected across the globe. Working on such a scale is seen to indicate success, financial growth and that the artist sees their work as important enough to not only take up space but all the concomitant labour and garbage. With large artworks come large boxes, come the need to cut large holes into buildings, come many people to unscrew the boxes, count one two three with 100 pounds in their hands on top of a ten foot latter, to deconstruct the structures, to fill containers with the objects, to send the containers overseas, to store the boxes in large places until the cycle repeats.
Beyond this adjacent labour of art-making and artist-making is a whole faction of emotional labour that existed long before the economy of intangibles. The physical labour required of Vanessa Brown’s work can be seen as one way to transgress against the frustrating infinitude of such labours that are harder to pin down. Brown is process-oriented, making aesthetic and conceptual choices by way of moving, by compressing the dispersed roles inherent to the making of art objects back into herself, fully. Drawing on one of Margaret Atwood’s metaphors for writing, Brown likens her practice to entering a cave, “not being able to see what is around me, then my eyes adjust and I can see where to go for the next few steps… and then it happens over again I have to wait and look until the forms around me emerge, and then I take a step or two more.”
In her book Intimate Revolt (2003), Julia Kristeva starts with an assertion that the world is past the point of no return, or as Hannah Black puts it, “a world dominated visually, ethically, and ontologically by capital, in which long-standing forms of struggle—the protest, the union, the political party, even critique—seem like nostalgic curiosities or reenactments, ultimately doomed to fail.” During such times of decline, “questioning remains the only possible thought: an indication of life that is simply alive,” Kristeva writes, suggesting that hope for the vibrancy of human life lies in individual, small-scale efforts to invoke jouissance. This questioning is manifest in "The Hand of Camille," delicate and diffused in its attention to labour, craft and production but rendered so confidently in both material and gesture that we are reminded of the ways the body can help the mind move.
Who gets to be The Artist when there are leagues of artists working for other artists? A question immemorial and impossible to ignore given the title’s allusion to Camille Claudel whose agency was never uncomplicated. Her tragically abbreviated life is a hallmark tale for women’s erasure from history, institutionalization as a weapon (against women’s ideas and otherwise) and gender disparity as related to the political economy of the art world.
Thus it is seen that beyond Brown’s interest in the hand’s new parlance, her work sidles closer to hands never really made visible to begin with. Look no further than Virginia Woolf ’s playful but ultimately grave postulation about Judith Shakespeare, an imaginary sister to the canonical kingpin, asking what if it had been her?, which ultimately translates to: she has lived so many times.