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Goffman, Sarah - 2018.66 by Andrew Curtis

Sarah Goffman

I Am with You 2017
permanent marker on cardboard
700 x 700 cm (approx)
Purchased 2018

Sarah Goffman’s I Am with You comprises nearly 200 meticulously hand-drawn texts on pieces of clean, brown cardboard.[1] The words are reproduced from the hand-made protest placards held during the ‘2 Million Women’ marches that took place around the world after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016. Goffman describes these slogans as ‘the people’s poetry’,[2] and her carefully transcribed signs overlap each other to form a critical mass of voices, seven metres tall by seven metres wide on the gallery wall.

Goffman’s sculpture, installation and performance works often use irreverent humour to disarm the viewer, to encourage them to consider alternative stories and to create empathy. Irreverence is a lack of respect for something or someone usually taken seriously, such as the forty-fifth President of the United States. It is a political tactic used to fight social injustice, and is enthusiastically employed in the carnivalesque atmosphere of a protest rally. Many of the signs appropriated by Goffman demonstrate this: ‘First they came for the Muslims and we said not this time motherfucker’, is a good example. The slogan references Martin Niemöller’s well-known post-Holocaust poem about the danger of apathy, and it answers its tragic ending with a rude and defiant retort that affirms Niemöller’s political message.

Academic Valerie Chepp describes how irreverence, as a cultural and political strategy, fits within a binary system of Western privilege. Value is assigned to high or low culture – so that ‘high’ culture is honourable and ‘low’ culture indecent – and cultural producers and consumers follow this structure to gain or subvert legitimacy.[3] She argues that ‘scholars have historically understood respectability and irreverence as opposing concepts when, in actuality, respectability and irreverence are always engaged in a recursive relationship, each continuously shaping the meaning of the other.’[4] Goffman’s I Am with You participates in this. In her work, signs of irreverence (protest marches, rude language, found materials), respectability (museum collections, gallery spaces) and reverence (equality, discipline) intersect with one another and forge space for political action.

Goffman describes how she selected and edited the protest signs, omitting those that she didn’t like and correcting the spelling and grammar of others. She painstakingly copied their words into ‘a base of demands and style’[5] on cardboard. In her installation of the signs en masse, no one piece has precedence over another; in a gesture of equality, the texts fit on whatever sized card they happen to be on. The artist also allows for the work be edited for different wall sizes and spaces, adding another layer of democracy. Goffman describes her process as, ‘enacting a copying of the [Buddhist] sutras’ in her own way.[6] In a disciplined gesture of devotion to the words of her activist peers, she creates a dignified political gesture through empathy and action, which reaffirms the key feminist principles of equality, diversity and collaboration.

Elise Routledge is a Curator of Art at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

[1]I Am with You was commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for Unfinished Business, a vital exhibition about feminism and matriarchal traditions in contemporary Australian art held in 2017–18.

[2] Sarah Goffman, artist statement, Monash University Museum of Art collection file, 2017.

[3] Valerie Chepp, ‘Black feminist theory and the politics of irreverence: the case of women’s rap’ Feminist Theory, vol. 16, no. 2, 2015, pp.207–26.

[4] ibid., p.208.

[5] Goffman, op. cit.

[6] Copying sutras is a Buddhist practice of cultivating merit and an expression of piety.