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1996.46_Pat Brassintgon, Rising Damp

Pat Brassington

Rising Damp 1995
gelatin silver prints
35 parts, each 59 x 44 cm
Monash University Collection

The following commentary interprets queer as an approach, an intervention and a challenge to hegemonic structures. In this sense Pat Brassington queers the photographic medium; she takes issue with certainty, rationality, master narratives. She makes trouble between what is seen and what is hidden. In many respects Brassington is a contemporary surrealist, harnessing discourses about the unconscious, the uncanny, the ego and the id, but she came to this approach in the 1980s as film and art theory were transforming through a post-structuralist framework. Theoretically speaking, this was the beginning of the downfall of binary structures. The dismantling of the binary quickly traversed through identity politics in the 1990s to establish more fluid and nomadic queer positions, informed by post-humanist and Deleuzian strategies.[1]

Rising Damp, 1995, looms large on the gallery wall. Standing over three metres high and almost as wide, it dwarfs the viewer, insisting on its own presence. This monument of thirty-five black-and-white photographs displays close-ups of intimate feminine apparel: panties, corsets and brassieres have been pressed under glass and photographed. Squashed in this way, the garments create visual gestalts for the viewer. Fragments of lace are entangled with straps, strewn garments engage with each other visually to assume bodily parts and sexual activity. The images suggest labia, openings, buttocks, insertions. They depict bodily fluids, a female child, a doll, a teddy bear and a pillow. In the top right quarter of the grid an image of a buttoned-down blouse suggests a restraining garment (the ‘lunatic asylum’ of the nineteenth century, the hysteric female).

Formally, the work critiques the modernist grid by monumentalising the everyday and punctuating it with fetishist and abject references made-up in the viewer’s mind as they contemplate the soft material abstractions made out of discarded underwear.[2] In this way Brassington gives the work its own potential intelligence. It is as if the viewer needs to have a visual conversation with the image in order to decode it.

At each corner of Rising Damp, a curtain is being pulled back to reveal floral-patterned wallpaper. This gesture ushers in the performance that is unfolding across the grid. In this way, the artist references the domestic interior—the home—where the sexual will unfold. Rising Damp like many of Brassington’s works is a detective story that eludes resolution. Those familiar with her repertoire will recognise the smothering pillow that appeared in In My Mother’s House, 1994, and the teddy bear that became grotesque in In My Father’s House, 2004. But the familiar becomes strange in this work; the psychological tensions that exist depend on the viewer’s own psycho-social imaginary and the artist’s ability to hook into this by relinquishing her power over the image.

The inclusion of the girl-child in Rising Damp could yield a coming-of-age story, but this reading would be superficial. Brassington likes to operate in the underbelly of our thoughts, to delve ‘into those dense patches where, mediated by our phantasms, our fears peer back at us.’[3]

Anne Marsh is a Professorial Research Fellow in the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne.

[1] For various positions see: Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, Routledge, New York, 2004; Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011; and Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2020.

[2] In her well-known essay ‘Grids’, critic Rosalind Krauss wrote of modern art’s ‘will to silence’, as emblematised by the grid—a reductive structure that prioritises the visual. For Krauss, ‘the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface’. See Krauss, ‘Grids’, October, vol. 9, Summer 1979, pp. 50–64.

[3] Pat Brassington quoted in Jonathan Holmes, ‘Pieces of Eight’, Photofile, vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1986, p. 15.