16 December 2006
Colin Hambrook got an eyeful at the Gasworks Gallery in Vauxhall, South London, where Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson showed a joint commission of work, entitled The Disabled Avant-Garde Today! within a series of exhibitions, partnerships and critical debates
Organised by Full Circle Arts, the Adjustments arts programme took place at venues across London between September and December 2006.
I've followed the work of both Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson since the mid-1990s. At that time, Araniello was well-known on the Disability Arts cabaret circuit, fronting punk duo Plastic Anorexic. Her acerbic performances were a proud and true spit-in-the-eye of any notion of tragedy or bravery. Take for example her lyrics to Take Me To Your Party: "I promise not to have scoliosis of the spine / I'll sit with the girlies and say pretty, pretty, pretty. I will stink of tulips with labia-flavoured ear-rings gushing from my ears. Please take me to your party. I will, I will fit in." When she moved into making Art video after a degree at London Guildhall University and an MA at Goldsmiths, she translated an unforgiving attitude into visualising concepts, often using her art to parody the profound ignorance that disabled people face on a daily basis.
Williamson came through an academic and literary route to making exploratory work about receiving sound, as a profoundly Deaf person. He went from performing experimental sound poetry to installations using sound-to-text software. Since 2000 he has built up a catalogue of Performance Art pieces, which he has taken around the world.
The Disabled Avant-Garde Today! consists of six pieces of art video and one set of digital prints. Most of the video pieces are short and entertaining and would sit well within a programme of late-night video shorts on Channel 4. Williamson and Araniello make a formidable duo. For Williamson the work presented is his most accessible. The audience here doesn't have to appreciate obscure academic references. Occasionally a sense of fun creeps through into Williamson's video and performance art, but this work is positively indulging in it. For Araniello, the work flows and has more of a sense of completeness than in previous works of hers I've seen.
There is a wonderful camp sense of the ridiculous. The work breaks boundaries, playing around with the central themes of slapstick, children, sex and disability. The homage to Jake and Dinos Chapman is probably the most overt performance. Williamson and Araniello are dressed up as the artists' famous children shop dummy casts, which made headlines when they were shown in Saatchi's Sensation exhibition in the early '90s. They take it in turns to tell each other to shut up, in response to the assertion that they have a good idea. They are frozen in time, vulnerable yet indomitable, whilst barking at each other. This is shock madness, taken to extreme.
Simon and Garfunkel was perhaps the most thought-provoking piece. Playing on the signifier of disability meaning innocent, Araniello is dressed as Red Riding Hood while Williamson dons a wolf mask. The pair croon the words to Bridge Over Troubled Water with a frenzied yet controlled abandon. The recording is painfully slowed down. "I'm on your side", they sing to each other. As stereotypes, they have been sworn enemies since fairytales began. But now, we don't have to believe in the old stereotypes any longer. Differences can be reconciled. As cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, there is similarly a notion of goodie and baddie leaving the violence behind and just enjoying the chase. Araniello's hallmark use of vibrant colour and narrow depth of field is put to great use, as the pair, looking almost more cartoon-like than the cartoons, career after each other.
Pineapples and tiaras
The most beautifully conceived and costumed piece is the homage to the icon's icon, Leigh Bowery. This is narcissistic dressing up, taken to the max. Costumed with guns and fishnets, red lips, pineapples and tiaras; lounging and preening - and all to the tune of In the Mood, clucked like chickens. It is certainly a sop to the clubs that won't let wheelchair users in, because they are deemed not sexy enough, or because they are said to constitute a fire hazard. In fact, if the characters Williamson and Araniello played here, started their own night club, they could create something much fresher and more imaginative than the turgid sado-masochistic scene that is currently so popular.
I liked the blue set against the pink in the video named after the composer, Stockhausen. This is a reference to the soundtrack, made up of digitally remastered noises. This piece was probably the most indulgent - but what the hell, this show was about indulgence. And so the childish joke with the broom was not out of place. Need I say more!
The only film I didn't get on with was the documentary-style piece entitled Busby Berkeley. Here, Williamson and Araniello are dressed up in '40s cabaret costumes, as they parade Trafalgar Square, appropriately, under the gaze of the statue of Alison Lapper. But it fails to capture their engagement with their incidental audience. The camera is either too far away, or breaks concentration. There is some Derek Jarman influence as the camera attempts to draw the audience in, but the soundtrack is muffled and the overall effect is frustrating. This is mainly because the film fails to tell you what is happening. I liked the kaleidoscope images, thrown in as a further reference to the Hollywood choreographer, but the images seemed to be part of a different film altogether. My guess is that this was a spontaneous idea, that was a little too spontaneous.
Finally, the collection of digital prints were shown with reference to the artist Martin Kippenberger's style of placing lots of disparate images together on one wall. In terms of being confrontative, they put the rest of the show in context, but were possibly a bit too ephemeral. As someone who uses Photoshop in the course of my own work, for me they were a bit too much like Photoshop images, rather than Art. But, hey ho, you can't like everything. Overall, there was certainly enough here to do more than just fuel a discussion on disability equality and inclusion - one of Full Circle's key reasons for putting the Adjustments programme together.