05 June 2009 - 04 July 2009

Helen Johnson, Love over Gold


A slim chick perches in an open doorway, her brown-gold hair cascading around her pale face, eyes locked on a text by Karl Marx which she holds in her left hand, itself resting on one raised knee. Her leggings shine, her feet are bare, a scrunchy scarf wraps her neck, one end trailing down her back. The red of her toenail polish is brighter than the Communist red on the book cover. Her right hand is raised, as if clutching a rail on a tram or train, rather than locked onto the top of a doorframe. Beneath her, another girl sits on a multicoloured striped blanket, her back against the jamb, dressed only in a white singlet, blue undies and short black socks. A white laptop is locked between her raised knees and chest; her fingers are poised over the keyboard. A sharp-faced young man, his long brown hair coiling like tendrils around his eyes and ears, sharpens a knife before him, seemingly preparing for the slaughter of a native hen that's clucking about. The blue seven-pointed stars of the Southern Cross tattoo his naked torso, circling a boxing kangaroo with large red gloves on its dukes. Arrayed on neat if unsophisticated wooden structures, tacked up or held down by bluestone blocks, the painted figures are surrounded by images of objects - and real objects - of various kinds. Hanging plants and stacks of gold bars, a snake swallowing a wallaby, a brutish stylised fist clutching a finely-drawn rose, an emblematically Australian spoonerism, pictures of pictures, a lurid minimalist distress signal, drapes and netting, spiders, targets, stickers. What do you make of the chintzy gold fabric or the big lump of pebble aggregate? Everything's telling you it's moving on up, that it's flashy, aspirational, that its desperation is a sign of its willingness to succeed in the eyes of everybody else, and should be applauded as such. It's good to be desperate, to be seen to be desperate. There are decisions to be made. These days, there are more decisions of more kinds to be made more often and more quickly than human beings have ever had to before. In fact, there's no aspect of life that isn't saturated with decision-making. Too much upon which to decide; too much information to help you decide; too many criteria affecting how to decide; too many unknown consequences of making decisions....Too much, too many. Get it away from me! A consequence of freedom without any meaning or constraint. But is there a fundamental decision running underneath the entire enterprise, like: love or gold? If you choose love, you're choosing to have your capacity for choice deranged under conditions of extreme personal risk; if you choose gold, you're choosing for yourself, you're choosing to keep on choosing. Choosing choice, this means not risking dissolution. But it also means embracing an abyss of decision-making without decisiveness. So it's necessary to make decisions about fucking everything, and there's no point at which you can just say I'm giving up this and know that it's going to stick, even for you. Once you start thinking about it, you're lost: if I do this, then this will happen, then this, but what about this, or that, or if that, or what if when that that then, etc. We're on the way to 7000000000 people on the planet, so no one is really going to give a shit about your actions anyway, right? They're negligible, as are you. So why care so much? You literally can't make a difference, or, if you do, it's only 1/7000000000 of a planet's human difference anyway. But try to make a decision not to decide, and see where that gets you. As for all this stuff you should give up! Why? Because you know it's bad for you? - eggs, cake, red meat, red wine, cigarettes, international travel, and so on. But you wouldn't be taking it in the first place unless you knew it was at least a little bad for you; part of its appeal is that it's harmful. It'll give you cancer, obesity, all sorts of crap. And part of the thrill of continuing to take it is feeling anxious that you're doing yourself harm. You're taking a risk with your health and well-being, and you're self-dosing your anxiety too. If you weren't taking it, would you really feel any better about yourself? Of course you would, but you'd feel worse as well. The ethics of ingestion or incorporation, of ongoing care for your own body as the principal site for action....now that's gold. The future - the future in which sometime you are going to die, to disappear absolutely, eventually losing even the residue of your proper name - well, that's what's brewing in the entrails of the present right now. So why, so to speak, give a shit at all? Who ever gives anything up? Is there even still a difference between deliberately aiming at giving this up because it's bad, whether for you or your friends or the environment, or just giving it up in the course of doing something else that's actually more important, or just giving it up without really having any reason for doing so, or even just pretending that you're giving it up? What's such a difference make, between doing something as cause, or doing it as an as effect, or just doing it, or even not ever doing it because you've never thought about it or just never had the chance. Arrayed upon an intricate scaffolding as upon a rack or file, maybe with painted red toenails and pale blue underpants, the resilient fragility of your existence is still at stake, and there's nothing much you can do about that. We're all in dire straits, and it's time to choose: love over gold?

Justin Clemens, 2009

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Helen Johnson_Love over Gold_Text by Justin Clemens_2009 (PDF)

Artwork from exhibition by Helen Johnson,