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Mise-en-abîme, or, a story within a story | Naomi Evans

David M. Thomas’ exhibition at Boxcopy, an artist-lead project space in Brisbane, is titled A Party Disguised as Work or Work Disguised as a Party. A false floor splices the gallery on the horizontal into upper and lower registers, and Thomas uses this upstairs/downstairs arrangement to reify CBD Gallery, a project space that he ran in Sydney from 1993 to 2000. On street level was the gallery space, that housed a new show every week. 52 shows over 7 years = 364 exhibitions. Approximately? Andre Gide made famous the heraldic terminology of ‘placing into the abyss’ a picture within a picture when he struggles to define the manifestation of framed images within Las Meninas or theatrical productions that occur within plays like Hamlet, or novels within novels, as his own The Counterfeiters. He notes that these examples still fall short of the concept. It’s complicated.

Apollo. Dionysus. Janus.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche invokes concepts of ‘the Apollonian’ and ‘the Dionysian’ to discuss attributes of creative works. The Apollonian is equated with light, order and individuation, and the Dionysian with the primal, irrational, ephemeral. I like these ideas, and the way they get so easily embedded in texts that prescribe how to engage with art. When you use polarity or dichotomous positions, sliding scales of tendencies can be invoked. That makes interpretation seem much easier, less complicated, and like it can be adjusted to a right and important hinge point.

Apollo

The upper zone of CBD Gallery was what the public saw. Clean and boxlike, like Boxcopy.

Dionysus

Wilhelm Reich coined the term ‘orgone’ from the words ‘orgasm’ and ‘organism’ to describe a kind of energy he claimed to have discovered. In CBD Gallery’s subterranean basement, Thomas set up his studio, played in a band, and sometimes presented films and art. He describes this space as a sea-grass and hessian lined orgone box. It was a private working, socialising and contemplating space now made into a gallery itself.

I had a difficult idea for how to write a perfect essay for Thomas, but it was too clunky to complete. His exhibition titled A Party Disguised as a Work or Work Disguised as a Party could instead be alluded to by assembling Thomas’s own highly quotable ideas about his art. Each of these sound bytes would be indented to the right, and each one would function as an opening sentence. Like this:

Brisbane needs a contemporary art space.

David M. Thomas does not want to die alone.

Getting back to the ancient gods. An exhibition can be seen as a form of theatre, and David M. Thomas has made a particular ouevre out of tragedy, or more precisely, the tragicomic.

Janus

Janus is a two-faced god; one face looks back to the past, and one looks toward the future. He has a confused etymology, but I’m going with Ovid and Cicero, who use January’s namesake as symbolic of openings, doorways, beginnings and transitions. In the floor of his two-storey structure, Thomas has cut out circular holes that visitors to the exhibition can poke their heads through. This gives the opportunity for them to be in two places at once.

Whac-a-mole

This is the name of an arcade game I encountered at Manly wharf (Sydney), circa 1993 – the same year in which Thomas opened CBD Gallery. In the game, moles popped their heads up through holes cut through the box and the aim of the game is to bop them on the head with a mallet before they retreat. Only the number of whacks that actually connected were counted towards your final score. When looking up this game on Wikipedia, it offered a link to disambiguate the game with guacamole. It also lists that the ‘connotation of “Whac-a-mole” — or “Whack-a-mole” — in colloquial usage is that of a repetitious and futile task: each time an adversary is “whacked”, or kicked off a service, he only pops up again somewhere else.’

Eggvein

This is a band that David M. Thomas (in the band he is referred to as Dave Eggveinien) formed with his artist friend Magnus O Pus (Archie Moore) and now includes Rand M. Strange (Paul Wrigley) and Dwight Yokum (Geoff Vagg). Throughout the exhibition, Eggvein will perform their grinding psychedelic space rock, which may include their recently authored song ‘Suss Cunts’. This manifested out of a conversation at an art opening, where someone says ‘I haven’t seen him in twenty five years’ and the conversation continues, ‘Yeah, I always thought he was a suss cunt’.

Collaboration and reification

Now is a stage in the ouevre of David M. Thomas where he wants to work with people and include them in decisions about his work. His PhD has enabled him to explore the processes of his ouevre with an element of temporaral distance and in theoretical terms. Martin Kippenberger’s art practice exerts a certain heavy influence. Thomas’ own sets of works and series, say his ongoing Expanded portraits and collage processes are funnelled through sculpture, installation and videos that layer the artist’s scripts, quotation, acting, directing, performing, painting, talking, and theatre. To get other people to be involved in his art, with agency and results other than what he might have done on his own makes his art better he thinks. Working with his partner Suzanne Howard, he says, makes his art much better. For A Party Disguised as Work or Work Disguised as a Party, Thomas works with Brisbane artists Stephen Russell and Joseph Breikers.

Archaeology of a mythology.

Deidrich Deiderichsen writes, ‘Is radicalism actually nothing but a nostalgic and anachronistic gesture from Oedipal times?’ [from his essay ‘Radicalism as Ego Ideal: Oedipus and Narcissus’, e-flux journal #25, May 2011, shown to me by Thomas]. If we delve into psychological methodologies as a way to understand the complexity of art, could this re-creation of CBD Gallery – part memory, necessarily partly fictional, maybe narcissistic — be seen as a surrogate for the artist David M. Thomas.

I don’t like [the term] identity. I much prefer subjectivity.

What does it mean to reprise or repeat aspects of the past? Deiderichsen points to the psychology of contemporary artists that do not want to kill their fathers and essays the ‘possible implications for a critical production of an aesthetics of the present’. If we look at Thomas’s project not so much as a repetition but a refrain – in musical terms – then the traumatic aspects of the second manifestation of a past context are charged differently with significance. Rather than thinking of repetition as subjectivity arrested, the reification of CBD and the studio becomes that return to a chorus or melody, which also provides a platform for departure and improvisation. I mentioned Thomas plays in a band?

by Naomi Evans

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This essay was published for the exhibition A Party Disguised as Work or Work Disguised as a Party, new work by David M. Thomas with Joseph Breikers and Stephen Russell, 7 – 28 July 2012.

© Copyright 2012. Boxcopy and the writers and artists. Not to be reproduced without permission from Boxcopy.