Jade Walker

Austin Museum of Art

Through January 31, 2010
by Claire Ruud

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      Jade Walker
      Spectator Sport (detail)
      2009
      Mixed media
      Dimensions variable
      Courtesy the artist

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      Jade Walker, Spectator Sport, 2009
      For full caption see image gallery.

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      Jade Walker’s sculptures are sexed—penile and vaginal forms abound. But they are not gendered—no “males” or “females” here. Rather, these are androgynes, hermaphrodites and other indeterminate bodies—indeterminate, at least according to our typical binary gender system. The sculptures sit alone or in pairs or triples on imposing bleachers in AMOA’s small back gallery. Many wear braces and bandages. The space is claustrophobic. The bleachers, ensconced in a Band-aid-colored felt skirt and raised to put the front row at eye-level, fill the room to bursting. Similarly colored walls and orange Astroturf add to the effect. The Astroturf scrunches and crunches with every footfall, awkwardly interrupting the quiet of the museum, like the steps of doctors in scrubs and shoe covers in a deserted corridor. In short, the installation walks a disconcerting line between sports arena and hospital ward.

      Walker’s installation is an ode to bodies as contested spaces. If her creature-sculptures could speak, their huzzah would take up the feminist slogan, “Battleground, battleground, your body is a battleground!” Their bodies bear both the wounds of this battle and the marks of tender care. Walker sutures a gaping hole here, braces a sagging body there. In her hands, “your body is a battleground” isn’t an issue-based dictum. It’s a statement of fact about all our bodies. We use them, politicians use them, journalists use them. On our bodies, we work out definitions, struggle over rights and imagine new possibilities. Our bodies become fields of play, and Spectator Sport literally puts us in the game.

      Cultural reference points for this work exist in abundance. Recently, “Iron Mike” Webster’s once-athletic, prematurely destroyed body has served as a primary playing field in the NFL-Alzheimer’s debate over the brain injuries incurred by football players. Semenya Caster’s powerfully muscular body has been tossed into the match over gender-normativity. Outside the sports arena, American bodies—especially aging bodies and women’s bodies—have been the subject of much attention within the healthcare debate. These public controversies are on Walker's radar; she names Michael Sokolove’s Warrior Girls (2008), a book arguing that young women athletes should be trained and coached differently than their male counterparts, as one starting point for the installation.

      Iconic images of bodies in your newspaper feel distant. By contrast, Walker’s sculptures invest bodily forms with tactility and intimacy. At once reminiscent of cuddly teddy-bears and cold anatomical models, they attract and repulse. Pairs of sculptures lean on one another for support, or seem to embrace lovingly. Sharp nails and taught stitches suggest pain. Rubbery bits feel awkward.

      The danger is that the attraction and repulsion these sculptures elicit morph into pity rather than empathy. Pity contains contempt; it allows us to disassociate our bodies from the bodies of Walker’s sculptures. Empathy creates room for identification. It allows for the possibility that our fascination with Webster and Semenya is a defense against our own fears of not being “man” or “woman” enough. It enables us to recognize that Warrior Girls reincarnates an age-old impulse to contain the vulnerability of all our bodies within women’s bodies.

      In Spectator Sport, one sculpture sitting in the front row of the bleachers successfully fends off our pity with her gawking stare. Mouth agape, her single eye (the rubber end of a crutch, perhaps) periscopes out at us, reminding that she is the spectator and we are the ones to be looked at. The bodies of Walker’s sculptures merely reflect the ambiguity, messiness and fragility of our own.

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