CATHY WILKES’S “NON-VERBAL,” 2005-2011
words by Isobel Harbison
Non-Verbal, as a title for a work, is a contradiction in terms. Non-verbal communication uses the paralanguages of gesture, image, arrangement, pitch, volume or intonation, rather than the written or spoken word. By labeling not one, but a series of installations Non-Verbal, Cathy Wilkes inscribes upon the work a verbal directive that the visitors first see, rather than read, what lies before them. The title’s wordplay sets a precedent for a group of objects, whose original functions have been purposely upturned.
This installation has been reconfigured in several notable exhibitions over the past seven years. The constituent objects have remained largely the same, but subtle details change every time. The piece was first commissioned in 2005 for “Selective Memory: Scotland and Venice.” The freestanding objects are all positioned at some distance from each other. Two plastic female mannequins rest on steel bases, their backs to each other at right angles. At the foot of one mannequin, a standard baby’s pram is conspicuously empty. At the foot of another is a sink’s porcelain undercarriage, both basin and inner pipes removed. A bulky gray television sits nearby, its chords and wires removed. It rests on a stand that is stripped of the usual wires and clutter. Lying on the gallery floor, filled with corn oil and other debris, is the type of aluminum tray that might hold the hot plates in a fast food restaurant kitchen or clad a factory’s industrial production line, collecting spills and drips from the foodstuff as it is processed. Several transparent salad bowls are left on the floor nearby, shards of decaying lettuce clinging to their sides. Each object is a container, vessel or support that has been purposely left undressed, emptied, unplugged, resulting in a curious rapport between objects and a sense of collective suspension between recent actions and imminent event.
In Wilkes’s installation for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, one mannequin wears only a pair of tights and a black wig, her face and our view of it obstructed by an abstract painting mounted from her brow. The other mannequin wears nothing but an open blouse, with a similarly hung, small abstract painting. The obstruction of the mannequin’s facial features challenges our natural instinct to check a face (however plastic) for emotional clues or directives and presents an alternative kind of communication.
In the version presented at Void, Derry, one of the paintings is replaced by a motorcycle helmet with its wind visor down. The other mannequin, now unclothed, has a different painting mounted to its brow. It also appears as though the artist has used this second mannequin as an easel, as paint seems to have spilled down from the bottom left corner of the canvas onto her breast, leaving a trail of paint down its left side and leg. Among this collection of inanimate objects, each isolated from their source and stripped of their original function, spills and stains become visual metaphors for the unarticulated emotional forces that drive and connect human bodies.
In a recent conversation with curator Bart Van Der Heide of the Kunstverein Munich, Wilkes stated, “I associate [openness to the external world] with moments of intense communion—birth, sexual experience, dying… It’s a thrilling and terrifying possibility for me, like a rehearsal for death, to walk as far as I can towards it.” To rehearse for the physical sensation of one’s own death or the interminable silence that follows the death of another, is perhaps the most terrifying of engagements. Contemplating how bodies might be divided and lives ended in a moment is an errant occupation of the intuited, speculative and non-verbal occupation. It is possible to extend and expand the rehearsal metaphor and to look at parts of Wilkes’s Non-Verbal as a silent pause between an end and a beginning, an intervention between sightlines, a communication hold-up or technological disconnect, which allows us to reflect on the instant when one object really touches, spills or splashes onto another.
In a discussion of her influences recently published in Artforum, Wilkes spoke about an oil painting by British artist Walter Sickert, Lazarus Breaks From His Fast (1927), a self-portrait of the artist as biblical Lazarus, eating porridge the morning after he’s brought back from the dead, which was a direct influence on Non-Verbal. Wilkes observed that, “Alone, Lazarus bends feebly over his spoon; he is just visible somewhere in a dry mixture of rubbed paint that affords the canvas a weird sensuousness. It is a painting of the inseparability of suffering from one’s internal life and contemplation.” The two artists’ works share a number of characteristics, including the domestic intimacy of their respective scenes and the suitably textured exposure of their surfaces (his literally in oil paint, hers across media by working decaying organic against more industrial material, leaving tangible the patchwork of textures, stains and spills). Underlying their spare, earthy palettes are contemplations of mortality and an emphasis on rebirth or resurrection. Like Sickert’s resurrection scene, Wilkes’s continued rearrangement of Non-Verbal shows a stubborn determination not to relinquish or consign the piece to recent art history, but to reinvigorate its otherwise redundant objects over time.
In Basel, both mannequins wear blond wigs cropped in a short perm. One is dressed in an oddly gathered floral dress made of crude, synthetic fabric. Both hair and dress reflect the trends of the 1980s and place the installation out of harmony with the present. Both mannequins’ faces are obscured by small canvas oil paintings, one a colorful palette of fleshy brushstrokes, the other a looser, oilier composition. Across the second mannequin’s shoulder rests some folded African batik. Beside the empty pram, three black baby dolls stand upright in a small circle. Their plastic bodies are naked and their synthetic hair is adorned with delicate, threaded headpieces, worn like crowns. But it’s unsettling: Wilkes’s quiet gathering seems not only anachronistic but also culturally adrift from the commercial hubbub of an art fair. But the ensemble seems to speak less about the particularities of culture or ethnicity than it does about the artist’s deep and penetrative study of surface; how skin, like any other casing, contains what is largely internal and often unnamable.
In a recent article in Artforum, art critic Isabelle Graw explored art and subjecthood in the works of American artist Rachel Harrison and German artist Isa Genzken. In their use of mannequins and expressionistic paintings, she identified an “anthropomorphic return” that is, “emblematic of life under the conditions of celebrity culture, where products become persons, and persons are themselves commodified.
More broadly, the entire emphasis on vitality should also be considered in light of the changing role of the subject under contemporary capitalism these disfigured, quasi-human assemblages reinscribe the all too familiar story of the damaged and even pathological subjects we have all become.”
Graw supports much of her argument with reference to The New Spirit of Capitalism, a socioeconomic study of how the demands by May 1968 protestors for working conditions that suited the individual and create greater job satisfaction have since been repurposed by capitalism, encouraging the workers to commodify their own personal lives in the pursuit of professional success. These precarious working conditions now jar with any concept of personal or family life. Within this critical framework, Graw reads Genzken’s and Harrison’s work as counterpoints to the depersonalized subject, with the mannequins serving as virtual surrogates that they reinvigorate with lively expressionist paintings.
While Graw’s framework might usefully be applied to some aspects of Wilkes’s Non-Verbal, it is reductive to claim her work as an explicit critique of personal or maternal life under capitalism. However, what Non Verbal does so powerfully is redress the oddity of separation by fusing an environment of isolated, redundant objects with the most discrete expressive traces of human life.
In Basel, the aluminum drip tray is once again the installation’s centerpiece. It contains a cordless DVD player, a padded seat cover, an open cosmetic pot and a stained infant’s vest. The corn oil that floated beneath these objects in its previous iterations has gradually dried up. Only patches of rust remain on the aluminum’s surface, tracing where those objects sat before. Like oil on canvas, the remains of dried corn oil are Wilkes’ abstract proof of moments of non-verbal communion.