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Everything, everyqueer, all at once

by Bradley Vincent, 7 December 2022

dumb & dumber from The Imponderable Archive, 2013 Samuel Hodge
dumb & dumber from The Imponderable Archive, 2013 Samuel Hodge. Image courtesy of the artist. © Samuel Hodge

‘Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.’ José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) The Wit of the Staircase is made up of thousands of images. People and places sprawl across the gallery wall, floor to ceiling, go to whoa. It is a work decades in the making, drawing on the artist Samuel Hodge’s extensive archive of images. For Hodge, this archive becomes a site of excavation – where it is possible to re-narrate memory, rearrange identity, to reconstruct and reorient ideas. It is a reimagined world made possible by a history of portraiture – years of capturing images of friends and strangers. Recontextualised here, these images accumulate into a larger kind of portrait – not a portrait of queerness, per se, but a portrait made of queerness, constructed in an ethos of queerness. It is informed by a history of queer thinkers and artists and is now its own contribution to the complex work of imagining our futures.

Born in the northern New South Wales town of Glenn Innes, now Sydney-based Hodge has spent the last twenty years creating a body of work that feels, to those it represents, era-defining. In the early days, his Goldin-esque documentary-style photographs of close friends – everyday lives, all natural light and candour – sat beside outtakes from occasional fashion shoots, intimate moments with partners and observations of the city around him. It was a particular world of ennui, cigarettes and effortlessly good hair that reflected the lives of inner-city Sydney at the time, but spoke also of his extended stays in Berlin and Paris.

1 The Wit of the Staircase #4, 2020 Samuel Hodge. 2 The Wit of the Staircase #2, 2020 Samuel Hodge. Both Image courtesy of the artist © Samuel Hodge

At some point though, he began to complicate these images. The visual language of commercial fashion shoots (Hodge has only ever dabbled at the edges of this world, despite acclaim as one of the most influential photographers working in the field) would begin to seep into his bodies of work. New and incongruous narratives emerged. In The Imponderable Archive, a series of staged images made in 2013 – including a charged portrait of The White Lotus star, Australian actor Murray Bartlett – Hodge explicitly addresses the potential of the archive. These portraits are recreations of images found online, recontextualised in a collision of fashion photography (the scrawled masks on two models’ faces – made to look like permanent marker – are in fact painted with Chanel cosmetics) and a more everyday, natural vernacular. These photographs were then added to Hodge’s archive, and so began a loop of sorts.

Around the same time, in 2014, Hodge was gifted a book called Fire in the Belly: The life and times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr. Wojnarowicz was a New York-based artist and AIDS activist whose practice incorporated painting, photography, film and music. He passed away from AIDS-related illness in 1997 at the age of 32. He would have a profound impact on Hodge, who speaks of a kind of ‘over-identification’ with the artist. Though there were obvious differences, he saw in Wojnarowicz a fellow self-taught artist whose life was directed and navigated by an overarching queer experience. In October 2014, Hodge travelled to New York to the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, where the entirety of Wojnarowicz’s personal archive had been held since his death. Here Hodge spent time pouring over its contents – diaries, notes and ephemera that were a record of this remarkable figure. It was this visit, his encounter with this other archive, that would inspire The Wit of the Staircase.

The question then was, how to make something in response to another artist’s archive, using his own. One way was to use his established practice of restaging. In The Wit of the Staircase there is a direct quote. In the fourth large panel of the work, several masked figures can be seen in front of text that reads ‘the silence of marcel duchamp is overrated’, a quote used in a key series of Wojnarowicz’s work, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79). In the series, a number of the artists’ friends are photographed in locations across New York City, wearing a mask of the face of the prodigiously gifted, transgressive French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Encountering the mask in the archive decades later, Hodge was struck by its reverse side. This ‘blank’ side showed the marking of its wear: the makeup and smudges of Wojnarowicz’s cohorts remained. In Hodge’s re-vision, it is this ghostly version that we see – the mask an inversion that simultaneously conceals but also reveals something deeper than mere physical likeness.

This act of erasure and embellishment is a repeating theme in the work. Across the images are various slights of hand – images are collaged, cropped and re-collaged. Sections are digitally erased and replaced with washes of painterly intervention. Speaking of this process, Hodge recounts: ‘Starting while on residency in Paris is this process of erasing and then delicately painting into the gaps with a variety of colours. Resulting in endless potential outcomes and effects. Sometimes I’d take the newly dyed prints and pin them directly to the studio wall, sometimes I would scan them again, digitally stitch several of the dyed works together and so forth.

This triggered the potential for a continuous cycle of change and manipulation. I started to understand that beyond every shift in my archive, there lay even more potential in which to re-narrate – the possibility to both obscure the past and reveal something new in the process.’

There is something in these marks that heightens the queerness of the scene. They obstruct any clear view, but also decorate or embellish. They hide things from view while drawing our attention to other elements. Like a well-painted face, perhaps. Not quite solid, they float smoke-like across the vast archive of images, seemingly keeping them in endless transformation.

Each of these individual images has a specific origin, a particular story behind it. They are a mass of portraits. But in their arraying here, and in their distortion and transfiguration, they are liberated from any singular definition. Unmoored from their specific history they are allowed to collide in what feels like infinite ways. They represent a kind of becoming, a confirmation that we can be imagined into as many different ways as there are seconds in a lifetime. If the future is queerness’ domain, here is a guide to a constant, ongoing act of creation that might take us towards it.

Finally, The Wit of the Staircase is a portrait. A portrait made of process, of excavation, of selection and arrangement. A portrait of Hodge, a portrait of Wojnarowicz. A portrait of Wojnarowicz’s portrait of his friends. As Arthur Rimbaud. An endless loop of creation and re-shaping, of re-narrating. If Hodge was once the documenter of his time, his immersion in the archive has transformed him into something more speculative – an imaginer of queer futures.

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