Body Suits

Body suits, conceived by Jane Trengove of Arts Access Victoria, proposes the body as a site for investigation with the contributing artists being mostly people who experience 'bodily difference due to disability'. Touring show in 1997.

Conceived some time ago as a touring show by artist Jane Trengove, who also works for Arts Access Victoria, Body Suits is coming together now, in mid-97.
It proposes the body as a site for investigation - with the contributing artists being mostly people who experience 'bodily difference due to disability.'
Trengove explains that contributing artists were invited to contribute work arising out of the experience of disability, but that this was by no means a requirement. As the show begins to coalesce, it seems most of them have taken this option. More about that later.

For Trengove, the premise to be examined, explored, negotiated - not 'solved' - is perhaps summed up in the Sartrean phrase: 'the eye is dangerous'. According to the type of body suit we wear, we are categorised, coded and evaluated through the medium of sight. Physical disability calls forth particularly emphatic coding responses, which have, of course, more to say about the viewer than about the person coded.

Can we, do we change body suits like outer apparel? Can we change our responses to certain kinds of body suits?

Trengove's work on this exhibition covers a multitude of bases. For a start, it aims to head off at the pass the knee-jerk, if often unconscious patronising impulse towards individuals with physical disabilities, let alone artists with physical disabilities. This impulse is rather more pronounced than the more complex response generated by art by the intellectually disabled. Commonly, the latter is identifiable and 'strong, though naive', as Trengove says: 'obviously made by an adult, complex person' using an unfamiliar imagery but demonstrating, sometimes awe-inspiringly, to its own internal coherence.
There is a syndrome, out there in the wider community (where those with physical disabilities are usually located, attempting to make their way) involving normally-abled artists in mentor schemes, say, or involving very well- intentioned Arts Access groups in brief workshops with physically or intellectually disabled persons, whose results can, from Trengove's viewpoint, be regrettable.

An ethos which often comes into play in such situations sees it as desirable for, say, institutionalised, or simply untrained people with disabilities to 'have a go' at some art form, the results then being shown as an 'exhibition' in a rush of organiser-enthusiasm. As Trengove remarks, the contributors are usually dropped again at the conclusion of workshops, and have their first attempts in some medium displayed for approval - a process bound to lead to condescending reaction from viewers. Again, a big-name artist may agree to mentor an untutored visual artist because he or she has a disability, with resulting side-by-side shows provoking unsatisfactory or at least unproductive audience response, for similar reasons.

Jane Trengove has worked hard to gather together artists who have already developed a professional profile. They are of similar ages and at similar stages in their careers. Not all of them are artists with physical or intellectual disabilities. Many are. One was the top student in the 1990 University of Western Sydney graduating art school class. Trengove herself has exhibited in prestigious shows such as the Women, Dada and Surrealism exhibition at Heide. Bronwyn Platten will be contributing to Body Suits, as will Cecelia Clarke, with whom Platten has had a joint show at the Experimental Art Foundation (Possible Clouds).

Colin Duncan is making a polystyrene bed with no legs wrapped in a Braille sheet, patterned not with letters but with single-cell creatures, which can't necessarily be read except as a pleasing pattern. This both plays off the privileging of sight and suggests the sarcophagus.

Trengove is interested in confinement and containment of the body. Her piece for the Heide show was a model of her own leg brace bound in wool and with pompoms attached: making links with charity, entrapment, overprotection, smothering goodwill, tying up the charitable object in fluffy swaddling. The notion of the prosthetic appliance will also be examined, she hopes, in Body Suits, expanded to include spectacles and corsetry.

Hers is a liberating perspective: Body Suits is about the experience of embodiment, so unsatisfactory without doctoring of one kind or another for most of us. Trengove wants to blur the edges of 'disability' into bodily experience in general. She likes friend Michaela Dwyer's piece which suspends crutches inside a pair of pantyhose at an alarming, toppling angle, held in place by the small pin attaching the stockings to the floor...
Historically, 'disfigurement' has been catalogued either as heroic or grotesque, with the former option more or less exclusively for males. Limbless returned soldiers are heroes, while similarly disabled women are 'like a cup with a missing handle.' Trengove wants to focus on what is routinely added to and subtracted from bodies, from adornments to appliances. She wants a rethink of 'the primacy attributed to habitual notions of the body.'

The Body Suits project also recasts the relationship between artists and artsworkers. The collaboration between Bronwyn Platten and Cecelia Clarke is indicative of what can happen, with Platten the first to insist that nothing is resolved, that problems multiply, that the process is fraught. 'Where does this gesture sit?' she asks, and the answer is not readily apparent. Clarke's inclusion in the project is highly eloquent, according to Trengove. With intellectual, psychological and physical disabilities, Clarke makes both visual and text-based pieces, but it's the latter which speak most strongly to the curator of this project. In the written phrases on her cards, trailing away as they do, (see image) Clarke speaks clearly, which is to say haltingly, from her position, in a most potent manner.

Must the visual channel be the route to the formulation of knowledge? Can spoken language be dispensable in communication? Bronwyn Platten's piece is an unrolling scroll on which are the repeated syllables 'la da'. There is cross- fertilisation with Clarke, and there are Platten's own concerns which predate it.
Jane Trengove and the artists involved in Body Suits are ideally placed to deflate a few received ideas and to embody their own in art that defies condescension.