Sometimes We Aren't Who We Think We Are: The Transgression of Autobiography in Dani Marti's 'insideout.'
In a cold basement, water drips occasionally from a ceiling that is not so much damp as semi aquatic. I can’t see the walls well, but the surfaces I can make out are pitted and stained. There’s an insistent, bone chilling draught, but the video by Spanish-Australian artist Dani Marti on the far wall is utterly crisp, and the image is perfectly sharp. Viewers drift in, watch, and leave again, mounting the creaking stairs with the scruff of boots and trainers that are trying to make no noise. There’s a hush here, as you might feel when someone says something publicly that is in essence intensely private.
In Time Is The Fire in Which We Burn, we watch for just over an hour as a man identified as ‘John’ lies naked in bed with Marti, the artist, and talks frankly, intimately, about his life. Marti listens, questions, prompts, touches. Sometimes he leaves the bed and disappears from shot before returning. Sometimes he gets up to move the camera. John remains in the bed and is clearly the focus of the film, though Marti never conceals his own presence. John talks endlessly about himself, and at least partly to himself. He is candid about his life as he perceives it, and as he describes it to us and to Marti. His life – John's life – shifts between the multiple identities of any social being, and we watch him occupy several as the film progresses: as an HIV+ gay man; as a former prostitute; as a drug user; as a homecoming Scot; as a Glaswegian; as a man who has survived the failure of a relationship; as a man with good intentions; as a man who laughs and cries and thinks and wonders. And we likewise understand as we watch that this is not John’s whole life, but rather the life he chooses to present to us, on this day, at this time, in bed with Marti.
The portrait of John as it emerges from Time Is The Fire is undeniably intense and, despite the verbal, emotional, and psychological breadth of the work, the overwhelming sense is of the physical. As viewers our attention is continually rooted on John’s body whether he’s eating, wriggling, rubbing his head, or touching himself or Marti. The projected surface of John’s body is continually both present and available as he physically displays himself to us, the unseen viewer (present to him, we imagine, only as a tripod and camera in the bedroom, with all the overtones of pornography that that implies). This body focus is emphasised as John talks about his experiences of prostitution, describing how his body felt ‘given away’ and the emotional repercussions of that. As viewers we enter into this scrutiny as our perception of John’s physicality changes with what he reveals both verbally and visually – now he is vulnerable, now he is familiar, now he is cold, now he is thirsty, now he is tired, now he is aroused – and in relation to how he positions himself in relation to Marti, revealing and exposing himself emotionally, but simultaneously comparing himself against and even competing with, the body of the artist.
That the body of the artist is visibly part of this play of exchange is, of course, unusual. It is also a shift that is critical to the significance as well as the success of insideout. To render explicit (in several senses) the presence of the artist is a decision that positions Marti alongside his subjects/participants as a gay man living with HIV and making sense of his own sense of self. This is no outsider looking into a community to which they do not belong. Rather, here we have an artist voicing the separate, perhaps contradictory elements of himself through the thoughts and experiences of others – through their bodies, as well as their biographies.
It's a complex position this, to see ourselves partly through the way others see themselves, but perhaps it is also an important one as we seek to understand the relationships between ourselves and the social world that surrounds us. And although Marti is clearly not as vulnerable as the other participants in his films (he does, for example, control the editing) the unforgiving poetry of autobiography seems central to insideout as an exhibition. It is brought to the fore in the film Disclosure-Dani, a 14 minute film of the artist, again naked, as he is interviewed by unseen figures: a social worker specialising in HIV, a psychologist and friend; a psychotherapist; a hypnotherapist. Disclosure-Dani is intimate, transgressive, and not always flattering. But perhaps because of this it functions as the heart at the very centre of the exhibition, around which each of the other works are regulated. We genuinely feel for Marti here, charismatic as he is, but we also judge him, particularly as he breaks the taboos of his practice and talks about the strategies he uses in his film-making. This judgement again reinforces the quality of the autobiographical exchange around which insideout hinges. By exposing the anatomy of that exchange we feel that Marti withholds nothing from us, although the same quality of knowing through saying (of verbally articulating something in order to be able to recognise it) seems present in Marti's interviews in at least as great a degree as in Time is the Fire or in Disclosure, the other epic 'confessional' piece in the show.
Disclosure-Dani is devastatingly honest, and placed as it is alongside the longer multichannel Disclosure – in which seven different men talk in fragmented glimpses about their sexuality, illness, and identity – it becomes a solid and inarguable centre. If Disclosure-Dani is the exhibition's heart however, in Disclosure itself we find something more akin to its soul, for here is the true grief of the series. In Disclosure we find genuine and sincere tragedy on a scale so intimate that it becomes perhaps universal, revealing the very quietest, most broken of narratives as an older man cries. The biography that emerges through the words that this man cannot say as well as those he does, is of an biography composed of regret, and of an understanding of self that has been forged in intolerance and shaped by a blinding or negation of that very self: a selfhood that tries to shrink itself to nothing. And as this single voice is joined by others that surround and reposition it, Marti succeeds in presenting something that is not truly a portrait at all, but an exploration; a questioning of our understanding, as a society, of our own veracities and subjecthoods.
Because what is so significant about Time is the Fire, Disclosure, and Disclosure Dani as well as the other works in insideout, is that though they are deeply rooted in a particular HIV+ gay identity, they are not necessarily about that identity. Rather they seem partly to talk about the problems of autobiography in its widest sense: the difficulty of knowing who we are; the difficulty of saying who we are; and what happens when, by saying something, we know it to be true. Because not everything we know about ourselves is true, and likewise, what we may know as truth today we may recognise as falsehood tomorrow. insideout is clearly partly Marti's own autobiography but it may also perhaps be all of ours, whoever we are, so long as we ask ourselves questions to which we don't always know the answer.
Back in the basement, John is crying, or maybe laughing. At times it's hard to tell. The water continues to drip. The walls smell of damp, and plaster. I know this is not how Marti originally intended his most recent body of work to be shown in Glasgow, the city of it's making, and the city in which Marti chooses to spend a significant part of his life. I know that some works in insideout are in this sodden basement because they've been withheld from public display in the city’s Gallery of Modern Art. And I know that the decision not to exhibit the work in the publicly funded GoMA was taken because the civic authority feared public displeasure and media criticism. And so I should feel that their relocation here is a compromise, a ghettoising insult to the sensitivity and intelligence of GoMA’s visitors as well as to Marti himself and the participants in his films. But somehow I don’t, quite. Or rather, though I do feel the censure to be insulting, unwarranted, and even cowardly, I don’t feel that Marti’s decision to relocate emerges as a compromise.
The work here is strong enough to be seen anywhere. insideout is not, as we have seen, a series of objective documents whose validity may be challenged by their recontextualisation. Instead, as we watch this series of nuanced first-person impressions, each video shifts between fragments of unverifiable disclosure and the moments of silence that parallel them. The voices are fallible. They are edited and they are at times self conscious, just as we may be conscious that we are subjects as well as objects in the privacy of our own heads. By displaying such vulnerability in construction as well as content, Marti's work must inescapably remind us of ourselves.