Frances Goodman at the Goodman Gallery
by Michael Smith
Living has increasingly been replaced by aspirational endeavours, activities of self-improvement that seem to be about deferring living in the moment until a later, often elusive date. Frances Goodman's June/July show at Goodman Gallery takes this constant state of preparation as its focus. Goodman has long been interested in how manifestly obsessive behaviour reveals the deeper recesses of consciousness, sometimes the collective consciousness. Previous bodies of work have dealt with germ phobias and fixations with hygiene, while others have considered obsessive behaviour in relationships. Goodman's area of interest, it would seem, is investigating the moments when the psyche's operating mode switches from interested to preoccupied, from functional to unhealthy.
With this new body of work, entitled 'Wishful Thinking', Goodman primarily investigates the language that surrounds preoccupation, its mechanisms and timbre. Through her sharp update of the deadpan language that characterised much Conceptual Art, Goodman shares a greater affinity with second-generation Conceptualist Jenny Holzer, whose quasi-motivational catchphrases wryly send up goal-oriented thinking in a culture deeply absorbed in discourses of achievement.
One of the most consistently compelling aspects of Goodman's technical approach has been her use of sound in the form of spoken words, and the resultant evocation of mindscapes and role-played identities. At the core of this lies a fairly acerbic sense of humour, one that frequently registers and satirizes the less spectacular moments of human thought. In the past, by using her own voice to record many of these monologues, Goodman broadened the scope of her satire, resisting easy critiques of social subgroups.
However, in I Know What You're Thinking, her interrogation of bigotry is formally expanded to include the voices of a diverse range of actors, and maintains its edge because it allows the inflections of these voices to colour its content. So, voices that sound variously Black, so-called 'Coloured', White, European, and even camp, speak reverbed phrases of shocking yet not entirely surprising generalising intolerance. Urban legend-style ideas, like 'coloured women have their front teeth removed so they can give better blowjobs', 'prostitutes are responsible for the spread of HIV in the world', 'German men want to fuck black chicks', softly fill this space from different directions, at any one moment competing for one's attention.
The sounds emanate from craftily unassuming white canvas pillars, specially made to mimic the structural pillars of the gallery; yet it appears to come from nowhere, as if one had entered a realm where one is privy to the most private thoughts of other individuals. Goodman speaks of these sentences as the kinds of things many people in the contemporary moment do actually think but would never publicly own up to. One phrase ties many of the rest together, indicating a deep resistance to change and skepticism about social integration: 'I'm trying to be a good New South African, but it's really hard...'. The mix of voyeurism and implication in this work is powerful because it is at once amusing and unsettling.
Another sound installation operates very successfully with minimal means: entitled Stars in Her Eyes, the work consists of a headphone set hanging from the ceiling, isolated in a darkened space by a single spotlight. Over the headphones plays a similarly echoing monologue, this time relaying the diary-entry-like thoughts of a young woman obsessed with an unnamed female singer. In short phrases, she details her obsession, from saying how close she came to meeting her idol, to the lengths she'll go to to achieve her goal of emulation ('the make-up, the travelling, the surgery...'). Also telling are the phrases about the star's lifestyle, '...her seven-bedroom house, with a jacuzzi in the lounge, her own cinema... can you believe it?'.
This recalls the kind of television that is becoming a fixed part of our culture, such as the BBC's Stars in Their Eyes (where contestants are judged on their verisimilitude to a chosen performer,) or even VH1's The Fabulous Life of..., an irony-free affair that documents the excessively luxurious lifestyles of the rich and tasteless. On the surface, Goodman's work has bite because it critiques this phenomenon, and also the degree to which it has become normal or even expected for 'fans' to be obsessive. Of course, what Goodman is really getting at is the psychology of avoidance at work underneath it all, the manner in which aspirational pursuits provide the practitioner with an 'out' from dealing with their existence as it happens to be at that moment.
This leads directly into the video and sound installation Young Guns, a work that deals with the intense preparation undertaken by competition-level bodybuilders. The projection shows the slowly shifting images of two young male bodybuilders who agreed to work with Goodman on this projection. The effect is at once iconic and anonymous, as the focus is on their bodies, and their (facial) identities remain obscured. The sound component is composed of four recorded tracks of these collaborators talking about the processes they follow in training, and also the sounds made while training. The phrases used oscillate between self-motivational ('you have to be obsessed') and self-mythologising ('we learn to love pain' and 'bigger, harder, better').
While the work is powerful in its own right, resisting the impulse towards obvious satire, the phrases culled from the soundtrack have another, possibly more compelling life as the subject of the numerous garish wall-mounted sculptures that populate much of the gallery space. These text-based works resemble school blazer honour scrolls and family or national crests. Emblazoned with declarations like 'Beauty is pain', 'Fight for the spotlight' and 'It's never enough', they are paeans to catchphrase psychology, like the offhand words of a pushy coach elevated to immortality. The sculptures are made from hundreds of sequins, sewn together in an act, Goodman states, that not only mirrors the intense and thorough preparation undergone for bodybuilding competitions, but also the perma-tan-and-glitzy-speedo visual gaudiness of the whole scene.
After hearing Goodman speak about this, another scroll catches my eye: 'Smile! Smile! Smile!...' it cajoles, '...Hide Your Fear'. I'm reminded of how our culture has become one of endurance, and of how the Calvinist concept of self-denial has morphed into a more literal version of itself: a denial of who and what one is.
Opens: June 23
Closes: July 14
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