Rebecca

I-20 is pleased to present Kristian Burford’s third exhibition at the gallery, “Rebecca.”  The sculpture, a one-room installation of mixed media, will be installed for three weeks beginning January 25. Michael Newall, a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, wrote the following essay about this work:

Kristian Burford’s work attracts attention in a range of ways: certainly in his choice of hyperreal sculptural technique and the detailed construction of environments to house his figures, so too in the centrality of text-based narratives (the full titles being short stories in themselves), and perhaps most of all in the situations in which his characters are presented. Put most bleakly, Rebecca, the protagonist in this installation, is quadriplegic, depressed – or so we might well infer from the title – and has manipulated her young nieces into assisting her in a performance that is hard not to at some level understand as masochistic. We might ask many questions of this work: about the technique, the titling, the subject matter – but I think many of these can be condensed into a single question: what is the value of a work that presents such apparently disagreeable subject matter in such visual and textual detail?

I’m sure a range of responses could be given to this question, but I would start to answer it by pointing out that despite some superficial similarities, it is utterly unlike Marc Quinn’s essentially trite Alison Lapper Pregnant, currently on show in Trafalgar Square in London, which monumentalizes the nude body of a real disabled woman to make what is ultimately an affirmative political point. Burford’s subject is fictional, is not about disability qua disability, and does nothing to econstitute this subject matter as a positive political message. So what does it do? Entering Burford’s fiction in the way that his technique and text encourage us, we find an individual deprived almost entirely of her physical and social autonomy, but nevertheless exercising her will: she makes her body a sort of doll, miming codes of art (ballet) and sexuality, and so makes of herself something apparently horrible, uncanny even, and prepares to present herself to her parents and sister in this guise. At the end of the story relayed in the title we are told that Rebecca contemplates her situation, as she awaits her family, with “satisfying indifference”. There is, we might think, little for her to be satisfied with here, beyond the questionable, if real, pleasures of sadism and masochism.

But there are other ways to think of this. Immanuel Kant had it that we only get a full appreciation of the freedom of the will when we consider our ability to act in the face of the greatest physical dangers: For Kant, this appreciation was conveyed in the experience of the sublime: a double-edged feeling incorporating both “pain” and “emotional satisfaction”. We could tell a parallel story about Rebecca: She exercises her will in a way that shows its independence from physical and social strictures, and we can find a parallel between Kant’s emotional satisfaction and Rebecca’s “satisfying indifference” to her situation. This idea is intersected by another, more mundane one. Teaching a class in aesthetics on the topic of disgust recently, I was trying to draw out from the students some thoughts about the value of disgust in contemporary art – discussion had stalled, so I asked the students, mostly 19 and 20 year-olds, about moments when they themselves had acted in ways they knew others would find disgusting. On this they were quite clear: whether speaking from within or without a sub-cultural context, they saw it as an assertion of freedom. To have an intuition that we are essentially free, for Kant, is to have an insight into our fundamental nature as human beings. My students reminded me that we need not come by such intuitions in lofty circumstances.

The same might be said of Rebecca. If anything, her phenomenology is more complex than that described by Kant or my students. Her miming of the codes of art and sexuality makes her appearance coincide, we may say, with her desire, if only momentarily. This is, as I have said, likely to appear uncanny and repulsive. But it is here that an intimation of freedom also occurs, conveyed in a fantasy of escape from her particular physical and social bounds. If there is something real and valuable in this momentary insight – the same moment, significantly, that Burford suspends in his work – it would be less real, it would lose its reality even, if one were to lose sight of Rebecca’s terrible situation. And as his narrative makes clear, Rebecca herself waits for this moment – suspended indefinitely in Burford’s work – to pass.

Kristian Burford was born in Waikerie, Australia in 1975.  He is a graduate of the University of South Australia, and received his MFA at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles.  His work was shown in ”The Uncanny,” curated by Mike Kelly, at the Tate Liverpool and the Museum Moderner Kunst Vienna; “New York Calling” at PS1 Contemporary Art Center; and “Morbid Curiosity,” at ACME, Los Angeles and I-20 and featuring the work of Tom Allen, Jullian Hoeber and J.P. Munro.  “Rebecca” was shown in 2006 at The Happy Lion, Los Angeles.  Burford lives and works in Los Angeles and Adelaide, Australia.