For reasons unbeknownst to me I often struggle with video art, finding myself reluctant to invest the concentration that is often required to engage properly with such works. Because of this, I was completely thrown by how strongly I was drawn to an installation I saw at M16 Artspace by Lucy Quinn, and have hardly been able to stop thinking about it since. Here is what I wrote about the work earlier this year…
In an era of rapid fire visual information audiences have become notoriously impatient. When a typical viewer spends an average of only seven seconds with an artwork it can be to the detriment of much time-based art, struggling to catch and hold the gaze.
Lucy Quinn’s video piece Aquatherapy is an exception to this rule. An emerging Canberran artist and ANU School of Art Graduate Quinn works across mediums and is especially adept in utilising video to create captivating, mesmeric artworks.
In Aquatherapy we have an overhead view of the artist reclining in a bath of water, the submerged figure fully dressed in a man’s business suit and tie. Cold artificial lighting gives the impression of stark sterility and emphasises the awkwardness of being clothed under water. The viewer can sense the tepidness and uncomfortable burden of heavy wet cloth pulling on the body.
After a moment the subject reveals a menacing pair of scissors and begins to cut at the pants and jacket, snipping off the tie. The outer layer is peeled off, yet reveals a second suit beneath. This too she cuts away and subsequently more layers are revealed. The figure writhes and contorts, straining to reach and cut away the clothing from behind, always fighting to keep the head above water. The scissors can be heard viciously slicing through the fabric, very nearly snagging on the skin.
At first the clothing is cut away methodically, but the urgency grows and the systematic removal becomes a feverish hack and slice. The scissors are wielded recklessly and it seems impossible that Quinn will not do herself an injury.
This restrained violence is coupled by the anticipation of the body’s seemingly inevitable exposure as layer after layer of clothing is cast aside. This growing tension not only lends an eroticism to the work, but evokes the fear or shame associated with public nakedness. Quinn’s ability to harness suspense and voyeurism leaves the audience unable to tear away their gaze. They remain transfixed, barely breathing, as the scene unfolds.
Symbolically the tearing away of the suit is the manifestation of a desire to be free of burden, of societal restriction, yet like a bad dream this freedom does not eventuate, despite the ongoing struggle. The suit is at once the height of respectability, and a potent symbol of masculinity. The female form within it suggests a mistaken or forsaken identity; the inner self being obscured by the public façade. The submerged body is powerfully metaphoric, reminiscent of corporeal states in birth and death; Perhaps a coffin or the womb.
The success of Aquatherapy is in the ability of the work to exist simultaneously as a study on the artist’s personal struggles with conformity and expectation and a pertinent scene onto which the viewer can project their own experiences of frustration, social constriction, and psychological unrest. This heady mix of public expression and the private world means that Aquatherapy emits an arresting magnetism to which no one is immune.