“…Why haven’t we spoken?…We haven’t spoken properly in so long…all we’ve said is little things and none of the little things that count, that’s not that there is to say I miss you…,” cries out a rehearsed voice in Felix Melia‘s sound piece, making up one component of his solo exhibition, Public Displays of Affection *In The Waiting Room which ran in two places — London’s Jupiter Woods and Vienna’s Cordova, from May 27 to June 24. The 25-minute work moves back and forth between a disjointed conversation of a couple and a narrator or onlooker who could be a stranger to the situation, or rather the thoughts inside one’s head. Each voice embodies a form of distance through the scripted emotional monologue of a dissolving long distance relationship; as the press release describes, “in the apparent absence of a body to receive them, words hang in the air, waiting for a response.”
Inspired by real conversations or one’s overheard in public, the words (sometimes spoken, sometimes sung) move through the show with surround sound. Related, but not synchronised, a video plays on a loop; cutting between bedroom and shower scenes, the protagonist’s face is always concealed by a mask of other footage.
“The work is an exploration of the inherited cultural values and narratives that inform the ways an individual expresses themselves and relates to others,” says the London-based artist about his recent solo exhibition(s). Communicating via email, Melia expands on his interest in disembodied communication and distance, the effort to move through stasis and performing the emotional self. Admitting the “self aggrandising and solipsistic” nature behind the male narrator’s monologue, perspective and ‘selfish-ness’ is pulled apart to dissect one’s position.
** Can you talk a bit about your chosen ‘site’ of the bathroom that the narrative revolves around so heavily?
Felix Melia: I was thinking about the forensics of a home and the bathroom seemed like a good place to start, because they exist outside the home too, in different kinds of spaces. Bathrooms are one of the rooms in which the private self is made public – where the physical actions of taking care of one’s self become part of the wider environment that everyone lives in. What’s shed and downloaded from the body – our matter – sticks to the walls and washes out into the world. So few people are granted proper access to space, let alone a feeling of authorship over it. A bathroom is a place where the body expands and becomes a physical part of the architectural make up of the city, where it adds to the corporeal, human depth of places from which so many people are systematically effaced.
This is a fairly ineffectual action in relation to the scale of that issue – it’s a metaphor within the work – but I found it interesting when coupled with the romantic drama of bathrooms. Washing, singing and dancing, and looking at one’s self in the first and second person. This examination can come from distress and trauma too. There are all the private moments that take place when someone locks themselves away in a bathroom – a room with a lock on the door. It’s a romanticised, even cinematic view, but the performance behind closed doors – the solitary performance that no one else sees – is what I’m interested in.
** The emotion feels second-hand, acted and slightly clinical, with different layers of narration going on, or should I say, layers of removal and distance from the situation. Do you feel like you’re moving around the periphery of something you want to get more inside of, or the opposite, attempting to further heighten that limbo space of frustration and stasis?
FM: I try to do both. The work is an exploration of the inherited cultural values and narratives that inform the ways an individual expresses themselves and relates to others. So it must feel acted. The distance comes from how ineffectual the common languages used to create intimacy have become – how contaminated they are. I guess that’s why the emotional state of the work feels like a bit of a sham. That’s on purpose. I wanted to create a sense of unease and frustration beyond the narrative of what is a fairly typical drama. I’m interested in what happens when someone tries to embody and perform their emotional self at the same time, in how fraught that can be. I wanted to make that palpable. I imagine it as a convulsive movement. When using an accepted means of expression feels simultaneously so natural and so inadequate – so false – it’s very easy to feel like a satellite around your own experiences. This doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real, or that it’s not felt, but that it’s tempered. The male monologue that takes place in the bathroom is cynical. It’s self-aggrandising and solipsistic too. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to articulate one short thought by stretching it out beyond its context – to work out how and why that ‘bad,’ selfish feeling is formed. I don’t side with the character’s perspective, but the process of pulling it apart was a way of learning about my own position.
** The terms ‘grave inertia,’ ‘whiplash,’ ‘restless’ and ‘inaction’ are brought up as emotional descriptors in the text, could you talk about your interest in tension and stasis?
FM: I think a lot about the ways in which so many of our actions are choreographed and how that impacts feeling and expression, and movement in turn, even in the most intimate situations. I try to find ways of showing how stunted feelings might move. Often they are very small and sometimes they’re completely still (in the case of Public Displays of Affection *In The Waiting Room they are described in words and not seen at all). Sometimes the movements are more erratic; they stop being relatable to the context that informs them. They follow a sequence in this way, and that’s where the tension builds. But I’m also very interested in stillness as a way of performing agency – particularly in a public place, and not necessarily as part of a collective demonstration.
** Scale seems integral to all this; the small things are made very big and vice versa.
FM: When the limited parameters of a setting, a bathroom for instance, have been defined it means that any expansion beyond the fact of that space, within the narrative, is clearly internal and imaginary – if not hallucinatory. A limit like this allows for an attention to detail about other things – namely movements and particular turns of phrase. I like to focus on the significances of what seem like inconsequential movements and gestures. My own obsession with detailing and unpacking the little things comes from anxiety. I dig through conversations and situations beyond interpretation, to the point where there is no objectivity, I lose all sense of scale, and I believe that what’s happening isn’t happening and what isn’t happening is happening. One way of alleviating this feeling is by trying to relate it back to a bigger picture – to re-abstract it. Otherwise I end up pressing it on the people I love, and I don’t want to do that.
** You say the script was written by you, but is not autobiographical; not fully in your own experience nor in the reality of someone else’s. Could you talk about your interest in hovering in the periphery?
FM: I’m not held on the periphery, not marginalized, not under any kind of duress. I do feel my emotions being manipulated and commoditised along with everyone else’s. It would be wrong of me to say that the script isn’t partly autobiographical; it’s just not specific. It’s an attempt to subvert and decentralize the way abstract emotions are depicted using a recognizable format. And I’m interested in what happens just to the side of the ‘content’ of the work. I want the viewer to be the subject of their own experience, so I try to make a periphery that is generative, or rather a space within the work that has potential. One way of doing this is by working on the periphery of my own subject to begin with, and later by extrapolating elements of the work through the dynamics of its installation. I try to make a kind of gateway-extrusion leading from the space towards the work and back again. The end result may still be manipulative – it’s not always nice to be around – but I hope that it ignites something in a person encountering the work whilst giving them room to breathe.**