The Erotics of Ambiguity

Catalogue essay for The Build Up, 2014

by Danica van de Velde

The build up lasted for days,
lasted for weeks,
lasted too long.

-Kings of Convenience

At the centre of interdisciplinary artist Sundari Carmody’s exhibition The Build Up is a large-scale volcano constructed from black velveteen and detailed with sequins. Its imposing presence is at once beautiful and unsettling, visually arresting and silently troubling. The anxiety stems from the question of what secrets are hidden within the volcano’s folds and layers and whether it has the capacity to suddenly become active. Carmody’s construction of the volcano articulates the metaphor of being poised between stasis and eruption that is eloquently referred to in the exhibition’s title. 

Taking its name from a song by Norwegian folk duo, The Kings of Convenience, the genesis of The Build Up initially came from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides. While the works featured in the exhibition are not a direct aesthetic adaptation of the text, Carmody’s intimate reading of the book informs her poetic use of space and emotion, creating a subtle echo that refashions the themes of spatial imprisonment, the uncertain blossoming from adolescence to adulthood and the portrayal of an ephemeral feminine experience. Within his novel, Eugenides imbues the 1970s American suburban setting with a sense of the uncanny. The literary snapshot of the family space of the five Lisbon sister moves from an image of a “comfortable suburban home” to a house that is pieced together through fragmented collective memories that reveal the cracks in the façade of the domestic ideal and is haunted by the sisters’ ghosts. Collectively representing an emotional landscape, the sculptural work in The Build Up intervenes into this narrative by tracing the text’s motifs of space, identity and belonging. 

The Freudian concept of the uncanny hinges on the disquieting feeling of bearing witness to something that is unfamiliar. Bound up with the movement from the heimlich, or homely, to the unheimlich, the unhomely, the uncanny has a distinctly spatial dimension. Architecture and art history scholar Anthony Vidler argues that the uncanny manifests as “a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming.”¹ The uncanny dwells within architectural interstices and recesses, unfolding in in-between spaces where our perception of what is real is constantly shifting and uncertain. 

Meeting at the intersection of art sculpture, craft, architecture and fashion, and thereby interweaving different aesthetic languages into the visual schema of the exhibition, the materials utilised in The Build Up already evoke a frisson of ambiguity within the gallery topography. The stilted house implanted in the volcano, inspired by a Balinese “gubug” or sleeping hut, introduces a tactile architecture into the fabric composition of the rock formation. On one level, its presence makes allusion to Carmody’s Indonesian upbringing; however, it also reveals an oddly domestic intrusion into her natural scene. Precariously embedded within the contours of the volcano, the question of belonging is summoned by presenting the viewer with the unfamiliar. 

The uneasiness of identity and belonging is also woven into Carmody’s masks, which gesture towards narratives of costuming and performance in the construction of subjectivity. They can be interpreted as another trace of her Indonesian roots where masks are a strong part of the visual culture, but rather than being merely ethnic signifiers, their presence refuses to fit within any particular interpretation. Indeed, while feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz has coined the term “intolerable ambiguity” to define bodies that refuse to settle within established binaries, Carmody’s work engages with the seductive quality of the unknown to produce her own erotic ambiguity.² Her work flirts with liminality such that the masks evoke both sexual fetish and childlike dress up. Presenting a previously unmapped space, The Build Up draws the viewer into a psychological geography exquisitely held in a state of suspension.

Danica van de Velde is a writer and scholar based in Perth, Western Australia. She completed her doctorate in 2011 and her research areas span visual culture and literature. Visit her website.

¹. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 11. 
². See Elizabeth Grosz, “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemary Garland Thomson (New York: NYU Press, 1996), 55-66.