Monstrous women and the monstrous work of Linda Dement

The Australian artist Linda Dement has been making multimedia art since the 1980s, back when a Photoshop was a place where you got your film developed and ‘cyberspace’ was an obscure science-fiction term used by a nerdy American writer. In her early photographic collages of women’s body parts, sex toys and offal, Dement was struggling with methods and images – and images of methods – that the appearance of digital tools and cyberspace would later provide for her. It’s not often that this happens, that an artist invents the methods that she cannot yet fully develop in the ways she imagines because the tools haven’t been invented yet.

The collages and so on that comprise what we might call the Ur-Dement, which went some way toward building her early digital pieces on CD-ROM, Typhoid Mary and Cyberflesh Girlmonster, as well as the ideas that Dement was expressing in interviews around that time, still resonate powerfully in her work – or, we could say, have been transmitted virally from piece to piece.

My work’s always been about exactly the same thing. Making the unbearable visible. A wound I think is just a way into the body. So it’s like, I’m thinking in that really literal way of wanting to go inside and bring stuff out and make some sense out of it. And I had to cut the skin open first in order to get in there.

What that ‘same thing’ was and is, bears some thinking about. ‘Typhoid Mary’ was the name given by tabloid newspapers in the first decade of the twentieth century to Mary Mallon, a New York cook and the first person in the US to be identified as an otherwise healthy carrier of typhoid fever. Mary Mallon was incarcerated twice in quarantine – the first time for three years, the second time for life – after refusing to abide by her non-quarantine conditions and infecting several dozen people with typhoid.

The figure of Typhoid Mary is a powerful image of feminine transgression and disturbance, of feminine madness, and the corrosive power of women’s bodies and their transgressive nature, and the ways in which women’s bodies as sites of identity have been policed.  It’s virtually mythic in its breadth, calling up the ghosts of Medea and of the Medusa. Interestingly, the term ‘Typhoid Mary’ also now refers to a class of malware, a not unfitting referent for the work of Linda Dement.

Linda Dement allows us to say things we couldn’t say anywhere else: that is, to talk about things we couldn’t talk about without Linda Dement. The reason we need to talk at all is that there is something pretty dicey about her work. There may be truckloads of artists claiming to be working in the liminal spaces of art, but there are not many poking around in the entrails.

Dement’s work is the uncomfortable evidence of art’s shameless narratives of Transcendental Meaning having occluded and erased its own political structures. Dement is the person who comes into art’s fanatically maintained and aesthetically-ordered mansion and starts opening the cupboards and unbricking the cellars and pulling out the mummies and old corpses and mad relatives and aborted demonic offspring we would prefer nobody saw.

If one of the approved but hidden functions of contemporary art is to lightly traumatise the bourgeoisie, giving us a little jolt of jouissance, then Linda Dement’s work both points at this ridiculous delusion and shows us the weird musculature that the furtive lurking forms of memory and desire hold up. It’s like sitting down to a delicately prepared dinner of veal, only to have someone drop the calf’s still-bleeding head on your dinner table.

‘There must be more than reason and comfort,’ Dement notes in Typhoid Mary. The joke behind this statement that nails so many assumptions about contemporary art, and life in the consumer paradise, is that 99 percent of what we experience in our interior lives is completely alien to reason and comfort. What exceeds reason and comfort is desire, and the ways in which we smooth over desire, make anodyne desire’s transgressive violence, and valorise all the misogynistic brutalities of the world in the name of a natural order.

Linda Dement’s early work began to take shape in the strange environment of Adelaide in the early 1980s, a city positing its identity on the arts, on a certain kind of sophistication, on reason and comfort, but a city that was also continually host to a series of chilling murders, usually of gays and children. In light of this we could say that, when we have come to some kind of agreement on our comfortable and reasonable identities, we have to start wondering what might be left out: where the bodies are, so to speak; what hysterias our reason and comfort are hosted by.

For an artistic endeavour to be able to contain the kinds of uneasy, perverse and brutal discourses that Dement is creating, something very powerful in intention or discipline has to be involved for the artist to coherently re-inscribe the violent inscriptions and identities taking place on and through the body – particularly women’s bodies.

The tensile strength that enables Linda Dement to do what she does might be composed of many things. I wouldn’t presume to know definitively, but I’d make a speculative cast, first in the direction of humour, at her mining of the recesses of what it is that makes a black joke, black; second, toward the irrevocably gendered politics of violence and suffering; and third, toward what the ‘In Serial’ group, one of Dement’s recent collaborators, dryly says is an ‘escalating generative interactions between non-human protagonists’. To rewrite this in ordinary human speech, all of us are composed of bits that aren’t us and sometimes seem to have a life of their own, as anyone who is ill can tell us.

There is of course, a weird and grim hilarity in the way our bodies let us down, the way in which they continually leak one substance or another; and in the way in which we engage in sexual relationships; the way we fall over each other, both physically and metaphorically; the way we seek to damage and repair each other. That’s surely a kind of slapstick, a slapstick we could readily more acknowledge.

In Dement’s collaboration with ‘In Serial’, ‘On Track’ a robotic installation of choreographed and slightly out-of-sync brooms and cleaning implements slop spilled fluid around. It’s creepy and unsettling but oddly familiar. It’s just the wrong side of being slightly disturbing, and the humour in the action of the patient mops and so on is countered by the uneasy sense that not only could they just as easily be glumly mopping up human fluids as spilled coffee, but also that something is about to go catastrophically wrong.

It seems obvious to me in looking at her work that Dement could be very happy with the description of ‘control-freak’. The structure of her sometimes machinic work, is a way of giving us no way out, of confronting us with our inescapable face, a face which consumer capitalism in its production of limitless subjectivities has given us myriad ways of escaping from.

The politics of trauma – of what it means to struggle into identity, to carry childhood and the world, and its baleful interiors into that weird shifting space called adulthood and a supposed responsibility – is the politics of the ways in which that trauma is hidden, or re-directed, cathected to the consumer paradise or fused with cyberspace, but in every sense channelled into some kind of uber-narcissism. And the reason why, as another critic has said, we don’t so much look at Linda Dement’s work as give it our ‘fretful attention’ is perhaps because it’s the end of the road. There is nothing beyond memory and desire, there is nothing beyond what we do to each other here and now, and how that is played out or hidden.

There’s a lot of death and violence in Linda Dement’s work and a lot of women. You don’t have to read much history to be able to see that women have repeatedly borne the brunt of spectacular shockwaves of violence and that this violence is a primary characteristic of both the rise, lineage and projected desires of consumer capitalism.  As Dement says:

Sometimes I get quite tired and disappointed looking at the state of play for women today. I can’t believe the rise in popularity of misogynist religions, I can’t believe there are still abusive christians on the street outside the abortion clinics, I can’t believe that the statistics for rape and incest haven’t changed, let alone the statistics for income, promotions, positions of power etc etc. All that work. All that energy. All those battles apparently won that are now sliding back to horror.

From Cybergirl Fleshmonster, to Linda Dement’s collaboration with the writer Kathy Acker, Eurydice, completed after Acker’s death, to her recent ‘augmented reality séance’ with Poly Styrene, Ari Up and Chrissy Amphlett, Awry Signals, Dement’s work is splattered and infused with the feminine experience of violence. It’s a violence that has been examined with a patient and unflinching dissection and transformed into work that becomes an act of violence itself, but violence transfigured, violence with its desires enviscerated or turned inside out like an old sock.

My own experience of Dement’s work is that I find it extraordinarily beautiful and I’d probably give a few pints of blood to be able to have Dement’s Eurydice images on my wall. At the same time, her work is genuinely disturbing in a way that catches at my own ability to reflect on myself, and it’s been doing that for years without getting any less disturbing.

Linda Dement is not offering us artistic enlightenment, or a transcendent experience of the mundane or anything remotely like it. The idea that we have tricked each other into believing that we can construct an art that is about ‘Greatness’ or ‘Timeless Values’, or that as an artistic image a painting of an apple can evoke an experience of ‘appleness’ in us, is one that can only be maintained by force of some kind.

I’m not sure I’d want to pin out precisely what Linda Dement might be offering for anyone considering her work. One thing the person inhabiting the role of the critic can’t afford to be is a control freak. But if we make some kind of movement in the direction of being able to bear the unbearable, and think about what that is, we at least might be heading toward some kind of authentic conversation about what means to inhabit a fragile, ungainly, diseased and unpredictable, politically disruptive and impermanent life in the cyber-age of violence, surveillance and control.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I don’t know how long I could bear to look at some of that stuff (imagine hanging it on the wall?), and I sort of see what you mean about a mismatch between inside and outside, the tameness of most art, and how far worse goes on in the world than is portrayed here, and although I don’t know where or what line is being crossed, a line is definitely being crossed, one that doesn’t seem to exist beyond the frame of art, and should Dement ever become mainstream, she immediately becomes big bucks, and one more line is erased and redrawn, if all that makes any sense. I do have some tolerance too for bearing witness to the unbearable, and I don’t know at what point it becomes macabre, but I have never been successful at getting other people to bear unbearable things with me. Maybe that’s the problem: we’re all trapped in different personal prisons.

    1. If I allow myself to imagine the Eurydice series hanging on my wall as Lambda prints in the size specified, I get all goosebumpy.
      I’m not sure we can get other people to bear unbearable things with us. If we can bear things on behalf of others that’s good enough I think. It’s always the start of something anyway.

      1. This, for me, is your best and most haunting post, because it gets inside and inhabits places I rarely visit, and is well timed and placed – coming on Xmas and that entire give and take commercial splurge – which makes me wonder why I prefer the broomstick piece to the other more visceral and animalistic, orgiastic pieces. Is it due to the abstraction, I wonder, and so avoidance of the unbearable physicality of the other pieces, without which the broomstick piece would be quite benign. Coincidentally, I have been making a bit of a study of Brack’s most famous Melbourne paintings, Collins Street 1955 and The Bar, the latter selling not so long ago for $3.2 million, with Brack being both bemused and disgusted when it sold first for a mere $400, 000. Again, I prefer Brack’s abstract reprisal of Collins Street, Here and there, where the corporate workers all walking in the same sour-faced direction are transformed into mechanical coloured pencils. Again, the latter would be nothing much without the former; less unsettling, but more aesthetically pleasing, which supports your point as to how art can occlude political structures through transcendent meaning. I’m not adding much here, I know, but your post has got the hamster active this yuletide.

        1. There used to be a video floating around of the On Track piece that shows clearly how funny it is. But think even in the earlier Dement pieces, the photo collage, there’s a lot of humour. And in the You Tube of Cyberflesh Girlmonster the humour and the female experience of violence get placed side by side, each leavening the other.
          And the ‘art/literature occluding the political’ thing is an old theme of mine as I’m sure you know.
          Anyway, if I could write things that were as good as Cyberflesh GirlMonster, or Eurydice I’d be very happy indeed.

          1. I’m dragging it out here, for I intended to add, but tripped myself on the cage wires somewhere, how I took the Dement pieces to be a cosmic, orgiastic leg pull, if not a huge joke about the darkest matter of all, the human body.

          2. ‘ Female body’ I think. I don’t want to remove the feminism from Dement’s radical work.

  2. Wouldn’t worry Dennis. That slip has permeated the teeming Christian world for its entire blood drenched history. That’s a history in which a generalised gloomy misanthropy has informed and disguised a rank misogyny. Think of the apple story. Rotten to the worm riddled core. Things have changed but the confusion still oozes. Nowdays the surfeit is fearful secular optimists who dismiss feminist writers and artists as basically misanthropic sad~sacks. Your slip Dennis plays to their greasy rhetorical advantage. Bravo to Stephen for festering away with an astute and entertaining take on the horror politics of paranoia.

  3. “It’s like sitting down to a delicately prepared dinner of veal, only to have someone drop the calf’s still-bleeding head on your dinner table.” hahaha, perfectly pictured. I recently went to the Vday performance of the Vagina Monologues, and I finally know who I am! I’m that girl in the ‘fur is back’ who would bring in the severed bleeding head, the party pooper who wants to talk about real things, while most want to pretend along with something/one, that they even know what they are pretending, while pretending not to pretend!

    “99 percent of what we experience in our interior lives is completely alien to reason and comfort. What exceeds reason and comfort is desire, and the ways in which we smooth over desire, make anodyne desire’s transgressive violence, and valorise all the misogynistic brutalities of the world in the name of a natural order.”

    this pretty much sums up the goal of mainstream consumerist culture, yeah? to sugarcoat desire and its effects? rather than some kind of natural human drive or state to blur our desire, that’s a cultural religious political thing, yeah? is that what you’re saying

    desire in itself is not a negative/violent thing, it’s just one of the many humannesses that come with this mind-body, and like any other, to be familiar and understand its workings is perhaps a useful course to take, rather than popularising or demonising it…yeah?

    this – “what it means to inhabit a fragile, ungainly, diseased and unpredictable, politically disruptive and impermanent life in the cyber-age of violence, surveillance and control.” – is worthy of a whole other conversation!

    I don’t like the use of dead animals in art, in fact I hate it. Not because I hate to face the reality of violence thrust upon all other beings and environments other than those at the centre of the tornado of poluticians with their toxic polutics polluting the world and our minds, along with the mega monetary monsters, far from it. I am a subscriber to PETA and various other animal welfare groups, and they hold no bars in getting their message across. No, I’m good with facing all that squarely.

    It’s that to me, the animal has again become a thing, and inanimate object to use, however a human wants to, even to comment on the violence and abuse and objectification of itself. I think it is utterly unnecessary when there is a swathe of such actions to animals already going on; you’d be better off just asking PETA for a few of their images and photoshopping them into the ‘art’. Artists who use dead animals I think miss the point of commenting on the reality of the violence they are trying to describe simply by doing what they do – it cancels itself out. Find another more creative way to speak of violence towards woman, animals, whomever, without actually using real dead animals.

    1. I think desire does tend to be violent, in the sense that it tends to exceed any parameters, and that excess gets stoppered in fetishisation. The fetishisation tends to enact an objectified violence in the sense that you are thinking of it (I’m guessing). So sexual desire (for example) gets codified in genital desires for another (which is a kind of fetishising) and the other becomes an object in some sense – or in many senses. Unfetished desire is more boundless, and has more humanity in it I think. The last place that one finds desire is probably being in love.
      I don’t think Linda Dement has used dead animals in her work. She has used commercially butchered meat though. While I appreciate that this is bits of dead animals, it’s also a widely available retail substance.
      There’s a local band where I live, called The Bridge, many of whose members have a disability. They are a kind of strange, discordant, rap-ish, primitivist, chaotic punk-ish band. Anyway, on of their songs is called ‘Cows against gas’ and has the lines ‘Cows gave up their lives so you can have custard. Cows gave up their lives so you can have steak.’ It’s beautiful.

  4. “I think desire does tend to be violent, in the sense that it tends to exceed any parameters”
    is it the nature of desire itself as violent or the fact that it exceeds any parameters? other things exceed any parameters, (consciousness, death, ..), what parameters are you referring to? cultural ones or innate human ones? sorry if I’m missing some obvious detail!

    “Unfetished desire is more boundless, and has more humanity in it I think. The last place that one finds desire is probably being in love” being in love seems to me to be something that is violent as i think ‘being in love’ involves some kind of undercurrenting matching of self with other to complete self’ type thing going on. you have mentioned innate aggression in our drive to survive; perhaps desire then is aggressive by nature not violent, and when we exceed parameters it becomes violence??

    being in love to me is something very different to having/experiencing love for someone/thing, to love arising in response to relating with someone/thing. Love is definitely unboundless, thank goodness

    “I don’t think Linda Dement has used dead animals in her work. She has used commercially butchered meat though” for me this is just switching labels around so it seems more acceptable. ‘meat’ is one of the preferred labels we give dead animals or animal flesh/parts. the fact that the animal has been killed by someone else doesn’t make it any less of a dead animal. When artists use actual dead animals, they are using it like paint, clay, whatever their media; the animal is an object to be used, and that’s my issue. that we can look at art with actual dead animals in it, even the ones commenting on the objectification of animals, and not see this, to me shows the depth of our disconnection to animals as sentient beings. and it scares me

    just because animal parts are readily available doesn’t make using these parts for artistic (or other) expression any less objectifying. At least if artists used images of animals that have been murdered for our industrial ravaging desire for ‘animal products’, like the ones PETA shares, then there is some kind of acknowledgement of the objectification that is firmly located in the reality of the abuse and violence of animals within the machine of ‘meat’,etc making, but using actual dead animals from our industrial production, even to talk about dead animals, is still objectification of the animal. We don’t use dead children in art to talk about abuse and violence of children, or in this artist’s case, dead or abused women; to me there is no difference, which may be a bit out there for some.

    i have no problem with art that comments on our blindnesses and denials in disturbing ways; but it is only disturbing because something is lying somewhere hidden/denied ready to be disturbed. sexual violence against women is such a thing, however, using actual dead animals is a continuation of violence and is disturbing because of this.

    I also love ‘Cows against Gas’, very cool 🙂

    1. Well you can only have human parameters for desire in the sense I’m arguing. I have no idea what desire for animals is like, and I doubt if anyone really does. I don’t want to dismiss their desire, but I think that in many ways it is unknowable, which is of course exactly why it should be respected.
      I don’t agree that desire is aggressive, because that suggests some kind of intention. Desire is violent in that it is no respector of boundaries and always immediately fills any boudaries set around for it and warps them in some way, before setting off for a horizon beyond them.
      I don’t know whether love is boundless, but it probably can be or should be. Certainly selective love makes very little sense.
      I still think you are mis-reading the use of animal parts in Dement’s early work. I can’t comment on other artists, though I find installations or whatever that involve killing insects or invertebrates and so on disturbing and really narcissistic. I think that using a commercially rendered and slaughtered animal part AS a commercially rendered and slaughtered animal part and situating it next to a sexualised image of a woman (say a sex doll) makes a point both about depictions of women and animals. I don’t think that’s the same as using the animal as paint or clay and I’d argue that it’s a revealing of many things rather than a hiding of it. Dement is very much a political artist I think, in the manner that her friend Kathy Acker was as a writer.
      I appreciate that there can be a visceral response from someone who feels deeply about these things when exposed to such images, but I think that’s exactly the point. Personally, I think it would be quite acceptable, and even admirable, for someone who cared deeply about the rights of animals to use an animal part in the politicised way that Dement used to. And if were acceptable fot children to be ritually and commercially slaughtered in the same way, I’d endorse the same strategy.

  5. And the second sentence should read: “what desire is like for animals” not “what desire for animals is like..”
    Of course.

  6. thanks for the clarification on violence, and desire, that makes more sense, though it is still something I am making sense of; violence has so many faces and forms I am not yet deeply understanding of what links then all together, their essence

    as for using animals, I will agree to disagree. I’m not shifting my view, because from way out here, political or not, the use of a sentient being as though it were to be used, AT ALL, without reverence is where some of humanity has forgotten a sacred part of itself, and, that we share this planet with all our relations.

    Those cultures that have used animals to survive and understood the sacredness, to my knowledge and experience, also weep for the life gone in order for them to continue, and are deeply appreciative, all of which is openly, richly demonstrated through ceremony.

    I think disturbing political statements can be made in other ways. I understand, appreciate, and value the message Dement is/was broadcasting, but for me those works are only disturbing because the discarded bits of an industrial animal product machine are being used, not because they are dead animals.

    Before becoming very familiar with images of abused and dead animals from within the industrial animal product machine, I would have also found the deadness disturbing. I have faced this kind of violence squarely, and although when a new way that animals are being used and abused comes to light I am newly aghast, I have allowed myself to feel all the feelings and sensations that arise in confronting animal violence, and am quite okay to face it. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything anymore, it just means I am very familiar with the kind of feelings I have and are thus more comfortable to experience them, so I am not afraid.

    I think there is a much deeper river of meaning running beneath this comment string and that is of death itself, of the impermanent nature of everything here, AND the ways we relate with that.

    I did like cybergirl fleshmonster, by the way. I had to watch it a few times though to get into its groove, but it’s a good piece, which, as you have said, has humour and the violent reality of most women’s experiences side by side, in a weird interactive scape.

  7. after though – why do we need to have dead animals to shock us, isn’t the abused woman enough?? perhaps the need to have dead animal shock factor is because the shocking reality of violence, and sexual violence experienced by women is by itself not shocking enough

    1. Violence can in some ways be too shocking, That’s why it’s hard to make sense of, and why metaphor (pieces of industrial slaughter for example) is so helpful. I’m not sure that Dement’s use of meat is without ‘reverence’, though I always feel uncomfortable when terms like ‘sacred’ and ‘reverence’ and other religious vocab gets employed to describe a phenomenon’s significance. Anyway, I don’t have any desire to convince you, but it’s my belief that you’re overlooking something in the argument.

  8. how do religions own ‘sacred’ and ‘reverence’??
    sure, they’ve used and abused them, but they don’t own them.

    I realised after I posted it sounded like I was suggesting Dement had used them without reverence, but I was referring to the whole big machine, to our relationship with animals and what we want from them and how we get it.

    okay, please tell me again, what am I overlooking?

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