When Barbara Creed penned her much cited essay ‘Monstrous Feminine’ in 1993, she may have pre-empted a contemporary aesthetic thriving in Australia in recent years — a monstrous MeToo movement of artists — female desiring machines hungry for ritual, transmogrification and decay. We see it in the leathery, fetishized accoutrements of Heather B. Swann and Talitha Kennedy, in the decaying bones of Terry Taylor and Liny Ivimey, in the distended, bulbous grotesquries of Pat Brassington and Polly Borland. But perhaps nowhere are the monsters as pronounced as in the bruised bodies and betrayed and bewildered eyes of Aly Aitken’s extended family.
I first came across Aitken’s work in 2014 at the group show NotFair. She had completed a Bachelor of Art, specialising in painting, at RMIT in 2008. But since that time she had not lifted a paintbrush, instead working assiduously in her cupboard constructing a world of her own choosing. A strange, gothic world of dark and hungry black leather furnishings replete with vagina dentata orifices imbedded in antique chairs – mouths equipped with real human teeth, ready to gnaw at the next sitter. It was the stuff of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft or film makers Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro at their most extreme.
Of course, there is a long and fascinating history of the bodily grotesque in the arts. Marionettes can be particularly and strangely eerie, but they pale next to the strangely terrifying visage of the dismembered dolls head. Many a young female has encountered the trauma of the brother tearing the head off their favourite doll. And a doll without its body is the stuff of nightmares. A doll represents the burgeoning potential of nurture and motherhood. Its disfigurement represents an assault on the feminine. And one suspects that Aitken, whether aware of it or not, retains such subliminal memories.
But Aitken clearly remembers that anthropomorphic weirdo Mr Potato Head for he is here as a cyclops-dandy with bowler hat. There was always something wrong with Mr Potato Head. Although he evolved into a plasticised toy, he began as a series of sensory organs – nose, eyes and so forth – in the 1940s, such orifices designed to adorn an everyday tuber. There was a problem with this however. Once adorned he looked decidedly like a particularly odd-looking gent. But, as time passed, he would visibly age, gradually shrivelling, perhaps growing sprouts of green or at lease patches of mould. And he would start to smell. Just like a real human being, just a bit faster until really the only thing to do was bury him. A decidedly morbid ‘toy’ and an early experience of grotesque mortality.
But then such memories of dolls and potatoes with mustachios are the building blocks of young adulthood, to be put away and forgotten. Except we don’t forget them, not really… until we do. And that, for Aitken, is where the real trouble starts. “I am not afraid of spiders in the bed, being trapped with no escape or of monsters that lurk in dark places,” Aitken says. “My subliminal stalker is the relentless, and sometimes debilitating fear of losing my mind.”
“Memory is the quintessential marrow of our humanness,” she says. “Memory is what you are, your very reason to be alive. Without it we are the walking dead; an army of lost souls reduced to no more than a series of automatic bodily functions. Without it we are nothing.”
Loss of memory often means loss of physical control and indifference to bodily functions. Such may well be the case of the figure with numerous breasts, no arms and giant, lumpen feet. No matter how I consider this sculpture, it evokes gut-churning unease. It stirs memories of digging up strange fleshy insects as a child, maggots and witchety grubs. It offers hints of one of the most offensive films I can remember, The Human Centipede (2009) and, of course, one of the most brilliant and powerful Surrealists ever, Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) whose bizarre ‘dolls’ have haunted my nightmares since first viewing them in the 1980s. There may also be hints of Kafka’s cockroach in Metamorphosis. This looming character is a mass of multitudinous breasts, oddly placed musculature, sutured wounds and carcinogenic tumours.
But the kicker is, this creature, despite his innumerable stitches, has a decidedly bemused expression, either unaware or indifferent to his condition.
There is an odd beauty at play here. Scary as they may be, these figures are rendered with a maternal care and affection. To be sure, they are freaks and mutants, hideously disfigured and wounded, but they evoke a strange and wonderous empathy.
Of these works, the artist herself states that: “This body of work is an attempt to make solid the howl of despair at the last conscious moment; the sucker punch of certainty before every atom of identity is reduced to the golem-lookalike. Many of the figures are no more than invisible husks, grey silhouettes wheeled noiselessly into a dusty corner to face the wall. Some embody the attempt to recollect all-the-lost-things; others, a fright-mask version of childhood, or the laughable lipstick smudges of Mr. Potato Head’s fluid grasp of reality. All have my lumpen concrete feet; all are precisely 151cm tall. We are The Hollow Men… This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”
A woman, a wraith in black, screams in terror as she sinks into an ocean of blankness. Another of Aitken’s denizens is mummified, its emaciated legs mismatched and genitalia hanging impotently, its singular eye peering from a time-piece while time itself is clearly running out. A hanged man opens himself to the world, revealing organs of charcoal, their functions forgotten. A blind, bulbous female on a crutch extends its leech-like proboscis, hungry for remembrance.
To be sure, this is a hospital ward of the damned, and its Chief Surgeon is David Lynch at his most excessive. But each patient clearly has a personality, an individual loss and each deserves a home. One thing is certain – you, the viewer, will remember them – for they are truly unforgettable.