Airing Out the D: A Conversation with Caitlin Cunningham

Caitlin Cunningham’s current solo exhibition is on view at sophiajacob in Baltimore, Maryland, through May 25th. The show, informally titled Tan Penis Island, extends from a focused critique of the legacy of modernist painter Paul Gauguin’s exploitation of Tahiti to examine the ramifications of fantastic projection, the economy of colonization, and the production of white masculinity through the exotic Other.

Cunningham integrates live plants and plant materials into her installation, thereby creating a fantasy space where new narratives that afford agency to the exploited subject can be imagined and explored. I sat down with the artist to discuss some of the research behind the work and her opinions about gendered art making, formalist critique, subverting the concept of the Master, and human/plant relations.

Caitlin Cunningham, sophiajacob, 2013. Image courtesy of sophiajacob and the artist.

Elspeth Walker: This show is very involved with story: both seeking to develop its own, and critically investigating old stories that we have become accustomed to. Can you elucidate some of the research underlying the work?

Caitlin Cunningham: When I started looking into Gauguin I was pretty interested in using him as target practice for a lot of my angry energy about misogyny in general and particularly in art history. He may seem like a naively easy target, but there it is…

Besides some fascinating and mostly hideous stories I was reading about Gauguin himself, I came across others related to colonialism and romanticism, and then others more related to the perception of Tahiti that continues to be marketed to those of us in the US. I could go into the stories I was interested in [in] a pretty detailed way, but I’ll try to just list a couple of them with short descriptions.

1. The Mutiny on the Bounty
One of the most famous stories in British maritime history, retold by Hollywood three times in swashbuckling-adventure style, casting Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson in the role of the oppressed sailor. The original HMS Bounty’s mission was to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti to use as a cheap food source for slaves in the Caribbean. As the story is commonly told, the ship’s supply of fresh water ran low when the mission became delayed by bad weather, causing the ship’s Captain [Bligh] to deny water to the crew in an effort to keep the breadfruit trees alive. Modern scholars dispute stories of the captain’s abusive behavior, but it lends romance and drama to the Hollywood version of the story. Fletcher Christian [Brando, Gibson] incited a mutiny, steering the revolting crew back to Tahiti to pick up six Tahitian women and six Tahitian men. The sailors divided a small island Pitcairn amongst the British sailors and each took a Tahitian “wife,” leaving nothing for the Tahitians and trading the Tahitian women as property.

The story has been embraced in the late nineteenth and twentieth century as an example of male freedom and adventure, freedom from oppressive governments, and sexual pleasure beneath a fantasy of palm trees. Just one of the many romantic stories of Tahiti that influenced Gauguin to apply and obtain a grant from the French Government in a stated effort promote the island through his art. Even in the nineteenth century, Tahiti did not have much in the way of natural resources to exploit outside of tourism.

Tragically, it was revealed in the 2000’s that the descendants of Fletcher Christian and his crew on Pitcairn have perpetuated a community on the island wherein for the past forty years nearly every girl has been raped and abused and nearly every man on the island has been an offender.

2. The Bombing of the Rainbow Warrior
In the 1960s, the French Government developed airports in Tahiti to move materials and personnel necessary for nuclear testing/bombing on islands in French-occupied Polynesia that took place from the 1960s to the 1990s. The developments and infrastructure changes have led to advanced environmental degradation due to increased tourism, cracks in atolls that leaked nuclear radiation, and nuclear fallout. Atolls and islands in French-occupied Polynesia were used for nuclear explosions up to 170s stronger than that of Hiroshima.

In 1985, the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior prepared to sail to a small island in French-occupied Polynesia from a harbor in a peace zone in New Zealand, when they were inconspicuously bombed by French agents from beneath the ship. This was the first known sinking of a protest ship and was initially denied by the French Secret Service for months. As it stands now, Mururoa atoll (the site of much of the testing) is in danger of collapsing. When it does, it will release a great deal of radioactive material into the ocean in an uncontrollable way. It will also create a gigantic tsunami.

HMS Bounty 1960-2012, Digital print on vinyl, 47" x 38", 2013. Image courtesy of sophiajacob and the artist.

EW: Your work comes out of a repeated practice of blowing up people’s spots when they’re getting away with something. There’s something about destroying the masculine mystique as a young female artist, and perhaps proving that it’s actually not that hard to be a master—especially when you’re doing it by exploiting a silent subject. Can you say a bit more about how an awareness of gender fits into your practice?

CC: I am interested in gender and identity politics in general, in ongoing issues of the power imbalances involved. One facet of this is the continued colonizing of capitalism through domination and privilege. I recently started exploring ideas about the production of space from the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre. According to Lefebvre, there are three triangulated aspects of space: perceived space (le perçu), a constructed physical, tangible, reality; conceived space (le conçu), a mental space of mappable proportions and measurements; and the more imaginative lived space (le vécu), which is experienced as combined tangible and imaginative reality, often revealed in art and literature.

EW: Do you think your work seeks to stage these kinds of imaginative spaces?

CC: I think any art exhibition in a gallery is involved with the third space (le vécu) that is both material and imaginative, as in the willful suspension of disbelief that the exhibit you enter will be distinctly different from the way the same space existed prior. This exhibit in particular is very concerned with conceived spaces—such as Tahiti, where I have never been but only vaguely recognize as a series of images and associations. I think it’s important to note that with colonization and capitalism there is always an application of the modernist grid.

EW: Let’s talk about Gauguin for a second. It’s often seductive to be simplistic about misogyny—to approach the matter like it’s some kind of two-sided battle between “misogynists” versus those of us who are “enlightened.” It’s tempting to read Gauguin as an isolated asshole wholly responsible for an exploitative movement of painting. But the colonialist impulse is pervasive and insidious and totally not “over.” What do you think about its contemporary ramifications? Tahiti Secrets lotion, for instance.[1]

CC: Yes, I think it is absolutely convenient to simplify culturally entrenched misogyny into two factions, and even more convenient to assume that it’s no longer relevant to our collective understanding of art history or the conception of genius. The enlightenment philosophers, romantics, and Rousseau in particular were pretty explicit in regarding the default state of a human to be white and male, relegating women to the “natural sphere”: that of motherhood, domesticity, and ignorance. By paying attention to any amount of advertising, this “natural sphere” notion is almost comically persistent. In the art world the term “woman artist” is still thrown around as if the qualifier is a necessity, similar to the tokenism inherent in the terms “Asian artist” or “gay artist.”

I like the name of the Victoria’s Secret lotion. It’s evident our culture will continue to exoticize Tahitian and indigenous people after centuries of colonialism, in this case from within the context of a company that capitalizes on patriarchal imperatives. It also relates to the embellished journal Gauguin released to market the work he made in Tahiti to a European audience, Noa Noa. The title translates to “fragrance,” in reference to the intoxicatingly pleasurable scent emanating from the bodies of Tahitians.

Teva Sylvain, Teva Sylvain postcard, paint, paper, plexiglass, 24" x 18", 2013. Image courtesy of sophiajacob and the artist.

EW: That anecdote about “body fragrance” brings me to another point: the embarrassingly evident staging of the Tahitian female as a kind of erotic freak under the guise of anthropology. There is a very established legacy of the “postcard” as an agent of colonialism. Postcards of native inhabitants of the colonies “in their element” were routinely sent home as trophies of bourgeois leisure, and as a way of perpetuating fantasy about other places (and “Other” subjects). Postcards are a really convenient tool of enfreakment because they silence and cage the subject for uninterrupted staring. Colonial postcards also effectively sanitize the “savage” subject into a palatable commodity for mass distribution/erotic consumption. Can you talk a bit about postcards as a device in your work?

CC: There are a lot of postcards on eBay of Tahitian women and girls that I found. One of the vestiges of colonialism is the portrayal of Tahitians as erotic playthings that are easily seduced and abandoned. Images from the fifties and sixties of very young-looking girls are selling for sixty dollars a card and are likely rising in value. I found a card from the well-established Tahitian postcard producer Teva Sylvain, who produces images of women in Tahitian regalia in idyllic island backdrops. Most of his models are not fully Tahitian because according to him, Western tourists want women to look more closely related to those their libido is accustomed to. The process of “[sanitizing] the ‘savage’ subject into a palatable commodity for mass distribution/erotic consumption” is pretty central to the career of Gauguin.

EW: Earlier you mentioned “target practice.” Can you identify an initial impulse behind making your work?

CC: Generally I work by pulling together a network of associations into physical form. Some of the associations are personal and some more relate to information I’m gathering. I also worked closely with the curators and with an electrical expert on this exhibit. I liked how Deirdre Smith [who runs contemporary art blog Experiential Surprise] referred to this way of working as “rhizomatic”—like the way a ginger plant grows.

Be Mysterious [detail] clay, paint, medium, tropical plants, dimensions variable, 2013. Image courtesy of sophiajacob and the artist.

EW: In considering the concept of “mastery” (often read in conjunction with concepts of masculinity and control) versus a kind of “primitive” object-making, can you say more about how you see success versus failure as fitting into the process of your work?

CC: One thing I was very conscious of doing was giving a specific voice to the internal authority figure that is generally present as a form of anxiety within my practice. The authoritarian voice in my head is an amalgam of various domineering and dismissive voices. I tried to imagine specifically that the voice of judgment was Gauguin himself, knowing him to be emotionally abusive and excited by humiliation, of women and of Van Gogh and others who loved him. Under the fantasy of his tutelage, the only response that I believed I could use to affirm my agency was to fall far short of his impenetrable genius as a painter, sculptor, and image producer. Consciously taking a submissive role in the production of my objects, I’d sort of hoped to incite some judgment of my effectiveness as an image-maker, forcing a critical voice maybe similar to what Gauguin or perhaps Georg Baselitz might use to degrade my work.

EW: How do you feel about the crude or even funny sculptural elements you created and how they’re informed by the natural beauty of the plants you use—or even by the clean specificity of the oversaturated CNN screen cap?

CC: I used the paint colors available to Gauguin according to this Eyewitness book I was looking at. Prussian blue with zinc white in particular are predominant in Gauguin’s depiction of various and mostly non-Tahitian idols. I also came across this color in the still of the sinking of the HMS Bounty ship [see installation view] as well as in the petals of the dyed blue orchid flowers. The ceramics were made in what I interpreted to be a more “savage” way, which would be considered “closer to nature” by Gauguin.

EW: You’ve been using live plants as well as chlorophyll-based paint in your work for a long time. Why?

CC: I became interested in using plants as ready-made forms and have since entered into closer inspection of plant-human interactions. I can’t say there is intentional anthropomorphism, but I do think there are issues of interspecies relations going on right now that are drastically important and are a constant source of depressing thoughts, lack of control, and also empathy.

EW: Can you say more about these depressing thoughts? The depression, anxiety, and failure you mention are really interesting to me, especially because the work came out looking so beautiful.

CC: I assume it’s pretty common to consume lots of Internet-news-related media and then ruminate on some depressing thoughts. Biologically, I don’t think our brains were meant to consider the gravity of events happening outside our immediate environment or changes that are likely to occur fifty years from now. I live a comfortable life, so I’m grateful it’s mostly just thoughts.

Caitlin Cunningham is on view through May 25th at sophiajacob, 510 W Franklin Street, Baltimore MD 21201.


[1] From materials list:
He Sought Greatness and Found the Soul of the World. Wood, paint, Tahiti Secrets lotion from Victoria’s Secret, tropical plants. Dimensions variable.