Longing and Belonging
Director of Jerwood
(The Human Condition)
I first encountered The Human Condition in image form, on a computer screen. I turned individual pages, as you have done, to reveal each single object, separating one image from the next. I found myself looking for a story, for a sense of narrative and progression that works in series suggest. There were moments of surprise as I turned each page.
I next encountered The Human Condition in physical form, laid across the table of Jonathan’s studio. That sense of narrative changed and its sculptural qualities became a focus. They were individual objects, but also a whole bigger than the sum of their parts.
My response to the work changed fairly dramatically from the first encounter to the second. I asked myself three things. What do these objects mean to Jonathan? What do these objects mean culturally? What do these objects mean to me?
In his work, Jonathan isn’t interested in dictating or explaining – each piece is a proposition not an absolute. He certainly doesn’t want me to tell you what you ought to think about this piece. Rather, our personal meaning is as important to him as his is.
Although Jonathan’s work might seem on the surface quite contained and concise, I’d say it’s actually deeply personal, and deeply revealing about Jonathan the person – if that’s at all different from Jonathan the artist. He has collected each ring here. Several pieces of jewellery belong to the significant women in his life: his girlfriend, his mother. The cock rings have been bought for this piece. Jonathan talks about The Human Condition with a sense of yin and yang – as a journey along some kind of trajectory from female to male, light to dark – and in doing so he ascribes certain values to either side of these proposed oppositional pairings which are specific to his personal, and cultural, experiences; and these are therefore naturally quite different from mine. Jonathan’s journey along this scale travels from a sketching of innocence to what he describes as the ‘dark side of our psyche’. He is exploring morality, perhaps, from a source in ‘morally strong’ to an end in ‘morally wrong’. Both ends of the scale represent ideas of power, and of control. The circularity inherent in the objects themselves is broken by the beginning and ending-ness of their presentation. The impact of sequence upon narrative and the relationship of each object to the next is paramount for him; as is their objecthood; as is maintaining that space for wriggle-room for you and me, for our interpretation within the myriad cultural meanings that sit and shift over the work.
I don’t feel the same way about quite a lot of this.
Responding to the work revealed several things about my position, and in writing about them I could reveal several things to you. I am female, I would consider myself a feminist and I am gay. Usually these things might not be any of your business but here they’re important to how I read The Human Condition.
My literal journey through the series of rings began by considering different kinds of value. These objects begin with the ephemeral, with the fakery of some kind of glamour. They come from fairground arcade, they are children’s toys. Make believe. Play. They are the opposite of eternity, their materials are not defined as precious to us. Some make a beautiful image, but the objects are not crafted. Further in, they progress to the fashionable and to friendship, and then the objects seem to grow up. They become ‘real’. What does this mean? They become the thing the earlier versions ape; they signify and they have significance. Both their meaning and their material is ascribed value. They gain emotional value. They gain many associations. They bond.
And then I became confused, moving as I was from the delicate and jewel-encrusted to the coloured rounds of rubber or plastic which appeared next in sequence. What were these? It took me as much as seven or eight images to realise. This potential period of not knowing what you’re looking at doesn't necessarily exist when you see the work physically, when you view the objects at once and all together. Although the installation is the work proper, setting forth their collective objecthood, it’s so right that it exists in book form too. I found here a small space of transition and revelation.
I am a bit nonplussed by my relationship to these objects; what do I know about cock rings, culturally or personally? Not a lot. What do they mean to me? Other. Sexual. Sexuality. They mean maleness but partnership too; perversion to some and pleasure to others. Something very different happens with scale between the object and its printed image; they are far more substantial in physical form than I’d expected; they are bigger, heavier. They also have more variation; their material also moves from pliable to rigid, rubber to metal to leather.
This collection of objects clearly moves along one scale, from public to private. Rings have been used publicly to adorn, to confer authority, to bind and to declare. They have been a symbol of religious or political position for men, and a signal of ownership for or of women. The trinkets we begin with here stem from an old power in the use of the ring in engagement and matrimony, or as a pledge. Rings announced ownership, literally contracting the passing of a woman from her father to her husband’s possession, only later beginning to represent emotion or the promise of love and trust. Still now they make a particular announcement to the world regarding what you have or have not.
Cock rings are what I would consider quite honest objects in comparison. They exist to arouse, to maintain, to physically control, to enhance, to decorate, perhaps to dominate. Yes, if you interrogate it, they exist to maintain a form of power, the male erection. And they are an object of choice. Actually to me they’re quite exciting; erotically charged, again honest and also concerning a sense of play, full circle. If we find them illicit, that’s as a result of cultural custom rather than of law. For the artist I think they represent a battle for and against the things you can’t control – and in their very purpose they are about negotiating this control. But perhaps I don’t take them here as the most morally problematic items – I’m inverting this particular scale. I find the struggle for control and a balance of power far more exposed in the roots of ring giving, and for me the disturbance of this series is located in the early pieces – where children might play at being grown up and we might hand on our flawed cultural expectations.
Of course on reflection this journey and my thoughts are full of contradictions. It was only later in my consideration of our human condition that I came back to rings more sentimentally: to the idea that I might wear a ring not only liberated for its decorative purpose but as a sign of celebratory pride in my connection with another human being. I guess I was being quite stubborn.
Will You Marry Me?
(The Human Condition)
I’d intended to go down on one knee, but bumbled it at the last moment – we were in Sardinia, at her sister’s; outside of the toilet on the landing. I’d started to go down on one knee, outside the toilet door as soon as I’d heard her flush the chain. Unfortunately she opened the door and I lost my balance a bit, so I was in a kind of crouching position when I asked her to marry me. She cried – she cried with happiness and surprise, I know that. She didn’t cry in pain or anything.
In The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien we are presented with a fantasy about a fellowship of individuals from Middle Earth who are on a quest to overcome the rise of the dark forces in the land of Mordor in the East, led by the disembodied power of Dark Lord Sauron. To fulfil their quest, the fellowship has to meet the enemy in battle and to place a great ring of power, in a volcano, in the enemy’s territory, which will drain them of all their strength.
We went back upstairs and announced our news to the other guests – it was bad timing by me really ‘cos it was actually the birthday night of one of the guests, so I fucked up his birthday party by turning it into an engagement party. I didn’t mean to, I timed it carefully, I thought anyway – I waited until his party was dying down a bit – just after midnight (so it wasn’t even his birthday anymore anyway, technically) – then I followed her downstairs from the roof terrace, you know a few steps behind... and waited outside the toilet.
Through great travail and great courage the mission is accomplished in the end. In the battlefield the forces of the good are about to be annihilated when Frodo and Sam bring the ring to the crack of Mt. Doom. The forces of Mordor abandon the battlefield and the dark power in the East is destroyed. Aragorn, a member of the fellowship, becomes king of men.
Anyway – back upstairs everyone was really excited by our news... there were a few tears – mainly from her sister, and maybe the bloke whose party had just been cancelled. I could see that she was so happy, and I genuinely love to see her happy – she has the most beautiful smile. She showed off the ring, everyone said it was beautiful... and it was.
It is a story of good and evil, and anyone and everyone sees it that way. Still we can go further for related or deeper truths. One is that the races of Middle Earth were vulnerable because they were not united: each race pulled in its own direction, or had hostile feelings to others. We see that the Great Enemy forced them to come together, to work together to overcome the Evil.
I’d bought the ring only three days earlier – I’d once overheard her saying to a friend ‘I would never marry a man who got me an engagement ring for less than fifteen hundred pounds... I mean even that’s cheap, but it is the bottom line, they should really cost at least five thousand’. With this in mind I’d gone out looking for a fifteen hundred quid engagement ring. It was easy to find one – her mate Ali is a jeweller.
When we got home from the holiday – we called everyone or everyone called us ‘When you getting married then? – Are we invited? – You old romantic!’ and all that. We said, ‘We'll get married next year, we need to save up, we want to do it properly’.
This was about five years ago – we could never agree on the nature of the wedding – I mean, I have this massive family from up north and she has a small family from London – hers are all polite, funny, educated and interesting – and mine aren't – so there was always gonna be a problem.
Thus, the Evil was the great force that enabled them to overcome thousands of years of disharmony, turning it into the first degree of an essential unity. Evil was the cause, the enabler of their progress and evolution.
About two years ago we were burgled – the ring was stolen – luckily she got the money back from the insurance... though she never bought another ring, she just kept the cash. When times are tough or we need money to do something on the house – she says ‘But can't you just give me one or two thousand to sort the boiler out?’ – I say ‘Use the fucking insurance money from your engagement ring!’... then she storms off.
We're still engaged, I think. We are still bound together by the absent ring.
We can, of course, see this paralleling the situation in Europe today, where unity was forged as a result of events of World War II and the Evil of fascism. Such things as the forming of the United Nations, the creation of a common European currency, and the European Union, would not have come into being without the negative events of World War II.
Given ½ a Chance Rings Do Roll
(The Human Condition)
Jonathan Ellery – A Partial View
Dr Jules Wright
(Ellery’s Theory of Neo-conservative Creationism)
“You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. What is fascinating now is that it's going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.” Francis Bacon.
When I looked at Jonathan Ellery looking back at me I saw a hint of nervousness about the eyes, which revealed a feeling that he might be challenged – about his new exhibition, his performance piece, Constance, about his attitude to sex and women, his use of difficult images and his ability to take responsibility for using them. And so we proceeded – which game was Ellery playing I wondered.
Was he, like Helmut Newton, unprepared to reveal what made him tick? Would he side step questions? Not own up to the powerful role he played in relation to the work he made? Not admit that Constance, in which a young woman carefully undressed in front of an audience and then dressed again, slowly, precisely, in an orderly progression, exactly as directed by Ellery was an exercise in power?
Ellery talks remotely of his work. He appears to be detached, removed and distanced from it. He describes himself as an observer, watching the audience respond. This doesn’t ring true. This seems like a game. So how does one get inside where he is really coming from? It’s not easy. He doesn’t give much away until we begin to talk about the performance of Constance, “She was entirely my creation. Everything. From the clothes she wore and the colours she chose down to her shaved pussy.” A work that Ellery determined had a life in a gallery, in a book and in another format in a soft porn magazine; art and commerce. What struck me about Constance was that it was an exercise in control, a performance which left nothing to chance, an event dictated by a puppeteer. What makes the work interesting in retrospect is Ellery’s role, not the performance.
So is Ellery’s art the expression of a fetish? Must it always be a process which is controlled – in the case of his brass works, industrial technology is bent to his will, to make his mark, and if the brasses don’t meet his exacting standard, they are rejected? Is it always an exercise in technical perfection, whether it is complete domination over the sequencing of a woman stripping or the total control of a line as it is machined into brass? Is it the illusion of controlling something pure – brass – woman? Is Ellery making a mark in different ways – the machines scratching and scarring the brass – in order to achieve something over which he holds total sway? As he manipulates the surface of the brass, so he controlled the shaving of the pubic hair from the body of his performer. In both there is the attention to finish, to precision, to detail but also to restraint, oppression and the need to keep in check.
Of his new work, Ellery’s Theory of Neo-conservative Creationism, he writes: “The Neo-conservatives aren’t very keen on the Big Bang scientists, the Big Bang scientists aren’t very keen on the Creationists, the Creationists aren’t very keen on Darwin, Darwin’s not too happy with the Catholics and the Catholics don’t seem to be too happy with anyone.” All of which may or may not be true, but does this take us to the heart of the work. I don’t think so. When pressed to say what the 16 brasses add up to, Ellery says, “This is where I stand at this point in time and time is important. I use brass because it has longevity and I want to leave something behind.” Which is about as simple and as deep and as honest as any artist can be? Political and provocative, Ellery’s work is above all else personal. So as an audience we must challenge him with his decision to show a ‘crosstika’ and juxtapose it with a brass inscribed with the words “Mike Goldberg saying goodnight until the next time.” Or the cheese grater in all it's brittle ugliness, set, Araki-like, against a crude and obvious image of a woman’s genitals, a blackbird dominating the sky, perhaps over Iraq, with the light touch of Jasmine and a wispy blossom as a delicate counterpoint. We will make of this collection of works what we can from our own perspectives, but in contemplating each one, we make something of what drives this artist to put this work in front of us now. Revealing it is. A game it is not.