DOUGLAS MCMANUS: LAUNDRY OF THE TERMINAL PSYCHE

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche, Dark Mofo 2015, Rosny Barn Hobart. 10–28 June.

One of my earliest memories of Douglas McManus is of him striding through the university halls looking much like a Scottish warrior sporting a shaved head, a beard (before it was fashionable), facial piercings, tattoos and the most fabulous kilt with long socks and biker boots. Even then he wore his queer masculinity with panache and wit. His early works reflected this sense of hybridity along with an historical sensitivity that saw him creating exquisite works from men’s handkerchiefs and ties. In recent years McManus has explored masculine sexuality through experimental textile techniques and digital technologies resulting in sculptural interactive installations and three-dimensional fabrication. This is complemented by photographic interventions, montage and printmaking that further investigate the tension between perceptions of societal hetero-normative masculine ‘action’ and the deeper masculine ‘psyche’, where the male body goes to battle against conjured zombie gimps in the midst of a mysterious Tasmanian forest.

Douglas McManus: Last Stand of the Ursine Clan 2015

For Laundry of the Terminal Psyche, McManus has created an interactive installation in Hobart’s historic Rosny Barn, in which the viewer is physically immersed in the deep recesses of the masculine psyche. This is a work that challenges preconceptions of masculinity; it tears at the flesh to reveal the fragility of the body that, despite the depiction of hunky men bearing weapons, it simultaneously reveals that body as subject to wounds, deterioration and demise. Somewhere between these two manifestations of physicality lies the male psyche camouflaged for survival. The body as a site for desire, for pain and for difference is at play here, each revealing the fragility of the flesh as open to physical and psychological wounds.[1]

On entering the space the viewer is faced with a hoard of men bearing axes, sledgehammers, chainsaws and firearms. The target of their violence being mythical, digitally enhanced zombie gimps that enter from the edges of the scene. On the left, a fierce warrior lies mortally wounded, another is anxiously curled up in a laundry basket and bearded fellows armed with weapons chase an attacker from the picture frame. The scene conjures up numerous b-grade films where humanity is at risk from alien invaders and yet is saved at the last moment by a bloke with a rusty knife. But unlike these filmic renditions of hetero-masculine heroism, McManus’ rendition reveals men with their pants down and as everyone knows you have to wear pants if you want to fight evil.[2] This enormous panoramic view can be read not only from left to right but also from the surface to the dark depths of the image. For a start, it is an environmental nightmare with numerous deer having met their demise evidenced by the discarded antlers; a crashed car, clothing and household items are scattered across the landscape while a hoard of zombies exit the deep recesses of the dark forest marching toward us. Meanwhile, several figures seem apathetic or lost in the scene with their naked forms marking them as Other and as vulnerable. At the very centre and positioned at the extreme edge of the image is a man dressed only in a jacket of leaves, as if, like the mythological Green Man depicted in Kingsley Amis’ novel, he has left the forest to chase his prey.[3] But this Green Man figure is melancholic, displaced and inactive with his acanthus covering failing to protect him from our gaze.[4] This dichotomy of man as defender and man as fragile is in unison with the life forces of the forest as both protector and protected.

Last Stand of the Ursine Clan is transparent (and can be read in the reverse) and through this work can be seen further leaf-like forms titled Flourish and Damage, and in the centre, Psyche is found surrounded by a Jungle Skull Vine. Looking back through these works to Last Stand of the Ursine Clan the viewer experiences the layers of texture, movement and shadow that cast a mysterious scene against the huge panorama of men and zombies. Here in the epicentre of the work the Psyche is in torment, its form is blackened like a cancerous cell and its fragility is clearly defined in the leafy limbs. It is surrounded by a jungle vine of skulls that figure mortality and draw upon the arch aesthetic of British designer Alexander McQueen. Both Flourish and Damage are three-dimensional works, intricately fabricated as Gothic renditions of bodily organs, and mounted on a dark polished surface in which the spectator is captured in reflection, becoming part of the interior psyche. These tactile central works are all sound activated and respond to the visitor in the exploration of the space in which the masculine psyche is constantly at war with itself and the body is subject to neurological disarray.

Conversation of Gentlemen also employs sound in an interactive sculptural installation of two historically inspired gentlemen's garments created from laser engraved and digitally printed microfibre. The ‘figures’ are physically and visually connected by sound activated electro-luminescent wire and micro speakers embedded in the garments that respond to the interaction of the audience as they circumnavigate the work. As the visitor encounters the Gentlemen, the connecting wire transmits a glowing cascade of colour between them. An intimate conversation commences with projected voice and ambient sound that adds to the conception of the psyche as a playground for subtle nuances, for introspection, for memories. The Gentlemen are reminiscent of the ambiguous Wildean Dandy with their shocking wit, always in need of an audience to display their charm and otherness.[5]

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche presents the dichotomy of masculinity through contrasts of the vigorous body and one that is flawed. The queer body is already marked as different and like discarded laundry it is seen as being soiled but also as being dangerous. The rampantly violent and visually explosive romp of the zombie battle is countered by the interplay of several images of men as contemplative, broody, melancholic, damaged and erased. There is nothing reparative about these pictures that place the masculine body in states of solitude, of internal anxiety or external danger. The damage cannot be undone. In the series Momentary Erasure, the tightly contained and cropped figures merge into the fabric of the canvas, camouflaged by the textural markings of the flora that one sees repeated throughout the installation. They have become part of the internal depths of the psyche, they look inward, and the tension between immersion and exclusion becomes palpable in front of these works.

The semiological play of the exhibition title alludes to key elements of this exhibition. Each word can be deciphered in multiple ways allowing for a fissure in meaning that leaves interpretation floating between the elements. While laundry is discarded into a pile at one end of the installation, it waits in vain for the remediating actions of washing, cleaning, and the erasure of stains and corporeal traces of skin, blood or semen. The function of the stain, according to Lacan, “is recognised in its autonomy and identified with that of the gaze, we can seek its track, its thread, its trace, at every stage of the constitution of the world, in the scopic field.”[6] The stain here is written on the body through the terminal marking of the flesh as damaged, as deteriorating, and as Other. Its trace can be found through the representation of the body in the margin between saviour and victim, between warrior and survivor. The gaze of the male figure in Stain is, like the other renditions of maleness in this work—internalised—it is not directed at us. This work, which counters its opposite entitled Burnt, is evocatively internal, intimate and shrouded in a cacophony of blackness, of texture and melancholic darkness. In contrast the figure in Burnt, strides into the dark expanses of the image, into the depth of the psyche with his head alight with a burning flame, concealing his identity. The violence in this work is conspicuous – it forms a stain across the surface, marking a dark space of domination, of singularity, despair and of strange determination.[7]

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche is both overtly and subtly transgressive. The men depicted here in their flannel shirts, jeans and beards fighting off alien creatures are overtly masculine and are here to save the day. But as their discarded laundry reveals, underneath that macho exterior are black translucent underwear. Beyond the surface of the skin, male flesh is subject to bruising, wounding; the organs, bones, nerves, flesh and sexuality are exposed to damage, deterioration, violence and death, but also love.[8] McManus depicts masculinity as contradictory with its public exteriority of bravura and private interiority of vulnerability, battling alien invaders one minute and contemplative solitude the next. From macho men, soft textural organs and hard fetish underwear, to exquisitely manufactured sound activated organs, McManus takes us deep into the male psyche where we too become part of the dialogue.

Donna West Brett, May 2015

Conversation of Gentlemen 2015, features in the group exhibition, Electric Craft at CRAFT, 21 August–3 October 2015 during the National Craft Conference organised by the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Craft Initiative.

[1] For a discussion on masculinity and anxiety see Calvin Thomas, Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1996.

[2] In Mystery Men (1999), ‘The Bowler’, played by Janeane Garofalo tells her naked compatriot ‘Invisible Boy’ that “Maybe you should put some shorts on or something, if you want to keep fighting evil today.”

[3] Kingsley Amis, The Green Man, 1969.

[4] Commonly, the Green Man is made from fig, oak, vine or acanthus leaves.

[5] On the Dandy and Oscar Wilde, see Edouard Roditi, Oscar Wilde, New Directions Publishing, New York, 1947.

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 2004, 74.

[7] For a discussion on the stain see George Baker, ‘The Space of the Stain’, Grey Room 5 (Autumn, 2001): 5-37.

[8] On wounding see Mark Seltzer, ‘Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere’, October 80 (1997): 3-26 and Amelia Jones, ‘Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning’, Parallax 15 (2009): 45-67.