Soft Bodies at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester
I planned to review Soft Bodies at Castlefield Gallery when it opened on the 19th March 2020, for the Mar/Apr issue of TWLTM. We’ve worked with Castlefield before, George has a piece in the show, I’m trying to write more exhibition reviews…made sense. Didn’t work out. Galleries closed that week, with lockdown officially announced five days later. Soft Bodies sat waiting for its audience. I think the show is still set up, the bodies still there, wishing they had brought their phone with them to check the time cos I swear we were supposed to be open by now.
Soft Bodies includes work by twelve artists, including painting and drawing, video, bookmaking, and a website. Soft Bodies exists to me right now as a PDF that I found on the CG website of their exhibition handout, with clickable links to take you to various external websites where you can engage further with the works of five artists. Soft Bodies looks at bodies as matter. Soft Bodies looks at bodies as sites of possibility, an often failing experiment that needs improvement one way or another. Something to be wrestled with.
Emma Cousin’s paintings of brutal distorted figures grabs you by the nostril from the offset, featuring figures that are being stretched and twisted by out-of-frame hands. With fingers poking through bodies and eyes, hands grabbing mouths and twisting nipples, Hook line and sink her (2019) and Vaseline (2019) are just horrible and I don’t like looking at them cos they make me sad. They’re a bad vibe that makes me too aware of my own body and makes me want to put a bra on as some weird guard to keep people off me. They feel like a body that’s been considered public property. It feels like being groped in a bar. It feels like an appointment with a male doctor who doesn’t really believe that you’re sick. I want these fingers out of my ears, I don’t want him red-faced over my shoulder, watching me squirm.
Paintings by Xiuching Tsay follow in a more euphoric version of this gore with Spoiling our Desire (2018). Closeted dykes all over Manchester avert their eyes from the arse&thong-like hill at the back of this fantasy landscape, fluids pour into holes, figures that remind me of strange sex-ed diagrams gather in communion watching this golden stream. Yellow spots feel like a bright sun and maybe I’m just ready for summer but the blue sky and green hills make this landscape feel like a dream. Keeping away from the flood of melting sun (2018) kicks me in the throat and reminds me I need to get out of the park no matter if its 23C out there, as a body contorts and melts and pisses and turns green and bursts into boils and grows a strange child in a strange womb as the sun drools red onto the ground. Fucking classic summer 2020. Stay indoors.
Between these two paintings is a photograph by local legend Sadé Mica. Tests in Malham No.3 (2019) features themselves posing somewhere in the Pennines, in front of a stream and a valley. This is probably the most lo-fi of the works in the exhibition, without the body horror or internet/mechanical references of the other 2D works. They’re in the classic trans-masculine outfit that I also wear everyday — big white t shirt and black trousers. The print is supposed to be A2 size but sits 15cm wide on my laptop screen. In this context I wish there was a link to Sadé’s back catalogue of moving works — I seek them out to fill a hole that a single photograph struggles to fill. Sadé’s Instagram is a treasure trove of their experimentations with their body and their landscape, playing with their form as they figure out a way to live between dysphoria and euphoria. Borrowing from the historically gendered catalogue of life modelling, their trans Black body stretches across the rural landscape of northern England, their feet rooted on the ground in bright white crocs. Gimme more.
Next, video works by Stina Deja, Jake Moore and Semi Precious, and Sam Rushton are united by their use of a digitised supposedly generic figure. Where the other pieces felt varied, the video works ended up feeling a bit repetitive — representations of what it is to be a body through a shiny thin ken-doll smooth human form. This ‘everyman’ cookie cutter repeated across three films (Deja’s Perfect Human (2015), Moore and Semi Precious’ Other Life (2019) and Rushton’s Fossil (2020) was overkill imo. Perhaps if Rushton’s four films was reduced to cut out his offering into this genre it wouldn’t feel so bad. I could have done with at least one of these being cut and replaced with something more like Romily Alice Walden’s Notes From The Underlands (2019), formless, visceral, considering disobedient bodies; queer bodies, crip bodies.
After watching all the films, I go back to the PDF to be diverted to Issuu by our George. Here, now, I will say that I wrote the foreword for this book, which will make reviewing it a little… complicated. Other Kin (2020) captures research that George has done into the otherkin community — those who identify as non-human, relating more to animals or mythical creatures. The research is presented roughly in chronological order, starting with cave drawings from up to 50,000 years ago. From there, we see clips from Twilight, Catwoman, and Harry Potter, we see visuals recognisable from memes and viral clips of various eccentrics. It poses a strange type of queer failures of the body, and a longing that most closely resembles the Perfect Human — a longing to fit in with the humans becomes a longing to fit in elsewhere. Other Kin takes this failing of the body and instead of warping it with digitisation (see Deja, Moore, Rushton), tries to place it in history, and within the natural world. To identify as an animal feels like a take you’d see on Twitter from a transphobe — ‘well if you’re a woman I’m a dinosaur’ — but there is a sincere community whose representation within the book clarifies their experience and understanding of the body, its boundaries and limits. Otherkin is an obscure identity, but the ideas of animal affinity are portrayed across our culture, and when signposted, they make the basis of this identity recognisable. What is your patronus? What would your Dæmon be? Other Kin is an almost desperate attempt to contextualise a feeling and an identity that is bizarre and innate — a combination that makes it hard to grasp.
This idea of the undefinable is developed in the final piece in the show, a reworking of Aaliyah Hussain and Anna Bunting-Branch’s collaborative project Potential Wo(r)lds. Through a series of workshops, Hussain and Bunting-Branch have created a body of work that explores feminist sci-fi language Láadan, the results of which can be explored through a website (potentialworlds.com). The website has a backing track of echoing sounds that are hard to pin down, vibrations and crashes and taps and rubs. Quasi ASMR, quasi youtube sitar meditation backing track. Black abstract monoprints are quickly replaced by short phrases and paragraphs, flicking back and fourth out of time. ‘There ought to be a word for… when you realised you haven’t really been breathing… for the build up of mucus from consuming citrus in the back of the throat… for wanting a cuddle/to be held in a non sexual way’. Potential Wor(l)ds considers gaps in language that look at embodied feeling, gut instincts and the need to communicate that which cannot easily be communicated. The experience of being in this digital space is a soft one, a generous one. I click around the site, reading listening, tuning in to the sound and back out of it. Sometimes I open things in new tabs and the sound doubles over itself, twice as thick. The acknowledgement of the failure of language creates a space for feeling and emoting, a space that feels powerful and safe. A moment that has stuck in my mind is from a page about their workshops, with material documenting their project and guidelines for how to put on a similar event. In this soundscape, you hear the same drones and taps, but voices are layered over the top, mainly women’s. I assume it is from a workshop. You can hear them talking about what they are making. Towards the end of the loop, there is a big crash and someone says ‘beautiful’ and there are some soft cheers and someone else says ‘that was so delicate’ and then the sound fades and then it starts again. Potential Wor(l)ds places itself in my stomach, gently. I want to lie down here.
I had a problem coming in to Soft Bodies, which was that I hadn’t found any material suggesting a consideration of illness and/or disability within the exhibition. To me, the experience of being ill is the core of understanding what it is to be in a body. Physician Marie François Xavier Bichat called health ‘the silence of the organs’ and disease ‘their revolt’ — this exhibition would have been a great site for work about the revolt of the body. Many of the works in this exhibition consider a different type of awareness of the body, and so they have allowed me to project my illness in the nooks and crannies of their works. It feels a shame to me that this wasn’t explored more intentionally — I’d have loved to see a disabled artist’s name amongst the ranks, or the word ‘disability’ within the exhibition guide. Saying this, where illness wasn’t actively considered, it lingered on bits and pieces of the work, and then spread through the locked shutters of the gallery. Soft Bodies is an exhibition about soft bodies, about their insides and outs, their boundaries and limits. Soft Bodies looks at frailty and failings of bodies, their potential to grow and their potential to melt. Now, because of the body’s willingness to be compromised, Soft Bodies must wait until we are stronger. While flesh compromises us, we interact with this work through a screen.
Despite the challenge of getting around my apprehension, and the challenge of presenting an exhibition without a gallery, and the challenge of trying to get the viewer to pay attention to contemporary art during a time when we would much rather make banana bread and lie down, Soft Bodies kept me engaged for a good few hours yesterday — more than I would give an IRL exhibition. Tsay and Cousin’s work made me feel chewed up and spat out, made me squirm, while the video works made me want to buff my skin until it shone. Sadé and George brought me back to earth in a primal and earthly way, in the way that standing on a huge hill in the wind makes you extend past this form and into something else. Potential Wor(l)ds was made to get lost in, a soft blanket to wrap myself up in while I tried to figure out why my guts felt so pulled apart by this exhibition. In Perfect Human, a lonely humanoid in infinite digital space texts the observer: ‘Today too I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days…’. Soft Bodies again and again captures this internal processing that takes time to work itself through. There ought to be a word for this.
This exhibition made me think of:::::: my organs, doctors appointments, gender identity clinics, AI Artificial Intelligence (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg, the end of Annihilation (2018) dir. Alex Garland, bits in films where people go into the wilderness and scream.
My ideal version of this show would have included something like Romily Alice Walden’s Notes From The Underlands (2019), or Hattie Godfrey’s A While Back Rub My Back (2018), or Sharona Franklin’s jelly sculptures.
Audio recording of the text