‘This exhibition seeks to embrace frivolity, contradictions and minor perversities’, I am told by one of its curators, Julian Goddard. It ‘examines various forms and manifestations of pleasure as opposed to trying to define it.’ After hearing from each of the three curators (Goddard, Helen Rayment and Evelyn Tsitas), and observing the diverse articulations of pleasure that play out in works of more than 40 artists, I am left with a deeper appreciation for the exhibition’s mission not to reify the term ‘pleasure’ in any way.

The genesis of ‘Pleasure’ was a ‘collaborative exercise’, as Tsitas explained to me. It came about through shared ‘interests in representations and disruptions and decorations of and to the body.’ When planning was in its infancy, the exhibition had the working title ‘Pleasure & the Grotesque’, which is a reference to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s ‘the Grotesque’ is, in Tsitas’ reading, ‘a phenomenon of unsettling ruptures of borders, particularly bodily borders.’ Pudica (2019), Misklectic’s life-scale sculpture, is on display in the exhibition and illustrates such ruptures. Combining technicolour with bone-white, the work brings into uncomfortable unison: the pristine with decay, life with death. Both exuberant and stifled feminine sexuality melt together in the sculpture through a reef-in-turmoil metaphor. Yet despite its resonance throughout the exhibition, ‘the Grotesque’ was eventually dropped from the title, as the curatorial process matured. I was intrigued to know why.

I am told it was decided that ‘the Grotesque’ should be removed in order to avoid perceptions of ‘judgement’ and to not ‘give anyone the opportunity to misinterpret our intent’, in the words of Tsitas and Rayment, respectively. But more crucially, only naming the exhibition ‘Pleasure’ was intended to – and I believe, did – free it from expectation. As Goddard said simply, ‘I’m really happy if people don’t ‘understand’ the show and the works in it. While I’m not against interpretation – I’m all for enjoyment. I wouldn’t approach the exhibition with any pre-conceived idea of what you might want it to be – best just let it happen around you.’

Misklectic, Pudica, 2019, gypsum, resin, pigment, 1800 x 50 x 50cm. Commissioned by Art, Not Apart, Australian Capital Territory. Courtesy the artist

The RMIT Design Archives provided key inspiration for the exhibition by showing the curators works on paper from the Robert Pearce Collection. These works, in Tsitas’ words, ‘captured the opposing forces at play in bodily expression – especially within sexuality, and especially in the 1980s.’ This would serve as a key moment in sketching out the scope of ‘Pleasure’. As Rayment told me ‘Right from the start of our research we were keen to find a way to contextualise the Robert Pearce Collection. Robert was an independent graphic designer, illustrator, artist and creative director, and was central to the alternative fashion scene that emerged in Melbourne in the early 1980s.’

Pearce’s significance can be found in the exhibition’s 1980s-to-now timeframe, and the included artists’ celebration of diversity in our region – most working within Australia or its neighbours, including Indonesia and India. But while Pearce’s contribution to ‘Pleasure’ – and the Australian gay liberation movement – is difficult to over-emphasise, the exhibition remains ‘open-ended’, as is in line with the subjective nature of pleasure. ‘In my opinion it’s almost impossible to define pleasure,’ Rayment said. ‘You can walk around the exhibition and see pleasure through how artists identify with subculture, with dress, with dance, food, being male, being female, working, making, being hairy, decorating the body for a religious experience. There is pleasure in being joyous at any age – no boundaries and that is the freedom we wanted to convey.’

Each of the many expressive modes to which Rayment refers appear in this exhibition in one form or another, adding credence to Goddard’s claim that: ‘We were drawn to the outrageous and challenging, but above all, art that treats the body with a joyful exuberance and defiant insolence.’ Gerwyn Davies’ highly contrived photographs are one example, achieving, to stay with Goddard, both ‘playful self-transformation’ and ‘parody, artifice and excess of a camp sensibility’. Hair, feet and leather-fetish are other recurring motifs – in works by Dita Gambiro, Cop Shiva, John Pastoriza-Piñol; these thrive in pleasure’s borderlands, enjoyable for some, abject to others. And it is at these borders that certain works rush the senses, pushing out – for a moment – what pleasure is meant to be, to penetrate instead with the messiness of what pleasure truly is.

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor (National Safety) and media scholar based in Sydney.

RMIT Gallery
Until 7 March 2020