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‘We Would All Love Better if We Used It As a Verb’: Margaret Salmon at Dundee Contemporary Arts

The artist’s new film explores unprecedented levels of intimacy and empathy with its subjects

For author Lewis Carroll, by way of Alice and the white rabbit, it was Wonderland. For queer theorist Paul B. Preciado, after the philosopher Guy Hocquenghem, it was an anus. But for the artist Margaret Salmon, a hole is both a place and an organ, delineating an entry through which we might arrive at pleasure. ‘Hole’, Salmon’s solo exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, is also the title of a literal cavity-cum-doorway (all works 2018) through which we enter the gallery. Inside, we encounter Your body so warm – a series of electric heaters plugged-in around the room – whose title, by way of Salmon’s playful semantic conjuring, alludes to the possibility of being physically, if not also erotically, stimulated.

Margaret Salmon, I you me we us, 2018, 16mm film on 2 monitors. Courtesy: Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark 

Throughout the exhibition, Salmon employs similar strategies in a number of sound and film works that seek to provoke bodily and emotional responses in the audience. I you me we us is a two-channel, 16mm silent film presented on two stacked monitors. To-date much of the artist’s oeuvre has comprised filmed portraits of subjects that reveal social, political and interpersonal signifiers of certain archetypes; however, here Salmon moves beyond documentary to present a non-linear, non-narrative set of performed scenes. Individuals and couples – lovers and members of the artist’s family – use their hands as conduits of affect, both through physical movement and writing. A choreographed scene of touching hands formally evokes Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966), a performance-to-camera filmed while Rainer was bedridden in hospital following major surgery. Salmon taps into the quotidian, minimal movements characteristic of Rainer’s practice to unearth an expanded vocabulary of hand gestures through which to express love, care and intimacy. Interposed are close ups of her subjects touching bodies, writing messages and love poems, or holding flowers and plants under different coloured lights. These relational modes, and the visual and textual means through which Salmon elicits empathy, implicate us in a situation of kinaesthetic learning where we are invited to contemplate what it means to be human.

Margaret Salmon, Two, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark 

Projected onto a medium-sized screen behind a partition wall, another 16mm film, Two, likewise creates a correlation between the bodies depicted and those of the viewers through the act of witnessing. Three different couples – straight, lesbian, non-binary – are shown engaging in explicit sexual acts. Some of Salmon’s formal choices – grainy black and white film stock, absence of audio – align her work with Andy Warhol’s early experimental erotic films, particularly Kiss (1963), an hour-long film of at least a dozen different couples kissing, and Blow Job (1964), in which we see a man’s facial expressions as he is supposedly being fellated. Yet, while Warhol cloaks his subjective gaze by adopting a mechanical documentary approach – abetted in great part by his use of a still camera – Salmon assumes the perspective of an active, desirous participant. Her presence and voyeuristic gaze are exposed by the camera’s constant visceral movement, cropping and cutting in and out of frame, as well as by the artist’s evident proximity to the subjects. Salmon creates a scenario in which her protagonists are not merely performing pleasure; they are experiencing it. The couples’ willingness to share their intimacy – bodies touching, limbs interlocking, flesh in passionate friction – enables the artist to capture moments of literal love-making. At one point in Your breath, so close, a multi-channel sound piece that plays nearby to create an aural soundscape, we hear a spoken excerpt from bell hooks’s book all about love (2000), which reminds us of Salmon’s instinct throughout this show: ‘We would all love better if we used it as a verb.’

Margaret Salmon, 'Hole' runs at Dundee Contemporary Arts until 24 February 2019.

Main image: Margaret Salmon, Hole, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark 

Eliel Jones is a writer and curator based in London, UK. 

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