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Indepth Arts News:

"Support Charles Robb"
2000-07-14 until 2000-09-02
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
Brisbane, QL, AU

In the 1978 film, Coma, a government-sponsored holding facility for irreversibly comatose patients is discovered to be involved in the illegal auctioning of human organs. Even more disturbingly, the Jefferson Institute, as it is known, is working hand in hand with a respected hospital to ensure that young healthy patients admitted for routine surgical procedures suffer irreparable brain damage.

Coma was made at a time when Western culture was deep in heated and public negotiation over the form and meaning of gender roles. The film's main protagonist is a female surgeon struggling against an inherently prejudiced but only contingently corrupt hierarchy. This sinister glitch in the system in turn effects not only women, but also men. But Susan Wheeler, played by Genevieve Bujold, ventures into the domain of death and returns to tell the tale. Bujold's character explores the cavities of hospitals in the same way she explores the internal spaces of the corporeal body. Predictably, however, in this conventional narrative she herself must endure surgical violation in order for the wrong-doing to be recognised and balance to be restored.

Restored for all, that is, but those bodies still suspended in the Jefferson Institute, dangling mid-air in a cold UV light.

Support is the latest in a series of large scale sculptural tableaus by Charles Robb which explore the effects of Masculinity on men's bodies. The capture of the male body within a Cartesian (en)closure has been the recurrent motif for a series of works stretching over a four year period. While all these installations featured the artist's own likeness, they represent a statement regarding the collective male experience rather than a specific autobiographical one. This is the macrocosm viewed through the microscope.

Not surprisingly many viewers have expressed extreme discomfort in the presence of Robb's work. The passive male body disturbs them in a way that they may never be disturbed by a supine Leda for instance whose capitulation is interpreted as a kind of repose for our peaceful contemplation. As Tamar Garb points out in an essay on the unconventional work of painter Gustave Caillebotte, the male nude in art has mostly been the figuration of noble 'abstract truths', the signifier for a complex pattern of 'masculine' identifications.[1]

While the sleeping hermaphrodite is a recurring them in classical sculpture, the defined male figure (with the important exception of the dying Christ) is traditionally a vigorous composition. Even Donatello's frankly effeminate David possesses a sprightly energy and the Conquered Gaul strains with every muscle to remain an active figure. Why then this insistent return to the passive male body in Robb's work?

Without wanting to detract from the feminist project of mapping the forces which do battle over women's bodies, Robb shows us that men's bodies are also a battlefield but, ironically, one ravaged by masculinity turning in on itself. This process ultimately produces a triumphant masculinity but, paradoxically, defeated men. As feminism knows only too well, within the patriarchal structure the individual body is always subordinate to the social one. The corps makes little or no provision for the protection of individual men's bodies either, whether it be the soldier conscripted to war, the victim of 'gay bashing' or the man who, for manliness' sake, must ignore the demands of his own human frailty and 'crack hardy' to the grave.

We can see Robb's bodies then, as being held in suspension by the absolute construction of Masculinity which cannot acknowledge multiplicity of being, least of all in its own foot soldiers.

Robb's work is a direct rebuttal of the tendency in phallocentric thought to see the masculine experience as a universal. While the implications of his statements have far reaching consequences no claim is made in his work to 'speak for women'. The consistent use of his own body as a model for his figures contests the traditional relationship between sculptor and sculpted. It faces the narcissism of the art-making process head on and does not seek to conceal the artist's 'projected' presence.

With the growing interest in Masculinity studies and a proliferation of writings on the subject, comes a concurrent and intricate process of justification. Rather than a rigorous interrogation of the constituents of masculinity, much of what has filtered into public consciousness has been an 'everything old is new again' retelling of the history of masculinity - heroic archetypes, sites of privilege portrayed as the white man's burden. This apparent reassessment satisfies our deep cravings for reassurance, our most passionate desire to believe against all evidence to the contrary, that the patriarchal model 'works'; for at least half of the community. Robb, however is driven to return over and over to what is absent from these narratives; the permission for ambiguity, the space for dialogue between interior and exterior, sympathy for the devilish body.

In this transition between two centuries, we are still engaged in the debate over the relationship between the feminine and masculine. Society ritually reveals small glimpses of imbalance or 'deviant' destructive manifestations of the masculine ideal (the shocking revelation for instance that members of our armed forces were subjected to violent and demeaning initiation procedures), only to 'rectify' the injustice and restore confidence that all is as it should be.

Meanwhile back in the Jefferson Institute, there is a room full of suspended bodies, waiting for us to cease our suspension of disbelief.

[1] Garb, Tamar, 'Masculinity, Muscularity and Modernity in Caillebotte's Male figures' in Smith, Terry Ed., Invisible Touch:Modernism and Masculinity, Power Institute of Fine Arts, Sydney, 1997, p. 55.


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