Jay Younger: the politics of exuberance

Barbara Bolt

Jay Younger, Untitled 1

Jay Younger, Untitled 1

Glare is a term that has contradictory or polar meanings. Used as a verb, ‘to glare’ is to fix with a fierce or piercing stare. As a noun, the word takes on different connotations. The glare is a strong dazzling light, an oppressive light that shines with tawdry brilliance. In the former sense, the glare fixes; in the latter it undoes fixity and creates dispersion. Jay Younger’s survey exhibition, Glare, at the University of Queensland’s Art Museum, plays with these contradictions. The tension between the expressed ideological intentions of the artist and the work’s blinding exuberance makes this exhibition rewarding and fascinating.

Glare is not a retrospective, but provides the opportunity to view and review the artistic output of one of Queensland’s most significant contemporary artists. Younger has played a formidable role in the development of contemporary art in Brisbane over the past 2 decades, not just as an artist, but also an educator, curator and mover and shaker in the arts. The social and political consciousness that has enabled her to contribute so profoundly to the development of contemporary art in Queensland also provides the central impetus for her artwork.

This impetus is most apparent in Younger’s installation works of the early 90’s. For Glare, she recreated the grotesque installation work Gormandizer (1993). In a critique of the inflexible concrete structures of masculinist culture, the artist coated a cement mixer in pink sugar. In her hands, this object becomes a great gustatory machine, chewing and dribbling forth a rich mucous of glucose and faux jewels. Other significant installations from that period, Big Wig and Charger (1995) and Trance of the Swanky Lump (1997), are included in the exhibition as video documents.

Big Wig and Charger is the most breathtaking and ambitious of Younger’s installations. It involved 30 women who, in turn, took their place (heads protruding through a hole in the floor of the gallery) beneath an enormous suspended Marie Antoinette wig. While it’s difficult for documentation to capture the immediacy of such an event, Younger’s video creates a powerful narrative that heightens the drama and suspense of the work. In editing the footage, she cuts between scenes of the vulnerable heads of the women, the wig, an idling Valiant Charger in an adjoining car park, and a third space in which headless bodies dangle from scaffolding. Through her focus on the tension of the rope holding the wig aloft, Younger creates a sense of impending doom. In this video documentation and in her re-presentation of Trance of the Swanky Lump, Younger is a consummate storyteller.

Whilst the work in the survey spans the period between 1987 and 2002, it provides the artist with the opportunity to showcase her latest photographic work, the ‘tropical noir’ series Ulterior. Using the glitter and glitz of 70’s kitsch tropicana, Younger has created a pungent tropical noir setting as a backdrop against which to revisit some of the notorious underworld stories and characters of the Fitzgerald era. For Younger, Ulterior aims to break through the illusion that Queensland is a carefree tropical paradise, revealing corruption as a persistent holographic presence.

Stylistically, Ulterior appears to have its genesis in the series of cibachrome photographs, Combust (1991), conceived during an artist-in-residency in the Australia Council’s Verdaccio studio in Italy. In this earlier work, the message is direct and simply composed. In Combust II (1991), a sparkling green pineapple rocket blasts off Las Vegas-style, leaving a trail of pink stardust, whilst in Combust III (1991) the burning letters N O come careening to earth. In the tropical noir photographs, the message is more obtuse with each image highly decorative and crammed full of signifiers. There is a vaguely uneasy feeling of trouble in paradise, but these stirrings don’t seem to unsettle the status quo. It is so easy to get swept up in the decorous glitz and celebration of a place where it is ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next.’ The ‘troubling signifiers’ in the photographs (images of characters from the Fitzgerald Inquiry era) appear as Christmas baubles on an overblown palm tree rather than characters from notorious underworld stories. Perhaps this is Younger’s point, to confront Queensland’s ‘cultural and political amnesia.’ However, the danger is that this meaning does not carry beyond the specific context of post-Fitzgerald Queensland. The works themselves become emblems of decadence and excess rather than a critique of them.

The magnificent full colour monograph that accompanies the exhibition comes complete with commissioned essays by Beth Jackson and Juliana Engberg, and extensive theoretical explanations of the individual works. It establishes the socio-political context for Younger’s work. Here lies the dilemma at the heart of any discussion of this artist’s work. The explanations enable the viewer to trace the political and theoretical impulses underpinning each of the works. Yet the contextual framing provided by the catalogue text tends to be didactic, prescribing in advance how the work is to be read, rather than allowing it to speak on its own playful terms. For example, Big Wig and Charger, Gormandizer and Trance of the Swanky Lump are claimed to offer a feminist critique of masculinist culture. In a similar way, Ulterior critiques what Younger sees as the political amnesia of the post-Fitzgerald era. However, at the level of the material and the visceral, the works move beyond political critique. In this tension I am reminded of Drusilla Modjeska’s claim that “art takes us not into political argument, or not only, but towards the ‘inviolate enigma of otherness in things and in animate presences’” (Modjeska, D, Timepieces, Picador, Sydney, 2002). Jay Younger’s work may be critique, but through it we are moved beyond critique into a realm of visceral corporeal pleasure.

Glare, Jay Younger, installations 1987-2002, Art Museum, University of Queensland, Dec 7-Jan 18, 2002

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 27

© Barbara Bolt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003