Emma Haugh’s starting point is sex. Performing at the opening of ‘The Re-appropriation of Sensuality’, her exhibition at National College of Art and Design Gallery, in November, the artist narrated a particular disembodiment experienced while having sex: flashbacks to city spaces with which she is familiar, always exterior, always devoid of people.
This empty urban environment serves as a landscape for Haugh to explore how the body is grounded in – and the mind shaped by external systems and structures. She is aware of these, she says, as she walks through the gallery, treading the line of an illuminated, projected script of her performance, literally walking on words, ‘when [her] mind is shaken up through sexual intimacy’.
This exhibition is the culmination of a body of work that the artist has been developing since 2013 in a series of residencies, workshops, conversations and installations that aim to respond to the question: ‘How do we imagine a space dedicated to the manifestation of feminine desire?’
Taking up the clichés of femininity as fluid, soft and sensual, Haugh has created 12 banners using materials familiar from sex clubs: latex, fur, PVC, rubber, lamé, velvet and chains. These also speak of a grittier eroticism, hidden behind the doors of such clubs, which have their own clichés and commonplaces – leather and studs, blonde wigs and sequins – that are as much a construct, and a stereotype, as society’s historical definitions of ‘acceptable’ sexuality. ‘Maybe it’s the limitations and lack of imagination woven into this particular overarching aesthetic,’ Haugh muses, as she walks between the banners, ‘the pull of whatever it is we do when caught inside a continuous cultural compromise.’
Texts and images, each with an archival reference number, are pinned to the banners while at the base of some sit small blocks of concrete, whose weight and solidity opposes the mobile shifting screens. The concrete also links the unstable space created by the banners with the more permanent material of building, extending Haugh’s metaphor from the shifting psychological architectures of the mind to the social structures we inhabit.
‘The Re-appropriation of Sensuality’ is initially, and sometimes frustratingly, elusive and allusive: everything is a challenge or, perhaps more generously, an invitation to explore Haugh’s archive of research, texts and visual materials. These are present in the gallery and also online (at thereappropriation.tumblr.com). In a sense, the images and fragments on the banners are glimpses of a much wider project aimed at framing the questions concerning how to narrate and site female desire in a new way, in the hope of generating a new set of answers.
Thus Conversation #003, with the Born to Burn Theatre Company, ponders the role of the architectural environment in the construction of sexuality via the music of Pete Seeger. (The song is ‘Little Boxes’, 1963, misattributed in the transcript to Bob Dylan, but that’s the trick of memory for you.) And Workshop #003 shows the results of the artist ‘making autoerotic architecture together’ with artists Holly O’Brien and Aileen Murphy, producing sometimes fluid and sometimes constrained shapes using cheap materials including fabric, cardboard and tape.
As Haugh’s workshops and observations take us from the particular to the universal, the question becomes: How much do we all collude in the constraint of desire by subscribing to an agreed normal? Such standardization extends to queer sexuality, too: in another exhibition text, Haugh describes going to a sex party for women in Berlin, ‘housed in a small, sailor-themed bar in Friedrichshain usually, always otherwise, a regular venue for gay men’. ‘Why,’ she wonders, ‘in Berlin, the mecca of queer sexual exploration and urban spatial appropriation, were dykes using a space specifically designed for sex between men, on a Monday night?’
Haugh quotes writer Hakim Bey’s notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone as the most appropriate site for against-the-mainstream ways of thinking and being; and, yet, she counters this philosophy with the questions: Why can’t the ‘other’ occupy its own permanent space too? Why should it be temporary?
‘The Re-appropriation of Sensuality’ is that rare thing: a successful exhibition that relies heavily on written texts. Wandering through Haugh’s banners with their unsettling mix of attractive and repellent materials, the provocation to understand the systems that constrain us is both powerful and urgent.