Desire Caught by the Tail: Jyanni Steffenson

Exhibition review it (ca) speaks...it (ca) sucks. "i(t) too was drag(g)ed into this sub-plot" Installation by Jyanni Steffensen Experimental Art Foundation Adelaide South Australia 6 August - 6 September 1992

Two responses overheard about Steffensen's recent work at the Experimental Art Foundation were "She should stick to writing" and "The most interesting show here [EAF] for ages." While I could not comment on the second, my response to the first would be: "well, she has!"

Steffensen is writing, but writing in a different public space than that of the book or magazine; a space that carries with it associations and expectations usually quite removed from these vehicles of dissemination. Indeed, the first response quoted above could be an immediate reaction to the perception that there was very little evidence of aesthetic embellishment in her work, or, to be more precise, Steffensen has made no attempt to disguise the fact that she is a "writer" rather than a "painter" or a "sculptor" etc. She is a writer in the sense that even though Cy Twombly utilizes text in his work, he will always be a painter. Response one betrays expectations of a decorative 'aesthetic' (despite almost a century of modernist critique) that (re)assures us that we have walked into an Art Gallery, and still seems to promote considerable confusion among patrons when it is a bit thin on the ground

Nonetheless "it [ca] speaks..." is a gallery-based work which succeeds very well on a number of interdependent levels. First (and this effect is the most strongly fore-grounded) it reminds us of the essential materiality of all textual production, the materiality of the signifier as a phono/graphic object. As material objects, words invoke forces and realise effects, and in their passing, leave behind signposts (empty letters or ideograms) of their contribution to the vagaries of desire or power. Steffensen's text institutes a sort of garden maze in which the spectator ambulates at her/his peril, depending on their relationship to Steffensen's catalogue statement:

"The work deals with the textual (and political) re-positioning of the sexed subject in a post-structural context - multiple, fluid, mobile and non-fixed in terms of its (hetero)sexuality. The subject constituted in binary terms of sexual difference (masculinity/femininity or heterosexual/homosexual) is considered well and truly redundant."

I do not know whether it was intentional or not, but Derrida's concept of the "invagination" of the text is iconically reproduced by the installation in the main gallery. The "electric (blue) text" is constructed of elongated perspex "pages" pitched like an unfolded pamphlet - a series of inverted Vs - on the floor. Underneath the "fold" that divides each alternate page is a fluorescent tube that illuminates the text. Derrida's concept of the invaginated text is, unlike most of his "hinge-words", more easily grasped (at least at the level of its playfulness.) The text is a site of (in)semination, where seme operates both as 'seed' and 'meaning'; the stylus (pen and 'style') in the act of writing, invades the unfolding pages of the book whose white and 'unspoilt' (Derrida plays with the meaning of hymen) pages furnish the space for revelation, illumination. I think it is fair to say that Steffensen's work operates on a similar level to Derrida's: playful yet infused with a self-reflexive rigour.

The interleaving effect produced by having the text flow back on itself creates a sort of implosion of sense - an implosion circumscribed on every side by notions of transparency/opacity (the illuminated perspex), of discursivity and interruption (the interleaving of text), and of Derridean figures associated with the invaginated text: revelation, unfolding.

The smaller chamber of the exhibition space is occupied by a text assembled from a large number of photocopies adhered to the wall. This text exploits the disruptions of sense produced by the (chance?) typographical rearrangement of both phonemic and morphemic elements and the absence of punctuation.

Steffensen's exhibition, then, is divided up into "stages" which contribute greatly to a certain air of theatricality about the work. The word "theory" is derived from two Greek roots, 'thea' which refers to the visible aspect of things, and 'horao' which refers to the act of closely inspecting an object. Thus "theory" is connected, etymologically at least, with the concept 'theatre'. And it is the theatrical arrangement of Steffensen's work that (dare I say it! ) dramatises the relationship between her text (the strings of signifiers), the spectator and an elusive, perhaps even predatory, sense. The one line of text which could provide possible light relief is rather disturbing, "You telling me my ass isn't a wolf?"

That the work draws heavily on poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory, and that without some knowledge of that framework the viewer would be somewhat at sea, is quite obvious. As an example, the upright which divides the two aforementioned "stages" displays a slide projection of the word "yes" followed by a question mark. Now I could be wrong about this, but I would hazard a guess that it is a reference to, and indeed a radical counter to, Lacan's punning concept of the non/nom (no/name) of the father, the acceptance of which plunges the child into the realm of the Symbolic and is co-incidental with the formation of the ego structure. Even if I am completely wrong about this reference, it only confirms what I have just said - one needs a familiarity with Lacanian psychoanalytic ideas and post-structuralist concepts of text production to explore all the possibilities inherent in the work. I am not saying that without this knowledge one is completely prevented from participating in the work, but Steffensen's own list of influences in her catalogue introduction certainly reads like a who's who of contemporary critical theory.

The only disappointing aspect of the exhibition was the sound-tape text which was playing continuously throughout. I simply could not hear it. I suspect that the barn-like acoustics of the EAF, coupled with the need for a good cleaning of the tape-heads meant that even a spoken text was doomed to incomprehensibility. Attention to every word of the sound-tape text was doubtless not required of the spectator, yet I would have liked to have been able to listen to some of it without having to stand so close to the speakers.

Reviewed by Leon Marvell

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