The Tromp family left home on the 29th of August, 2016. They were convinced that someone was following them and that they had to escape. Their strange voyage was subsequently widely reported in the media, and it was speculated that their paranoia could have been an extended form of ‘folie a deux’; a ‘folie a plusiers’, wherein a close knit community, particularly families and couples, fall into a mutual psychosis. This story forms a narrative through which to view the work in Dangling in the Romp. Every piece contains some allusion to the formative role of small (or large) groups in developing a psychological or actual reality.
The impact of small and isolated groups does not stop at families, though they exhibit perhaps the greatest potential to ‘fuck you up’ (Phillip Larkin, 2001). The insularity of our social circles, and perhaps even the insularity of a small art scene and small galleries, provide a context in which something supposed to be madness occurs beyond or protected from the broadening compromise of the larger networks of relations that formulate society. Doesn’t everyone have the fear that leads to strange behaviour? You might not get all of the jokes and be thrown out, away from the only people you love. This may cause you to behave in some manner deemed, in another circle, as quite mad (A partial photo is in the space of Brian Fuata, dressed in a sheet as a ghost, who lifts objects as if you could not see him. I, when young, once employed a similar technique on someone who had just emerged from a car accident: a highly ineffective strategy, but people dressed in sheets have since taken on some other meaning, and perhaps they are not so silly as one first thinks, but come from a real need to hide from the world behind them). Illusions and delusions are not so far removed from one another, and dealing in one can play into the other – and we are nothing if not traders in illusion in the arts.
Abandonment, though, is supposedly one of humanity’s prime motivating feelings – we stick to other people for fear of being abandoned. Another is apparently shame – and this I can relate to. The nature of shame and abandonment are intertwined, both imply that the person feeling this has done something, however slight, that broke some social bond. I only mention this as a way of saying: you can’t even escape social bonds when alone. It would hardly be necessary to have a sense of abandonment or shame if we did not long for groups.
The Internet, of course, opens the door to connections forming from within isolation. The Tromp family left behind all their connective technology, and the daughter was forced to throw her smuggled mobile phone out of the window. People aren’t always who they say they are online, everyone knows this, but it can induce a state of paranoia. Even if we understand this, it can be hard to undo the assumption that not everyone we are speaking to is the person we thought we were speaking to. The presence of twitter bots makes this situation even more pronounced. Care disfigurements (Brian Fuata), featuring the person in a sheet, and a script of an interview; is actually about the stealing of identities in the misuse of naming on twitter. The act of taking names and putting on masks opening up something different from a small group dynamic: a large group that is isolated from each other, hiding behind their masks. Scared of what repercussion there might be, sad in their loneliness perhaps, but excited by the psychological damage they can execute. The Tromp family are perhaps the embodiment of this peculiar feedback loop of media and terror. They have become the image of the fear we all have that we might very well lose control, at any point, of our sense of perspective over what we assume and what is true.
After the strange story of the Tromp family, that is still only announced in its connection to the show via the cover photo of the facebook event and an ambiguous image of a ute (maybe the one the second eldest sister was found in, catatonic) in one of the artworks, perhaps the most effective key is the central plinth (or is it a wall?): Marc Kokopeli’s work. It is a chest-high, furry wall (or is it a plinth?), upon which two images hang on either side. They are black and white photos of children engaging in social interaction. They are apparently pedagogical images: intended to instruct on the proper conduct in social circumstances, for children who have difficulty with these things. They possess the stilted air of a set-up, the characters theatrically arranged for a camera. Apparently, the artist is one of the people in the photos, his mother being the photographer and social engineer of these fake situations of instruction. The furry wall/plinth is about the height of a child. It hasn’t quite learnt how to be a wall, its corners are turned inward, it hasn’t yet grown to reach the ceiling, and it maintains its downy exterior. The only similarity it bears to its grown up, mature, well-adjusted relatives are the understanding that it is as austere as the cousins that surround it: that it has been built in their model, even if not quite exactly. It is a copy of these forms; its soft, furry materials stretched out and pinned to a hard surface.
Perhaps the best reference to make here would be to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth. This film features a family whose parents teach their children that the rest of the world is very small and very dangerous, (airplanes are small models, cats are dangerous animals that kill their non-existent brother) and prevents them leaving the house until their dogtooth (canine) falls out. This results in acts of violence and peculiarity that perform for us, on screen, the bizarre and sometimes dangerous events that can result from extreme isolation and psychosis within small or familial groups. Similarly in dangling in the romp it is the strange and potentially dangerous influence of groups and isolation that seem to come to the fore. Society acts responsibly and educates people on what the appropriate action or gesture of emotion is in any given situation is one that forms a certain consensus. The waist high, white furry plinth offers us the intimate, tactile care of instruction, while enforcing a certain kind of austerity.
‘I hope that your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities. I wish this with all my heart.’ (Dogtooth)
The family does of course ‘fuck you up’ in some way, and perhaps the best testament to this in this show is Zac Segbedzi’s painting. It says: ‘grandpa left to escape the holocaust, but daddy abandoned me’ an image of Hitler’s face is here: beside a copy of a Jenny Watson image: a woman kneeling on all fours and forearms. A horse stands over her in a perpendicular manner, and the text lies across the scumbled faces of people I recognise, and some I don’t. This is the violence of the mass and the violence of small groups – violent together, and violent when they fall apart, perhaps inducing the feeling of abandonment, of fault, and of shame.
And what sense is to be made of this series of Amy Yao’s brains (This city is everywhere, this city is nowhere)? Here they are, scattered over the floor. Is this how big the human brain is? And look how they sit on the floor in the gallery space, they are like some other visitors, gathering, whispering, and looking at the art. A single brain sits on the floor away from the pack, an outcast perhaps, or maybe just in a wider orbit. Why only brains? The supposed seat of all our feelings and ideas, is there no body, no flesh, to the negotiation of these relationships – are relationships all we are? (It is turtles all the way down). It is within the nature of cities to contain more people than we could ever meet or know personally (Jane Jacobs, The life and death of great American cities). The relationships we form with this large, unknown body speak to a certain imaginary existence that has no basis in a physical actuality. The city of the artwork’s title is impossible to pin to the physical substance of a brain, a body, despite the organ’s resemblance to the organisation of certain urban centres. The city, this gathering of weird flesh, is just another psychosis.
One gets the feeling that, like the pins in a lock, Dangling in the Romp requires a particular key to come undone; but it is a show with a logic that is sometimes hard to see. There is presumably a text somewhere, not just the explanation of the gallery attendant or the artist, which will describe what is going on – it just hasn’t arrived yet, and so we are, much as the title suggests, left dangling. The peculiarities of ‘romp’ as a word are worth bearing in mind too: to have fun, of a rough sort, of some kind of sexual nature, perhaps somehow inappropriate – indeed a vague incestuous air hangs about the unaddressed narrative that frames the show, and the subjects of many of the works. So we dangle in the romp, suspended from any concrete conclusions, but forming ever more bizarre and playful and perhaps less than pleasant connections between the artworks in some game, the sort of game you might play with a television serial killer – a dark one, but one you can participate in from the imaginary but relative safety of viewing distance.
Dangling in the Romp is open 1pm – 6pm Saturday and Sunday the 4th and 5th of February at Pet Projects.