By June Miskell
23 July, 2019
‘Embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all the dimensions of love in our everyday lives.’
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (2001), p. 94
‘Love’ remains devoid of a singular definition. Manifesting in many forms—be it ‘care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect and knowledge’, love is more than something we feel, it is something we do.1
After talking with my friends about what it would mean to live by a love ethic, or to practice a duty of care, I began reading bell hooks’ All About Love (2001). For hooks, to live by a love ethic is to utilise all these dimensions of love, despite the loveless-ness that is so pervasive today. Emerging from our discussions were various questions about how we could enact such love and care, both with ourselves and each other, but also across contemporary institutional and curatorial frameworks. What place does love and care hold within such a vexed landscape? What would it look like if we all, like hooks, called ‘for a return to love’?2
The day before visiting I LOVE YOU MELISSA at The Lock Up, I sit upstairs on the violet carpeted and cushioned Central Coast to Newcastle train. As it weaves through hollow tunnels, over steel framed bridges and along the edges of the Hawkesbury river, I reflect on my own experiences with love. Having grown up on the Central Coast, I’ve taken this train home countless times. With regular returns to my family and partner, it holds a significance of its own—a transient non-space that transports me between locations of love.
I LOVE YOU MELISSA is an exhibition that sits at the nexus of love and curatorial care. Curated by Courtney Novak, the exhibition features works by Caitlin Dempsey, Lucas Grogan, Jumaadi, Marikit Santiago and Jodie Whalen, and presents a profoundly personal exploration of love. Well known for occupying the historic heritage-listed site of Newcastle’s former police station, the exhibition takes its title from the scrawled graffiti found etched into one of the harsh cell walls—situating itself in a tense dialectical relation with the site’s oppressive and violent history. With this in mind, the exhibition aims to show that ‘love was and is ever present’, and considers the experiences of love in all its intricacies: ‘love of the familial, love as devotion, as lust, as friendship, as melancholy, as love of lovers and lovers lost.’3
Viewing Marikit Santiago’s ‘Mahal’ (2018), I am reminded of my Tita’s tender gesture weeks earlier as she lit a candle on the ground of the building stairwell in commemoration of my Lolo and Lola’s passing. Haunting the centre of the women’s cell wall is Santiago’s own wedding dress, stretched and enmeshed with various bits of plastic and toilet paper. Below it sits a shrine-like installation made up of a string of candles, artificial flowers and duct taped-figurines, which activates a sacred reverence in the space. In the sculptural re-construction of expensive and inexpensive materials, Santiago’s installation embodies the dual meaning of the Tagalog word ‘Mahal’—love (to love/my love) and expensive (value). The use of packing tape also makes subtle reference to the Balikbayan box used by migrant Filipino families to send goods to relatives back home. By removing these materials from their utilitarian function, they become repurposed and aestheticised, taking on a new value as symbols of excess and consumption.
It’s quite dislocating to move from the graffiti-etched cells into the renovated central room of the gallery space, which has a conventional white cube aesthetic. Here Lucas Grogan’s suite of intricate paintings depict faceless, shadow-like figures sprawling within their mosaic environments. Surrounded by phrases such as ‘know when to walk away’ and ‘this’ll clear the air’, these figures appear to exist in vulnerable states of idle-ness and contemplation—ruminating over fluctuating experiences of miscommunication and self-reflection.
Despite the immediate relatability and tessellated appeal of Grogan’s works, I return, as a woman of colour, to a feeling of un-comfortability when standing in front of them. Stylistic similarities described as ‘ink drawings on card cut to the shape of bark paintings’ and depictions of ‘elongated male Mimi-like figures’—which ignited Grogan’s controversial public debate about appropriation—are still present in the composition of ‘The Ghosts of the Darlin Quilt’ (2018) and ‘Private Dancer’ (2018).4 Grogan’s reduced blue and white palette and mosaic sets are reminiscent of Islamic tiles, while the pattern combinations resemble traditional textiles belonging to the Asia-Pacific region, and the irregular lines gesture towards his other, more problematic works. These distinctive sensibilities, layered upon one another, teeter over the edge into a space of ethnic ambiguity—which in light of previous debates, comes off as strategic.
Responding to these accusations, Grogan has claimed that he is ‘more than aware that within Australia this form of appropriation is…intrinsically tied to the destructive legacy of European settlement’ and that it ‘seems illogical to attempt to limit this interchange of cultures.’5 But these statements appear empty and incongruous when considered against a career that also capitalises from such violent appropriations (Grogan has collaborated with high end fashion labels to turn such work into consumer goods).6 Perhaps Novak is aware of such complications, but this would seem paradoxical given the already present tension of curating a show about love at The Lock Up—a space with a century-long institutional affiliation to the carceral state. The site’s architectural skeleton remains tethered to state sanctioned violence, oppression and dominance, all of which never was, and never can be, synonymous with duties of care and love.
A duty of care is what binds communities together. And such a form of ancestral and communal love is ever present in the percussive Gamelan sounds of Jumaadi’s ‘Diary of Dust’ (2018), a projected video installation that animates the wall with an ecology of wayang kulit puppet figures. Here they breathe in a synchronised temporality with other animal and spirit beings: scenes show figures floating towards and through each other, ebbing amongst clustered particles. The animated world deepens as the rhythmic current bleeds into the adjacent room, a space where bright enamel cut-out paintings depict figures that appear burdened or bound to one another.
These mythic environments echo sentiments of sacrifice and support, gesturing towards the will to enact duties of care with one another, despite the uncertain and fraught conditions we may face when we choose to love.
This pervading thread of will and commitment culminates in Jodie Whalen’s ‘Declaration of Love’ (2016), the final part of a series that began with the performative works ‘Between Husband and Wife’ (2014) and ‘This Love is Huge’ (2015). This body of work documents Whalen, and her husband, undertaking a series of ritualistic performances that explore ideas of romantic love and endless devotion. Following Whalen’s voice as she sings—I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds, because you’re mine, I walk the line—I enter a former cell decorated with hanging streams of candy-red tinsel and a constellation of hand cut confetti.
Filmed as a one-time-only performance and declaration of love to her husband, Whalen is bathed in the emotion’s colour. She is dressed in a glamorous velvet and lace gown, microphone in hand and standing on a spotlit stage. Whalen sings five cover songs, each chosen to represent a new chapter in the relationship: love’s first bloom, heartbreak and sorrow, one and only, love’s future bloom and a vow of commitment. My feet dance across the confetti and I catch myself trying to sing along, getting lost in this dazzling landscape of love: I find it very, very easy to be true, I find myself alone when each day’s through, yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you, because you’re mine, I walk the line. Song by song, Whalen immortalises all the complexities of romantic love—desire, longing, frustration, sadness and support—in this genuine and deeply personal ode to love.
As I sit again, days later in an upstairs carriage on my return trip from Newcastle, I reflect once more on what it means to practice a love ethic. To love is to be vulnerable—to risk loss, hurt and pain. The practice of love offers no place of safety, and to live by such a love ethic is to do so wilfully, in spite of such risk and uncertainty.7 It is this tremendous and complex commitment that I LOVE YOU MELISSA endeavours to honour. In showcasing love as a universally shared experience across various contexts—be it romantic, familial or communal—I am reminded that love, in all its complexities, will always remain.
- bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001)
- hooks, p. 6
- Courtney Novak, ‘I LOVE YOU MELISSA’, Catalogue Essay, The Lock Up (2019)
- Novak, p. 21
- Lucas Grogan, ‘Interviewed by Lucy Feagins’, The Design Files (23/09/11)
- hooks, p. 56