Neither Here nor There, Kristen Carter on my work in As Seen Here
If form is unequivocally bound by the demarcation of space through measurement, how can the body “materialize” within the space of representation? If it manifests within an illustrative process by which carnality becomes a mark, or sign—the incommensurable made measurable—then how is the body brought forth? Through trace? Through absence?
Beset by such questions and concerned with corporeality, displacement and subjectivity, Tristan Sober-Blodgett’s work interrogates the rapport between materiality, the body and language. Working in a variety of media (including printmaking, ink on paper, body works and installation), Sober-Blodgett foregrounds his incessant struggle with a desire to be legible without wholly surrendering to the violation of language. According to the artist, “language does violence to material;” by attaching language to bodies it flattens and abstracts materiality into legible, readable objects. This notion recalls Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation; for him, it is language that compels recognition and “initiates the individual into the subjected status of the subject.” By responding to an interpolating call (“Hey, you!”), the subject turns around in reply (“You mean me?”). Through this process body and identity blur—our selves are made intelligible and positioned so as to be read and understood. Thus the artist’s desire to be legible calls attention to how language, understood as a controlled “readymade” system, is violently imposed onto bodies—language mediating, ordering and transforming illegible materiality into decipherable identity. What’s at stake for Sober-Blodgett then is how the desecrating burden of language imposed upon the body renders subjectivity.
In heeding his desire to remain legible without relinquishing too much agency, Sober-Blodgett seeks comfort in displacement—in that which is neither here nor there. His work plays with shifters: signs that relentlessly slide in and out from under an absolute signifier. For example, the “us” and “ourselves” read within Sober-Blodgett’s mounted text piece, Self-titled Text (Parody) (2013) calls the Cartesian subject into question: The “I” or “us” and “we,” read as indeterminate and inevitably in flux, are situated within a relational matrix of subject formation. The unfixed shifters here oscillate between resistance and submission as they unravel and defy language’s foreboding authority while simultaneously acquiescing to its interpolating call.
Burdened by this discord, Sober-Blodgett sets up a controlled situation in which the viewer is caught somewhere between disarticulation and total submission to language. The viewer is left to decipher and negotiate his or her position within a process where the unintelligible may become legible. In so doing, he demands his viewers to move, explore and look until eventually they find what he had them searching for. While searching, the viewer is temporarily displaced and their subjectivity compromised. Throughout this process control and power waver between object and subject—between the work’s looming presence and the viewer’s threatening determinacy.
Then slowly, or perhaps all at once, form appears as illegibility recedes. The viewer stands fixated and knowingly situated—liminality now ballasted by form’s vanquishing presence.
Such is “seen” in Aye Aye (2013). Here Sober-Blodgett outlines a pair of columns directly onto the gallery wall, thereby scarring and forever imposing his mark (and unofficially inserts himself into the Belkin’s “permanent collection”). The artist’s demarcations waver between drawing and incision—his trace thus ambiguously mediated. The forms themselves play a game of rabbit/duck as they slide in and out of recognition; perhaps two columns, two shifter signs “I,” or a pair of open/closed brackets, the forms assiduously undermine each other. As the artist puts legibility in jeopardy, so too is our subject position. While we search for answers and concrete forms we submit to language’s abstracting authority. In grappling with this notion, the artist explores that which is not recognized or hailed by language—form neither here nor there.
Sober-Blodgett understands equivocation functioning as an ambiguous reply to an interpolating call. (A notion wittingly underscored by the work’s affirmative title: “Aye, Aye.”) For the artist, the shifter sign “I,” as a site of insertion is significant when considering the constitution of the subject. According to Judith Butler, and also recalling Sober-Blodgett’s text piece, thinking through this “I,” which is rendered through the identification and self-inflicted consent to the hailer’s call, reveals “a constitutive ambivalence of being socially constituted, where ‘constitution’ carries both the enabling and the violating sense of ‘subjection’.” “I am what you think I am” becomes “I am what I think I am,” and so on…
Moreover, the two “I’s” double as a pair of empty/closed brackets. As an idiom of specified categorization brackets exclude, contain and label. Yet as a site of authorial insertion, they grant agency, often rupturing, clarifying or manipulating carefully constructed prose. Here, as a grammatical tool aiding placement and displacement, the brackets become both the exception and the rule. Thus like the “I,” the brackets function equivocally—violating while enabling.
In this sense, the empty brackets emblematically function as both trace and absence. Signifying endless potentials, they also indicate what is not yet said—what is to be determined. The empty brackets thus always liminal while at the same time always at risk of being prescribed. This creates a kind of pictorial and conceptual play that fixes, brackets and perhaps parodies the subject, while at the same time allowing the viewer to delineate those spaces into representation.
As the viewer moves back and forth from the wall, seeing it from various vantage points, the marks transform from illegible potentials to legible forms that quite literally envelope, bracket, even embrace its subject. Considering this, how do we re-visit our initial question? How can the body locate agency within the space of representation, of language? Perhaps for Sober-Blodgett the question isn’t only how, but where?
PhD, Art History, Visual Art and Theory
University of British Columbia