Welcome to Reality: A Review of Discipline the City, An Interlude

4th Jun 2018

Category: Review

This review continues from Part 1. 

I ducked into the energy, much too unnatural for a Sunday afternoon. The torn-out bricks were vibrating. I could have told myself to expect it—this change. But it was too late and I was very unprepared in my own heady rush. The black box yawned and overcame me. I trembled in its wake, wringing my fingers nervously. It could have been the early onset of a fever, or just the air-conditioning. Yet there was a pulse—I could tell—exerting itself on my pituitary gland. And I was reading it, sieving it. OK… I steadied myself. I’m OK, it’s just a black box. A black box.

There were not many visitors present, so the hall seemed more vacuous. The black seemed darker. The lights were innocuous. I pushed away the headache and focused, my eyes adjusting to the ultra-violet hues. Stephanie stood off-stage, erect, and all dressed in a white that shone purple. She had done the ironing herself, and she smiled at me. I felt better, just for a bright moment.

Then the Artistic Director, Alan Oei swayed in his baggy t-shirt and said something to begin. This was Act II in the rotating exhibition for Discipline the City. The artists, Stephanie Jane Burt and Chen Sai Hua Kuan, were present.

Stephanie was first to walk us through. Her tinted bell sleeves motioned the group forward into the dark. Hula hoops dangled from the ceiling. Low walls parted at oblique angles. A neon-lit frame posed a question to me, in a kind of lip-sync that followed Stephanie’s own thoughts: what happens when the city sleeps? The boards fenced me in and then, as she began, I struck a blank switch—

Stephanie Jane Burt, Two by two they disappeared, 2017. Installation view of Discpline the City: Act II. Photography © The Substation. 

It was night. It was not a Sunday. It was a night alone. I was sleep-walking the musty streets of Kreuzberg, in desperation and in circles. The frosted buzzer would not give way when I rung, again and again. I groped through the lines and messages. A cyclist could have passed me. I did not follow him.

            “It happened while you were inside, asleep,

            And there is no reason why you should have

            Been awake for it, except that the day

            Is ending and it will be hard for you

            To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.”

            — John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

The poet traversed the pages of my memory. His verse hung the shadows, logarithms and looking glasses within and behind this other, colder city. I could hear the buzzer echo. Again, to no answer. You can step through this, she said. The question gave way, and the visitors looked up.

I returned from this brief daze to the low wall, and then to Stephanie’s mouth as she described the window. She gestured to a dress, the kind little girls would wear to church. Next to it, two shelving brackets contained lockets, nail clippers and eyelash curlers, all of them blanketed by a glaring pink. The visitors raised their eyebrows.

Stephanie Jane Burt, Two by two they disappeared, 2017. Installation view of Discpline the City: Act II. Photography © The Substation.

Another artist and a curator—both of them men—suggested a few archetypes and drizzled a loose sexual symbolism onto the items. Stephanie and I exchanged glances. Can’t a bracelet just be a bracelet? I know, I wanted to say. They smirked. I half-followed the drain of questions and answers, and then it came to my turn to take a look through the window. Stepping carefully over the neon bar, I approached it.

A pink square had been diced into an orange wall. Cool metal rims pinched my eyelashes. I visualised this breach, imagining utility for the implements that were on display. I knew them, so I could train my attention. Then, with such an intensity, the buzzer sounded again. It was too dark to fight it. There was the sound of someone knocking beneath the shelves and—

The window was jammed. I had tried with all my might to force it open, but it was locked shut from the inside. What else could I do? The walls were sealed. The temperature was dropping. I deleted all of the gibberish messages, smoked my very last cigarette, and counted down the minutes until I would make a decision. I felt ashamed of myself. Then I wanted so awfully to be awake, so I took a step to the side and left the garden. The chain of a bicycle rewound itself down the corridor.

I spun around, wanting to follow it. The hallway lit up in a garish way. Stephanie was still next to me, her thin frame mildly slouched. She seemed to already be tired of the talking. She was saying, these are some of the images I have collected in my research. Gloved hands clasped in a small photograph. And here is a pair of shoes, she continued. One is up there. All of the visitors looked up again, following her pointed finger. The heel was perched atop the partition, but it was a blindspot from where I stood. The other boot lay at my feet. I was awake, I needed to tell myself. My pulse was racing over my ears.

There were further, probing questions. Behind us, I could still hear the rhythm, an underground knocking, though now it was much more slight. As Stephanie explained her choices, I became drawn to the curvature of a railing. Wound and braided about these rings were delicate sashes, the kind that ballerinas lace their ankles with. I wanted to touch them, to collect myself. My toes curled in response, and somehow in my mind’s eye, a tinge of shame from another city leaked onto the dye of the ribbon. The ribbon turned over, from pink to blue. I sighed, though I took comfort in the fact that no one else could hear me.

Under this wash of blue dye, I laid myself down. Stephanie was recounting a piece of fiction that she had been working on, through which the entire installation was strung. I laid on a bed in another room, and listened in. The walls were thin enough to overhear her discourse. In her story, two young girls who were schoolmates at a convent had gone missing. The mystery was still unresolved. Their dresses were pinned to poles and splattered with a gory acrylic. I was listening to the rustle of plastic unwrapping their bodies, as they were released onto the floor. The black box became a den. Its windows were locked and barred shut. I imagined them, pawing at the doors in their stained uniforms.

Yes… OK, we are finished. Alan Oei was clapping his hands. My eyes were shut tight when it ended. The other artist, Chen Sai Hua Kuan, was ready to resume another pace. I found myself coming to, again too late, my nerves all clenched. The other artist smiled and waved the visitors towards his slideshow. I could not see where Stephanie had gone—was it the blindspot? Anyway, I was much too sheepish and jarred, so I stammered out of the black box, unnoticed. Unharmed.

To be continued...

Separated into three acts, Discipline the City was installed from 23 August to 24 September, 4 October to 22 October and 1 November to 26 November 2017 at The Substation. More information here. 

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