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.