To Be a Body: A Review of Wax Tablet
Who does your body belong to? Lucinda Bennett reviews Wax Tablet, an unsettling exhibition of film, audio and installation.
My body: it is the place without recourse to which I am condemned.
– Michel Foucault, The Utopian Body, 1966
Wax Tablet is an exhibition about bodies. Bodies in space, bodies as spaces that can be breached, bodies as containers for the mind, bodies as vessels for the womb, wombs as vessels for bodies. It’s about how language forms a body, how memory conjures it, how technology can distort, reconstitute and extend it. It’s about how we conceptualise our own bodies, and the bodies of others. Most of all, it’s about the varying levels of agency afforded to different bodies in different contexts. Each of the three works in the exhibition speaks to these differences: Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s Party Line (2019) interrogates the idea that your body is not your own; Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2013) presents each body as a concept; Eric Baudelaire’s Letters to Max (2014) ponders how bodies can belong in a country that doesn’t exist.
The exhibition title recalls Socrates’ analogy for memory: a wax tablet upon which our perceptions are stamped, images pressed into the mind like a signet ring stamped into warm wax. For Socrates to liken memory to a wax tablet may have been to highlight the unreliability of memory, to show how easily our minds can be manipulated by external forces, how memory can be reworked. Of course, in 2019 the word ‘tablet’ also brings far more contemporary technologies to mind, and so the title presents a strange juxtaposition: if an iPad were made of wax, it would quickly turn soft and pliable in our warm hands, matte with oil from our fingers, marked by the gentle swipe of our nails, misshapen from the pressure of our grip. Yet despite being made of sleek, rigid materials, we know the tablets we use are impressionable. They learn from our actions and adjust accordingly to show us what we want to see – by which I mean, what they determine algorithmically we will watch or buy. Our personal devices become one more loaded surface pressing itself against the plastic of our minds, altering the pattern of our memory.
The first work we encounter is Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s Party Line (2019), commissioned by Te Tuhi for Wax Tablet. Six telephones, the kind of curved grey phones you find in older offices or attached to fax machines, dangle from the ceiling on their spiral cords. The surrounding walls are painted a warm red and have been built out from the permanent gallery walls to limit the space, rendering it closer, more intimate in scale, less like a ‘gallery’. Exhibition curator Andrew Kennedy explains how the colour red was chosen for its association with the retention of memory, a phenomenon related to the way red interacts with strong emotions. Perhaps this is why I recall Riddiford Graham’s work so vividly – or perhaps it is because the work itself is so delicately haunting, and so intimately experienced.
I pick up a phone, hold it to my ear.
The walls were pink like burned skin. There were a lot of women in dressing gowns, and they were the ones looking good… the others were naked, their legs in stirrups…
I am eavesdropping on a conversation between two women. I can hear the crackle of their breathing, but I can’t determine the precise nature of their relationship. Despite the fact that one of the speakers – whose voice I recognise as the artists own – is asking all the questions, the relationship seems to go beyond the journalistic. Questions are phrased in such a way as to suggest the women know one another – Didn’t you work there, National Women’s? – yet there is an air of studied casualness to the way they are asked, as though the questioner would like it to seem as though the subject were being raised organically.
I sink to the floor, cradling the receiver between my ear and my shoulder.
They had no idea eighteen people were going to stick their hands in their vagina, or on their belly to feel the womb.
Over the course of one phone call, Party Line tells the story of an experimental programme carried out at Auckland’s National Women’s Hospital in the 1980s. The woman answering all the questions is speaking about her own experience as a medical student there, when she became complicit in the programme that observed the growth of cervical cancer in patients not only without their consent, but without even informing them they had the disease, carrying out the examinations while the women were anaesthetised awaiting other procedures. The results of these unconsented tests were never divulged to the patients, and the women were subjected to sub-optimal care with dire consequences.
Some of those women, the observed women, they died, and they absolutely didn’t have to.
It took two journalists, Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, publishing an exposé in Metro magazine in 1987, for a Commission of Inquiry to be held, ultimately leading to the establishment of a national cervical screening programme and reforms that strengthened patient rights.
And there are more stories to be told from National Women’s. Riddiford Graham also tells of the morgue where women’s cut and charred bodies lay, women who had been brutally murdered and mutilated, yet whose deaths were not in the news. The work that was done here, the post-mortems performed on these bodies, was important for the way it recorded these deaths that were otherwise hidden, creating a quiet, bloody record of domestic violence in this country.
We have the sense of overhearing something we shouldn’t, our trespass doubled by the fact that the speakers are none the wiser. Greedily, we listen anyway.
The loss of bodily agency experienced by these women, and the fact that they weren’t even aware of what they had lost, is echoed in the form of Riddiford Graham’s work. Here, we have the sense of overhearing something we shouldn’t, our trespass doubled by the fact that the speakers are none the wiser. Greedily, we listen anyway, more keenly than we might have were the subject not so disturbing.
If Riddiford Graham’s work makes us wonder whether our bodies really belong to us, Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2013) highlights the way we all experience our own bodies so differently, and how it is near impossible for us to imagine how another person experiences theirs.
When You Fall into a Trance begins with a narrative voiceover from a man who sounds like Stephen Fry (but isn’t). There is an immediate distancing effect as the main character, Dominique, is positioned very much as a character, rather than a real person:
This woman, Dominique, was compiling her own dating profile… the only things she could find to write about herself were professional.
A neuroscientist, Dominique is passionate about her work, spending most of her time lingering in the mind to discover how it interacts with the body. Her relationships with each of the other three characters in the film are defined by how her mind perceives and interacts with their bodies. There is her daughter, Toni, a synchronised swimmer who spends all her time moving and conditioning her body to perform in flawless tandem with another. Dominique seems almost repulsed by the way her daughter dwells incessantly in her body, failing to see that she does the inverse, dwelling almost exclusively in her own mind.
Then there is her lover, Hugo, and the aura of their relationship – There’s something between them, she feels excitement in her stomach. For the viewer, this excitement appears as something more like fear, a dawning sense of horror at every revelation of his character. Early in their relationship, they meet at the sewage ponds and spend time wandering amongst them. The narrator tells us, Dominique always loved sewage ponds, the physicality of it. Perhaps I was heightened, having just experience Riddiford Graham’s work, but I kept expecting Hugo to push her in. That feeling lingers for the rest of the film, an intense discomfort every time Dominique and Hugo appear onscreen together, even when they are making love.
Finally, there is the relationship between Dominique and her patient, Simon, who has a condition that has led to the loss of his proprioception – the ability to perceive the location of his body in space and to move his limbs without seeing them. If you turn the lights off in a room, he falls over. However, Simon is able, as he puts it, to gesture through imagination. Through conceptualising his movements, he is able to perform them flawlessly, and it is this ability that renders him such a fascinating subject for Dominique.
Wardill’s film is disorienting, sinister. Bodies are seen through layers of transparency, glass and water, fragmented and reflected in metal and mirrors. Early in the piece, while Dominique is on a (bad) date, there is a close-up of her lips as she takes a sip of wine, her mouth visible but obscured, magnified through varying layers of glass. Sometimes it is difficult to understand where bodies are positioned in relation to one another, with whole scenes shot at obtuse angles, the camera moving from beneath a glass table to looking into a mirror. Somehow, filmed this way, these rooms often feel like interrogation rooms – although I suppose we, the audience, are the ones standing behind one-way glass.
Despite these heavy feelings, the film is not without humour. I find myself chuckling at lines that imply a meta-awareness of the film itself:
If it’s too abstract for you, I totally understand and respect your decision to leave.
However, it is the more abstract elements of Wardill’s film that have the greatest effect upon me. The reflection of swimmers’ bodies in the underside of the swimming pool’s meniscus. Dominique and Hugo in bed, a kaleidoscopic lens turning their entwined naked flesh into one monstrous body. Bodies augmented with small, clipped items, such as the pink nose-clips worn by Toni and her swimming partner, the ever-present ballpoint pens and bobby pins attached to Dominique’s chest pocket or placket. These are the elements that make my gut wrench, that make me attempt to imagine being in these bodies, experiencing the world as they do.
The lengthiest work in the exhibition, Eric Baudelaire’s film Letters to Max (2014) fixates on Abkhazia, a de facto and partially recognised state in northwestern Georgia. When Baudelaire sends letters to Maxim Gvinjia, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Abkhazia and his personal friend, he is aware that these letters technically shouldn’t arrive, since France (where he is sending the letters from) doesn’t officially recognise Abkhazia. But the letters do arrive, and Max responds to the artist’s questions – in-depth and philosophically, via audio – which in turn becomes the track for this film.
Doing my due diligence, I read up on the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. I become disturbed when I discover just how bloody this conflict has been and how tense the situation remains. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Baudelaire explains:
It’s complicated to make a good film about a controversial subject because you have to transcend the controversy. But I think it’s important to try because these are subjects that shouldn’t be left strictly to journalists and political scientists. When you make a film about terrorism, secessionism, or about a jihadi, you are choosing a topic that doesn’t generate unanimity… It’s very easy to fuck this up and make a heavy-handed film that answers questions instead of asking them.
Perhaps the most poignant part of the film – the part where I became aware of just how little I understood the complex history of this part of the world – is the footage of ruins and abandoned houses of Georgians who lived in Abkhazia before the ethnic conflict. In some ways, I’ve become almost immune to images of ruins, so oversaturated has our media become. But with this footage of ruins came Max’s voice, speaking of how the secession turned into a paradox:
There is a misunderstanding about refugees wanting to return. They want to return to a time before the war… [It is] nostalgia, they want to return to a past that does not exist anymore. I would like to return to this time… You are right, it is a tragedy, but what can we do? We cannot let them all back because then there would be another war.
Letters to Max reminds me of a book I love. Set in the year 1939, Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us tells the story of a small village adrift in a river, connected to the mainland, the real world, by only a finger of land. When the villagers hear of their impending doom – they are Romanian Jews, World War 2 is upon them – they decide to do what Jews have been doing for centuries, and start over. They decide that the next day will be the first day of the world and all that will exist or will ever have existed is them and God.
It is possible that nations are based on what people jointly forget more than what they remember.
Less intensely bodily than the other works in the exhibition, Letters to Max highlights the way individual bodies are always political objects, we just don’t think of them as such until their presence (or movement, removal, arrival, incarceration, freedom, death) becomes politicised by external forces. The epigraph that began this essay speaks to this idea, defining the body as a place that cannot be escaped from – and as Foucault goes on to explore, it could be that the true definition of utopia would be an incorporeal body. “Utopia,” he writes, “is a place outside all places, but it is a place where I will have a body without body… Untethered, invisible, protected – always.”
Funnily enough, it’s a sentiment echoed by Max himself:
I’m always somewhere, I’m not concrete. I don’t live in a place where I am actually living. I live in my mind – perhaps like many people.
At over three hours total running time, a visitor needs to be uncommonly committed to experience Wax Tablet in its entirety. Sitting still for so long, curled up on the ground with a phone pressed between shoulder and ear as I make notes, struggling to get comfortable on an ottoman in a dark room, I become aware of my body in the same way I do right before I fall asleep sleep at night. All the minor aches, restless legs, bladder twinges, the raw inflamed skin around a picked hangnail, cold feet not warming up in the cold part of the bed.
Wax Tablet sets out to explore the agency we have over our own bodies, and it does. Yet what I am left with is a feeling of urgency, a desire to always remember how precious and fragile our agency is, how easily it can be stripped from us, and how casually we give it away.
Wax Tablet is on at Te Tuhi 9 June – 11 August 2019.
This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Te Tuhi. They cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.
Feature image: Evangeline Riddiford Graham, Party Line, 2019 (install view). Sound, telephones, 18 mins 19 secs. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Auckland. Photo: Sam Hartnett.
Excerpts from the translation by Lucia Allais of a radio lecture Foucault delivered in 1966.
Published in Sensorium, Boston, MA: MIT Press (2006), 229–234.