A Domain of Proliferated Doubt
By Peter H. Johnson & Denise Thwaites
Otherwise known as ‘imposter syndrome’, the fraud complex is a neurosis which plagues the individual with a deep sense of inauthenticity and inadequacy. Suffered by many, but by marginalised people disproportionately, this syndrome is symptomatic of an authoritarian dichotomy between authenticity and fraudulence that permeates contemporary life. Operating within public discourses that at once promote the assuming of our ‘authentic selves’, while recognising the multifaceted instability and fluidity of personal identity, the conceptual opposition of authentic/fake inflects and infects our thinking about perceptual, cultural, social and political fields of experience.
Echoing its namesake, The Fraud Complex is a dissonant assemblage of works that seeks to suspend established categories of selfhood and knowledge. An expanded exhibition that brings eleven contemporary artists into dialogue with writers, performers and thinkers, The Fraud Complex seeks to destabilise the binary of authentic/fake. It asks questions such as ‘what does it mean to be authentic?’, and ‘are we all just faking it in different ways?’
This exhibition opens at a time when political, theoretical and cultural approaches to authenticity and fraudulence intersect in complicated and sometimes discordant ways. This emerges from a complex history in which political movements founded in identity, such as feminism, black power and gay pride, have over the past century fought for the rights of such groups to publicly assume their heritage or desires without fear of persecution or oppression. However, the latter half of the twentieth century has seen notions of essential, authentic self critiqued through poststructuralist and postmodern thought. Seminal texts such as Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture (1991) introduced critical frameworks through which to examine assumed gender and racial binaries, which are otherwise sustained through the power dynamics of linguistic, gendered and colonial hierarchies.
In the present day, neoliberal mantras resound, increasingly valorising the individual at the expense of collective identity. This is a world where self-help, mindfulness and feminist empowerment can all be bought at Lululemon for the right price; where Caitlyn Jenner’s admirable coming out as a trans woman sits uneasily with her strongly expressed conservative politics; where Rachel Dolezal makes a case for the existence of transracial identity. This sits in contrast to enduring bureaucratic processes of authentication in Australia, where access to specific rights or programs demand documentation of, for example, certified Aboriginal ethnicity or a legally recognised relationship. The criteria for these assessments are not only derived from the presumption of an authentic/fraudulent status, but seek to establish the definitive line where one becomes the other.
Given the pervasiveness of the authentic/fake binary that shapes our perceptions of ethnic, social, and gendered self, how might contemporary art’s field of impersonations, farces and simulations perturb its assumed authority? As far back as Plato’s Republic (370 BCE), we see the arts described as third order reproductions of reality - as mimesis far detached from a realm of abstract truth. In contrast, more recent art theory and critique has focused on the importance of perceived authenticity when discussing or valuing works of art. Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ dissociated modern art forms from the the innate, authentic ‘aura’ of earlier art objects, gesturing towards the critical role that institutions would play in determining the value of the work of art. Since then, modern and contemporary artists have interrogated, inverted and undermined the dichotomies of illusion/reality and direct/mediated experience in a multitude of ways.
While these ideas have informed The Fraud Complex, reflected by a number of artists making works from a position of marginalised identity — be that one of gendered, ethnic or cultural difference — the exhibition does not attempt to answer the breadth of questions provoked by engagement with gender and racial identity politics. Rather, it proceeds from the premise that individual and collective identities are not closed systems, considering instead how they intersect, influence and internalise orthodoxies, assumptions and pedagogies across the social fabric. This expanded exhibition does not present a unified argument or narrative. It plunges the visitor into a domain of proliferated doubt. Through the suspension of certitudes, The Fraud Complex reminds us of the instability at the core of everyday judgments of authenticity and fraudulence.
According to a recent report on US teens, only 48 per cent identify as exclusively heterosexual, and 56 per cent know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ or ‘ze’. There has been a semiotic explosion in the ways in which people define their sexual and gender identities; Tumblr overflows with users identifying beyond the LGBT, as asexual, genderfluid, demisexual, pansexual, demiromantic, pomosexual and so on. In June 2014 the cover of Time Magazine, featuring transgender actor and activist Laverne Cox, declared ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. Long gone are the days when ‘men were men and women were women’.
The expression of these new and varied identities is often understood in terms of the individual’s right to be their ‘true selves’, or to live ‘authentically’. Without diminishing the profound importance of people being able to live and love in the ways that make them most happy, these increasingly complex taxonomies of identity are often shaped by the same discourses of authenticity and fraudulence that inflect traditional notions of gender.
Two artworks in The Fraud Complex by Tyza Stewart and Técha Noble (in collaboration with Casey Legler and Jordan Graham) complicate both the traditional binaries and increasingly specific divisions between gender and sexual identities. Stewart’s life-size self-portrait depicts the artist’s body as they pull their hair back into pigtails. Markers of sexed identity - chest and genitals - are erased, fading into the white voidspace of the background, suggesting both ambivalence and ambiguity. Noble’s video collaboration with Casey Legler, former French swimming champion, artist, and first woman to be contracted as a male Ford Model, depicts its subject shifting between various attitudes and poses derived from modelling. In this study of specific body language designed for commercial purpose, Legler seems to morph between feminine and masculine, the heightened performance foregrounding the artifice of gendered expression.
There is perhaps no more pernicious instance of the idea that ‘authentic’ identity is rooted in biology than in the historical treatment of Aboriginal people. The history of Aboriginality in postcolonial Australia is fraught with disagreements over what constitutes ‘authentic’ Aboriginal identity. From the 1830s until the late 1950s, blood quantums were the measure of whether or not someone was Aboriginal, with States legislating ‘all forms of inclusion and exclusion (to and from benefits, rights, places etc.) by reference to degrees of Aboriginal blood’. While legislative definitions may have shifted, discriminatory rhetoric about Aboriginal identity continues. Right wing columnist Andrew Bolt has attacked fair-skinned Aboriginal people on a number of recent occasions, claiming that their ‘self-identification as Aboriginal strikes [him] as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than any racial reality’. Nine Aboriginal people, including artist Bindi Cole Chocka, subsequently sued Bolt successfully in the Federal Court, where he was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act.
In spite of Bolt’s public prosecution, fair-skinned Aboriginal people are continually called on to prove the authenticity of their identity, both by bureaucracies and in public life. Of course it is rarely mentioned that so many Aboriginal people are fair-skinned as a direct result of genocide, dispossession and government policies of forced assimilation designed to sever connections to country, culture and kin. The impacts of such policies and the fractious nature of Aboriginal identity are discussed from a personal perspective in Myles Russell-Cook’s text, published as part of The Fraud Complex.
Chocka’s photographic series Not Really Aboriginal (2008) responded to this history and was a catalyst for the aforementioned court case involving Andrew Bolt. Presented in The Fraud Complex at reduced scale, in fold-back frames, they feature the artist’s family in domestic and urban settings painted in black face. Megan Cope’s work, Discover Your Aboriginality (2016), is a provocative extension of these concerns. Inviting people to take a test and be eligible for a membership package bestowing Aboriginal identity, the work raises uncomfortable questions about the co-option of identity and Aboriginal culture by non-Aboriginal people. Discover your Aboriginality also challenges audiences to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and to reflect critically on a moral economy when supporting activism and Aboriginal people.
Continuing this enquiry into authenticity as it relates to Aboriginal cultures, The Fraud Complex presents one in a series of Next Wave Indigenous Language Workshops led by Paul Paton, Executive Officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. In this presentation, Paton addresses the issue of authenticity in the contemporary revitalisation of Indigenous languages. While introducing central principles and methodologies of language revival, Paton considers the use of historical records in this process, asking questions such as: ‘Is our (indigenous) language authentic if we use what white people have written down?’
Issues regarding cultural authenticity and fraudulence are not limited to the sphere of Australia’s relations with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Ethnic stereotypes and expectations mediate our experience of cultures across the world. Problems surrounding the exoticism and fetishism of other cultures are addressed through Yoshua Okón’s work The Indian Project: Rebuilding History (2015). This single-channel video navigates the threshold between documentary and performance, as Okón records the presentations of a committee seeking to restore an 80-foot monument to the original Indigenous population of their town, Skowhegan, Maine, a site where a genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants took place. This uncomfortable work presents the impossibilities of adequately resurrecting or atoning for cultures lost, and the problematic dynamics of cultural appropriation that can arise as a consequence.
Issues of cultural stereotyping are further addressed through Abdul Abdullah’s work WHY CAN’T I BE ANGRY (2016) and his accompanying series of works in ceramic. A black velvet curtain, embroidered and tasseled with gold thread asks the viewer ‘Why can’t I be angry?’, while a collection of glistening ceramic trophies are adorned with phrases such as ‘Most Kind’, ‘Most Strong’, ‘Most Fair’ and ‘Most Great’. The palette and form of the textile work recalls the monumental Kaaba of Mecca, while the trophies bear English translations of some of the 99 names of Allah, drawing associations with the spiritual identity shared by Muslim worshippers across the globe. This is contrasted by text that alludes to the expectation of self-censorship or social cohesion thrust upon young Australian Muslims. In this, the work highlights how the means and conditions which enable people to be their ‘authentic selves’ are enjoyed by a privileged few.
Through his work, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah initiates a dialogue with his brother Abdul Abdullah both as art-makers and members of a marginalised culture. Monster Maker (2016) is a life-sized bust of Abdul wearing a mask from sci-fi film series Planet of the Apes. The work directly references Abdul’s series Siege (2014), which explored the monstrous representations of Muslims in Western media. It also recalls Abdul’s later series Monsters (2014) around a similar theme, while making reference to ‘Rick Baker the Monster Maker’, a legendary figure in practical makeup and effects in Hollywood films, who crafted the mask worn by Abdul in his photographic series. Through this process of mimicry and doubling, Abdul-Rahman engages with fictitious cultural stereotypes, while also presenting the multifaceted quality of artistic influence implicit in the creation of the art object.
The intertextuality of Monster Maker exemplifies the widely applied technique of artistic appropriation, which having once suffered criticism as an indication of unoriginal creative thought, is now embraced by theorists and critics alike as a vital strategy in modern and contemporary art. However, to what extent can the disassociation of ideas of artistic value, originality and authorship be pushed? The Fraud Complex integrates a number of curatorial interventions to destabilise the notion of the sacred artistic space. Replica paintings of iconic modernist artworks — a disproportionate facsimile of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and a faux-Mondrian — sit alongside ‘authentic’ artworks. Both attributed to their literal creator, online business ArtsHeaven.com, these paintings problematise the connection between authorship and the identity of the art object, forcing visitors to re-examine the differences between forgery and artistic appropriation. Other elements mingle in the space - living room curtains and exposed-brick wallpaper - destabilising the sanctity of the artistic white cube via the integration of domestic signifiers.
The conceits of the art world are further addressed in Beth Dillon’s performance The Tallest Artist In Next Wave (2016). Standing upon an intricate apparatus and in disguise, the artist proposes a toast at the exhibition opening, self-aggrandising her fraudulent position within an art world system of value. In this, she performs a humorous nod to the sense of imposter syndrome that arises through an artist’s attempt to distinguish or ‘brand’ their creative identity.
Beyond the fixtures of the gallery space, the fluid identity of the art object itself is explored in Holly Childs’ poem ‘Odwalla dumpster locket like a diary’ (2016) , found on this website and in the exhibition catalogue. Through her work, a crust punk aesthetic is redetermined through the eyes of a needlepoint connoisseur, highlighting the multivalence of artwork semiotics and challenging the idea of authoritative artistic interpretation. The notion of singular artistic meaning is further destabilised in Kelly Fliedner’s project, Ships in the night (2016), which develops a series of ‘love letters’ between artworks in the Next Wave Festival. Rejecting the didactic register of the traditional exhibition exegesis, Fliedner responds to the aesthetic and conceptual elements of works in The Fraud Complex, presenting a live reading that complicates our attempts to pin down the ‘true meaning’ of the art object.
Twentieth century critical theory is known for its interrogations into how, in addition to our socialised experience as persons categorised into gendered, ethnic and cultural or professional categories, our phenomenal experience of the world may be shaped by conceptual binaries. While it is easy to take for granted the ‘authenticity’ of our pre-reflective experience, we may question how we come to know ourselves as individuated subjects, our position within the greater world, and our apprehension of the ‘real’. To what extent might these apprehensions be informed by an authoritarian binary between authentic/fake?
Despite its seductive mirrored surface, Hany Armanious’ artwork Body Swap (2014) is a violent rejoinder to the assumptions we hold about our bodies in space. Shaped like an enormous guillotine blade, the work severs the viewer at the head and knees. If aligned properly, it appears that two viewers have swapped bodies with one another, collapsing the binary between self and the other.
Further to this, in an Internet-as-everything age, the line between that which is ‘real’ and authentic, and that which is simulation and virtual becomes increasingly indistinct. Tully Arnot’s work Waterfall (2016), presents a slippage between these two realms. A stock photo of a waterfall is printed on fabric and presented in an infinite mechanised loop; a gif made real; a glitched version of Romantic awe, instigating feelings of phenomenal doubt.
The fragile dynamics of self-perception and its relationship to our creative output are also explored in Astrid Lorange’s text, Fr(e/a)ud Complex (2016). Drawing on the Freudian interest in parapraxis, or the act of misreading or misspeaking, Lorange considers the legacy of psychoanalysis, and how the psychic state of imposter syndrome may be intimately tied to the processes of artistic creation.
Maps are perhaps the most commonly employed analogues for reality, allowing us to situate and navigate our bodies in space. Sara Morawetz’s work 1:1 (After Umberto) (2016) is a 1:1 scale architectural floor plan of the front West Space gallery. It draws inspiration from Umberto Eco’s short story On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1 (1992), which in turn responds to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science (1946). A 1:1 map, while a near-perfect simulation of reality, is of course entirely impractical, suggesting that all lived experience is mere imperfect shorthand for a more complex existence.
The Fraud Complex contributes to the critical discourse surrounding notions of authenticity and fraudulence, by presenting a diverse group of creative practices that explore the manifold ways in which these concepts play out in relation to different spheres of existence. The works exhibited, along with curatorial interventions, commissioned writing, and discursive events, act as a pivot to question how senses of fraudulence relating to gender, ethnic and cultural identity, as well as phenomenal and artistic experience, may arise from a common and pervasive conceptual root.
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 Plato, ‘Book X,’ in The Republic (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 363.
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 This question is addressed in the VACL Factsheet: Principles of Language Revival – ‘Getting it Right’, available: http://www.vaclang.org.au/images/projects/Meeting%20Point%20Fact%20Sheets/GettingItRight.pdf , accessed: 7 April 201.