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CAN INTIMACY BE VIOLENT? MATHEW WAYNE PARKIN'S 'I CAN FIT A FIST IN MY MOUTH' AT CUBITT GALLERY

To describe, to record, to make a film about intimacy, to insert one’s fist into a lover’s mouth; the maze Parkin’s exhibition invites us into is precisely one made of these acts of entangled violence and tenderness. writes Cindy Ziyun Huang.


Installation images courtesy of Cubitt Gallery/Kadeem Oak and Benjamin Deakin


Three pairs of green plastic chairs puzzle those who attempt to take a seat in Mathew Wayne Parkin’s solo exhibition at Cubitt Gallery, I can fit a fist in my mouth. Fastened tightly together by cable ties attached to their skinny black legs, the chairs of each pair face opposite directions. These tête-à-tête loveseats seem to suggest that, much as love is about bond and closeness, it’s also about confinement, wariness, and unease. Love is about sitting right next to each other – arms touching, breaths audible – but having to face away. 


Parkin’s exhibition takes us into the maze of intimacy. Alongside the chairs, the exhibition comprises a short film and an odd bunch of objects, including wire-rope barriers, padlocks, keyrings, a few words written on a piece of lined paper, a drawing, and an inkjet print of what looks like bulked-up Donald Duck and Daffy Duck kissing. Upon entry, visitors first encounter this miscellaneous group of objects. On the right, a makeshift partition separates the gallery into two parts. The loveseats stand between two identical screens that stare at each other – one carried by the partition and one on the opposite wall. The film, under the same title as the exhibition, plays simultaneously on both screens. Wrapped in subdued orange light, the gallery feels like the inside of a body. 


Installation images courtesy of Cubitt Gallery/Kadeem Oak and Benjamin Deakin


The film allows a few glimpses of various private spaces and intimate moments, piecing together video clips from personal archives of the artist and those close to them. However, our visual access is also denied at times. The footage is interspersed by moments when the screens become completely black. During those momentary blackouts of varying lengths, we are left with only different voices describing the footage not shown on screen. The withdrawal of the visual frustrates voyeuristic eyes. The audio-description diligently recounts what goes on in the hidden footage, yet instead of compensating for the absence of images, the bland and occasionally hasty voices only lay it bare. Accentuating the impossibility to see and to know everything, Parkin’s film, then, asks to what extent the viewer should be allowed to access – and the artist to represent – private stories and affects under the auspices of art.


This interplay of the visible and the concealed recurs in the exhibition, drawing attention to unstable boundaries. In the film, we see a gigantic windmill cloaked in a thick veil of fog, blinking lights blurred and haloed by a frosted glass panel, and the pink sky at sunset obscured behind a dusty car window. We are also confronted by more explicit representation of bodies enduring, or enjoying, violation of their boundaries, for example, footage of a fist being inserted into a mouth, or audio-description of two men sparring in a boxing ring. The vulnerability and futility of boundaries find physical manifestation in the wire-rope barriers placed in the centre of the gallery. These barriers may temporarily obstruct visitors but are unable to truly stop any trespassing. Weighted down by a handful of love locks and keyrings, they seem to be burdened and confused by the paradox of love, control, anxiety, and tender promises.


Installation images courtesy of Cindy Ziiyun Huang & Cubitt Gallery/Kadeem Oak and Benjamin Deakin


Parkin raises questions about violence in intersubjective intimacy. Tellingly, their film begins with a close-up of someone’s lips glistening as they sing along to Alice Deejay’s 1999 Eurodance hit Better Off Alone, and ends when the camera forces its way into a moist, soft orifice of a body.  While the film captures intimate scenes – a pair of feet resting on a daybed, toothbrushes in a shared bathroom, a damp forearm caressed by beachside sunlight – it pricks us with sharp moments when the violence and power dynamic inherent in such intimacy are revealed. “When did you film this?” we hear a man asks as he watches the footage of himself in sleep. Sounding amused and baffled at once, he laughs it off (“Creep [laughs]”), but we become alarmed by the undertone of intrusion and deception. 


The ethical ambiguity involved in art and love reveals itself further as the film unfolds. “I’m recording this,” “Are you taking a video?” “You filming already?” – conversations between those taking videos and those being recorded remind us that artmaking in itself is an act of negotiating violation and preservation. In the film, moments of affection and closeness are described so meticulously, to the point where it almost feels uncomfortably coercive and intrusive. On top of the audio describers’ voices, subtitles give names to even the most abstract ambient sounds in the film’s soundtrack. In addition, in the fully audio-described version of the film, another voice fills us in on everything contained by the footage. The obsessive describing heightens the tension that simmers between the describing subjects – the ones who speak – and the described others – the ones who are spoken for. To describe, to record, to make a film about intimacy, to insert one’s fist into a lover’s mouth – the maze Parkin’s exhibition invites us into is precisely one made of these acts of entangled violence and tenderness.


 

Cindy Ziyun Huang is a London-based writer, editor and translator. Her writings about art have been published by art magazines including ArtReview. Her creative writings can be found in literary magazines such as Sine Theta Magazine and Tiny Molecules. She co-edits Qilu Criticism, an independent online forum formed in 2021 to expand spaces for critical discussions on contemporary art in Chinese. 


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