‘[G]ambling can take possession not only of the future – in the form of feverish expectation – but also of the past… I sometimes believe that most gamblers are the stepchildren of love, whether of parental or sexual love, and that here at the gambling tables they are looking for fate to provide them with an adoption that ennobles them more than the origins that repudiated them.’ [i]
India Zegan has been creating her Museum of Fathers for the past two decades. Her exhibits include her sculpture, installations and performance pieces, as well as documentary evidence. In a dialogue with conceptual art these works draw on autobiography, gender theory and literary narratives of masculinity and fatherhood.
Zegan’s employment in art institutions informs her practice and the scope of her ambition for her private museum. Her works are often mis-en-scènes for both museums and domestic settings. And they are titled in a mix of the conventions of collection registration and of family law documents. Her studio consists of a workshop and a mutable gallery of exhibiting spaces. In a series of conversations, personal and public, the walls and display units are reconfigured with each new installation.
Zegan is the product of three Eastern European parents who immigrated to an insular and uncomprehending Australia after their respective internments in World War 2 camps. The two men who served as Zegan’s fathers were both gamblers. Neither was able to sustain family obligations. One was a boxer and the other was a punting addict. Zegan had several stints in Children’s Homes and was fortunate to escape the forced adoptions still taking place at the time. In the tradition of artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Gregor Schneider who return obsessively to their formative sites and relationships, Zegan’s themes are renewed with each manifestation.
The French romantic painter Gericault is a key influence on this body of work. Of particular interest to Zegan is his Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1822), one of five pictures commissioned to illustrate social and mental deterioration. For Zegan this portrait of an unkempt and disenfranchised man is a representation of the unsayable: of the truths we ignore or speak about in whispers. Another of Gericault’s works, Horses Hindquarters (c.1814-15), is an oil painting of the rumps of twenty-four horses. In Zegan’s reading there are connotations for the unpalatable facts of lineage, and an insistence that we stare down our histories to make visible what has been absent.
From the exterior of Zegan’s studio, viewers can look into a small showcase in which thirteen objects are laid out in the precise manner of museum display. Made up of a variety of builders’ fillers, Inverted Knuckle Busters: Deal Series #4-16, are individual, sculptural imprints of hand-grips. These moulds of the interior of the artist’s fist, also refer to the positions a boxer’s hand assumes in preparation for the sport. The materials evoke the domestic plugging of gaps, but the strangeness of the resulting forms suggest that our most intimate and familiar gestures might carry, and record, more than we can know.
The Deal works consider games of chance and the cards the gambler is given to wager with. Zegan is drawing parallels between her fathers’ betting and her own variety: the precarious finances, and the compromised paid careers and status, which artists stake, with their passion, against possible futures. Previous works in this series have included everyday objects sourced from the deceased estate of the artist’s estranged, biological father. These former possessions, now exhibits in the Museum of Fathers, are mementoes of past gambles. Together the Deal Series make up an investigation of ideas of inheritance.
Zegan’s research into the bequeathal of trauma is evident in works like the installation Playing Field, in which personal identity and responsibility is displaced into that of a gendered group. The bulging, stuffed Y-fronts are satirical portraits: sculptural caricatures of subjects who remain anonymous. In an accompanying performance, Raspberry Slurpee, Zegan assumes the guise of a toppled ‘corner doll’ in the installation space. Also known as ‘sorry dolls’, these are faceless, toddler-sized dummies, dressed in children’s clothes for the purpose of home ornamentation. Designed to lean shame-faced into corners, they too are effigies of unidentified scapegoats.
Hilarious, pathetic and creepy, the over-sized mannequin features in another performance: No More Bing Crosby Christmas. This is set in a second installation, H, which is only visible through the drain-hole of a sink mounted in an external studio wall. Inside is a corridor with a broken, haphazardly decorated Christmas tree, rotating on its side. The artist as sorry doll monopolises the viewing peephole for the duration of the performance, and the audience is only able to speculate as to what is being seen. This is the tragicomic territory of an especially warped family romance. And it is on this fraught and shifting ground of solemnity and tongue-in-cheek, of pathos and humour, that Zegan has constructed her Museum of Fathers.
Lynne Barwick, March 2013