responds to Benjamin Sebastian + Alicia Radage’s joint exhibition
‘My job as an artist is to bear witness to what haunts us, to step back and attempt to see the pattern in these events (personal and societal), and how we can repair [the damage] by using the imagination and its visions.’
- Gloria Anzaldúa
A role as such for an artist is to assume a responsibility and requires committed creative activism. For Alicia Radage and Benjamin Sebastian, the artist’s role as defined by Anzaldúa resonates. The legacy of Anzaldúa, in regard to her impact on feminist theory, queer theory, postcolonial studies and the understanding of borderlands and hybrid identities, is also implicit in the intent and energy of FACET1. A nine-month project by VSSL studio in Deptford, FACET is a series of exhibitions and events critically examining and celebrating contemporary queer expression.
In the first instalment of FACET, the interweaving of the works by Alicia Radage and Benjamin Sebastian speaks to the body, spirit and repair through a frequency that reverberates on many levels. The concept of the threshold presents profoundly on a conceptual level and is also witnessed as an aesthetic metaphor.
An interpretation of the body (torso) by each artist, executed in a similar scale but divergent in material and presentation, sets forth a dialogue between the Radage and Sebastian and becomes allegorical of their practice being active, of bearing witness. Radage’s “Soft Shield #1 (I’ll settle here tonight)” (2023) is a shield of flesh that nods to the precision of the body through a cast navel while questioning gender and sexuality politics through the absence of breasts or nipples. Dark synthetic hair drapes below the torso and is braided at the top to anchor the shield around Radage with performative and functional capabilities. The neck piece reminds us how similar the shape of armour is to that of a domestic apron. Embedded in the lower torso, using the midribs of oak leaves, are the words: I’ll settle here tonight. Adjacent to the shield are a series of looping and towering sculptures of silicone tongues, ears, fingers and lobster claws on rods. Radage’s wider practice uses performance, sculpture and video to explore their research into the neurodivergent experience and animist practice. They are active in seeking to reconnect with the spiritual world (nonhuman) via inter-entity communication.
Suspended in the gallery, in a poignant juxtaposition to “Soft Shield”, is an element of Sebastian’s “3 Reflections2” (2022). Slowly rotating to the natural rhythm of the space, a piece of ornate body jewellery hangs on a chrome body-form hanger. It mimics the body while drawing attention to the absence of the body. Isolated from its role in a larger performance (originally worn as part of FutureRitual at the ICA London, 2022), crystals dangle from delicate chains like a chandelier. Its ability to refract and reflect light transforms the notion of decoration as superfluous into power. Sebastian’s practice challenges and subverts normative structures through esoteric and ritualistic methods. Their making process often implements bricolage through performance, video and installation. The respective torso objects of both artists become talismans holding performative capacities but also emblematic of their actions of repair, exploration and communication.
Methodologies of ritual, folklore and animism are tools for Radage and Sebastian, transforming that which haunts us into expansive modes for exploring and ultimately, healing. In a series of intimate paintings composed with Radage’s menstrual blood - notions of preservation, recording and death emanate. Symbols of frogs and stars speak to their respect for and participation in interspecies and nonhuman communication. This ritualistic act of Radage - one blood painting a day for one month - echoes Sebastian’s "Becoming Constellation"2 (2017-present) as activations and documentation. This ongoing work maps queer narratives and embraces collective energy. Considering the damage of the marginalisation of queer perspectives and cultures in history, the permanence of this project is also one of activism. In this ongoing work, Sebastian is developing a photographic collective portrait and co-authoring strikingly graphic symbolic insignias, distinct to each collaboration, that is tattooed on both artists. "Becoming Constellation" is cultivating an archive via collaborations with fellow queer artists. Rooted in vernacular tradition, Sebastian said through the permanence of this production: “I, we, they, become more than the sum of their parts” and we're creating “something that is ultimately ours and filled with power.”
Video works in the exhibition bring forth the communication and relationship between humans and nonhumans. In “Impasse” (2013), Sebastian holds up a dead bird - its sprawled wings flapping to the wind - against a vast and inviting landscape. The video also brings forth the theme of thresholds, in particular, between living and nonliving. In their video installation, “The Journey” (2020), Radage presents striking visual coherence of a threshold. A visceral video of a worm travelling across their navel emerges from a mound of earth soil on the gallery floor. The ingress properties emote how gateways can be both empowering and restrictive, expansive and private. Radage collaborates consistently with worms and for “The Journey” stated: “I'm offering myself to them to be their landscape” - an inverse of the usual human/nonhuman existence. Sebastian’s large textile sculpture “Every Hole a Portal, Every Piece A Bridge” (2023), a commanding patchwork of various white fabrics anchored to the floor and ceiling further visually signifies the thematic threshold. Centred on the textile is a round hole outlined in red shag with the embroidered text: Every Hole A Portal, Every Piece A Bridge.
Facets of identity, gender, sexuality and the intersections between them vibrate throughout the exploratory space created by Radage and Sebastian. One that is interwoven with personal experience, cultural condition, and speaking to and with humans and nonhumans. Their respective practices, made even stronger through the exhibition's dialogue between them, recognises the interconnectedness of personal and collective transformation filled with inquisitive actions to challenge oppressive structures that limit individual and communal experience.
1 For more information about the FACET programme please visit https://vssl-studio.org/FACET.
2 B e c o m i n g C o n s t e l l a t i o n is an ever expanding, interdisciplinary and collaborative artwork lead by Benjamin Sebastian. A working methodology to explore queer narrative production; or what it feels like to live through queerness and make new worlds.