2016: Issue 1: Shaun Prior: Coccyxxx

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Shaun Prior. 2016. Backyard Dream Sequence: A gently curving column. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is something absurdly popular about getting naked to make video and performance art. It is perhaps something to do with the history of nudity in painting and sculpture, and the translation of it into a more contemporary sphere, or possibly a hangover from the sixties. The use of nudity is often called upon to perform a problematic double function in performance and video: it is meant to reveal, and somehow to present honesty and rawness; yet also present a symbolic façade where it is called upon to invoke the aura of being art, to be regarded with an almost spiritual intent. It is therefore interesting when a work that features nudity so heavily, as this work does, does not fall into this typical function, or at least succeeds despite it. Like the most powerful of Marina Abramovic’s work, it succeeds because it is not shy, nor coy (nothing is hidden in this series – it is so often works that feature nudity that are as modest as a magazine cover), nor simply using nudity as a trope, nor as a fall-back for not having any idea how to costume, and suspecting that nudity will give it the aura of artistic creation. The principle reason for this is that what is at stake in this show is an examination of gender and sexuality in which the body is inherently implicated. In this realm, the body immediately becomes the site of great contention and interest. It is this interest invested in the body, its contortions, its potential to both abjection and beauty, to symbolism and mundanity, that gives the nakedness of Prior as a performer a purpose and cause.

Nudity is not enough to carry the work alone and Prior’s gestures, costuming, setting, and framing all become important choices and are what, eventually, become the most powerful parts of the work. The limited costuming is eloquent when it is employed: in particular, a back brace sits around Prior as he performs much of his work. It is clear that he is quite aware of his own limitations, and the frailty and, under the repressive cover of clothes, the somewhat disappointing aspect of most of our human figures. This choice must also be read against a history and predilection in art to the nudity of women, and the relative protection from scrutiny and shame that sustains the masculine image. The penis is often rendered invisible in cultural production – which conversely seems to increase the power and aura of the dick as a symbolic portent, while protecting men from shame and inadequacy. This makes a case for the penis’s spiritual existence: as something about which images must not be made. By being unseen it is made powerful in the manner of ideology – it becomes that which is an ‘unknown known’. This structure of support that keeps the patriarchal façade erect is what Prior’s back-brace costuming seems to point to. The patriarchy requires the crutch of invisibility to protect from shame, from embarrassment, and from sexual inability and failure – in short, vulnerability. By being naked, yet wearing a covering that does not cover, Prior exposes the paradoxical logic of invisibility and power in sexuality and images of the body.

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Shaun Prior. 2016. Backyard Dream Sequence: A gently curving column. Image courtesy of the artist.

However, this argument is not encompassing, and for such a complex issue as phallocentricism it is hardly surprising. The invisibility of penises is perhaps exclusive to film, art and television, and is also a changing field. There is also a directly contrary example in the prevalence of the dickpic in contemporary culture. It is a pertinent contradictory instance of visual sexual aggression, which requires some modulation of the argument: that though it is perhaps not always the ‘invisible’ penis, it is the ‘unspeakable’ in either its hiddenness or supposedly intimidating/impressive visibility that is part of a patriarchy’s operations of power. Visibility can have many operations, but the two in question here is whether visibility is used to oppress or to expose. Prior is aware of this absurd logic, in another sequence, Prior is lit in demonic red light, and uses an enormous candle as a phallus. As it melts, it puts out a set of three other candles with its wax. He embodies, in this series, some kind of satanic figure, sadistic and violent, an image of masculine aggression. Yet his image becomes a parody with the mock-spiritual icon of the candle and its overblown proportions, a peculiar and honest, yet funny take on the propensity of the masculine to grandiosity, violence, and hyperbole.

Among the most successful devices employed in the work, the footage is filmed at a very high ISO, and renders the image fuzzy with grain. In an age with readily available high-quality technology, it is an important choice. It makes the work somewhere between homemade porn and exhibitionism. The graininess of the footage speaks to the DIY and found object aesthetic of the rest of the work – work that employs strobe lighting, LED strip lighting, garden orbs, and candles – not to mention its setting in a suburban backyard. It takes the kitsch paraphernalia of suburban and urban existence and imbues it with a symbolic and sensual potency. The graininess also gives the digital media a strong emphasis. Though it is perhaps endemic of low quality film, it permits the artwork not to be caught up in its technicalities; and although it is not crisp, it does not detract from the work. There is an interesting aesthetic link, throughout this performance and DIY aesthetic, to Ryan Trecartin’s six films that were in the screen space for PIAF this year. The lo-res, high-ISO aesthetic of Trecartin’s films, their humorous approach to gender and sex and their own tendency not to leave anything to the imagination, welcome a comparison to Prior’s work. Here the rapid editing and day-time soap opera style has transformed into a strange and surreal set of performances. Yet, perhaps the most pertinent references to Prior’s work are not so much from the world of art as music videos: Jesse Kanda’s visuals for Arca’s debut Xen, and Chris Cunningham’s work for Aphex twin and Bjork come to mind on viewing his works. These kind of experimental articles of visual culture feel more in line with the non-narrative, non-linear editing and short duration of Prior’s works.

Backyard dream sequence is a mix of naivety, wonder, and transgression. The accompanying text does little to lift the veil of the surreal that transforms the gestures and setting of Prior’s work into a waking dream. It rather compounds the strangeness of the work, transgressing the serious or critical language that people often feel the need to surround their shows with, and replacing it with a mocking literary fiction about the creation of the performance:

‘I saw a UFO whilst filming this project. There I was, standing above a strobe light, slowly removing my white Sri-Lankan Prayer robe/Ebenezer Scrooge pyjamas, like Jesus performing a strip-tease, when a black orb silently flew horizontally across the sky, blocking out the stars. Whilst I didn’t capture it on camera, I do have on video the moment I see it, my head slowly moving left to right. Its not that surprising that aliens would be interested in what I was doing, I’m a unique specimen, doing something they’re quite possibly never encountered a human doing before. I like to think the aliens observing me were those known among alien-expert circles as ‘andromedeans’ – kind, inter-dimensional, genderless beings who emit rainbow light. The more I think about it, the more I realise how similar we are, the andromedeans and I. We share a strange mission: to help the human race reach another dimension. Shaun xxx’

It reveals something of the beguiling nature of the visual work: humorous and serious, sometimes parodic, sometimes spiritual, and always uncompromising and unrelenting while preserving a certain innocence. It appears like an attempt to radicalise the most kitsch and camp elements of our world – the ‘xxx’ that signs of Prior’s text, the colour-changing garden globes that he moves within in the video, the LED strip that flashes and ripples and the candles that sit around the space and in the video. All are transmuted in Prior’s performance into something magical. They become sexual, powerful, serious, and galactic. Using a backyard – the familial backyard – only adds to the potency of this relationship, of the trivial daily and the overwhelmingly symbolic.

With contemporary interest in gender issues reaching great political heights, Prior’s work is a timely instance of gender being taken as a subject outside of being merely pleasurable or acceptable. The boldness of his works, and their grainy, dirty, backyard vibe goes beyond the mere tolerance of gender diversity, and begins to unpack a more base, symbolic, and thoroughly destabilising position. It is difficult to state in words what Prior has achieved in this small, weird show, but it is one of the few imbued with true magic that has come by this year.

written by Graham Mathwin