I watched a documentary recently about anxiety, which dealt with some residents of a psychiatric institution in London. Despite the troublingly mawkish treatment of severe illness, it made for fascinating viewing. Featured in it was a young woman by the name of Helen, who had a very particular fear: she was terrified of doing harm to strangers, specifically by putting them in bins. Despite the outright absurdity of this fear, she was unable to dismiss it. Indeed, obsessive-compulsive disorder is predicated on these kinds of irrational fears, and is marked by a kind of untrammelled hyper-morality: another man in the documentary was terrified by the thought that he might become a paedophile.
Oddly enough, it was this notion that I thought about as I traversed Sam Keogh’s solo exhibition, Mop, recently on view at the Kerlin Gallery. The exhibition takes as its starting point the figure of Oscar the Grouch, Sesame Street’s most idiosyncratic character. The show comprised video, sculptures, and found objects, all placed on the floor, which in turn was covered by a harlequinesque vinyl overlay. The objects ranged greatly in size, but all were united by a certain barely made quality: they had the look of objects that once performed a use, but were now estranged from it, in decay. Indeed, the entire exhibition didn’t really comprise singular objects, but rather lots and lots of stuff, underfoot and all around you: to consider one object as autonomous was to somewhat miss the point.
A central video work, Taken out of/put into Oscar’s Bin (2013), provided some context for the cacophony of things surrounding it. In it, Keogh reads aloud a text, a disjointed reflection on Oscar. The camera slips and shakes, perhaps as people move around the cameraman. Keogh is in a crowded place, possibly an art opening, yet there doesn’t appear to be much of an audience: people continue to chat all around him, indifferent. The text is tightly scripted, and his recital a persistent monotone. In Oscar, Keogh senses a figure emblematic of non-normative behaviour, his defiant abjectness acting as a veritable two-fingered salute to established norms of behaviour. Sesame Street appears as a microcosm of the wider world, where ‘tolerance quarantines non-normativity in a cheap bin bag.’ The figure of Oscar, Keogh believes, articulates the contingency of normativity, and of things like good taste and manners: his modus operandi is based on the desire to ‘deface the currency of custom.’ His refusal is not determined by antagonism, it would seem, but by an extreme laziness: he simply couldn’t be bothered. This gesture holds the same import – perhaps even more – as a gesture of concerted action: as Keogh says in the video work, ‘a tonne of laziness weighs the same as a tonne of enthusiasm, but it smells worse.’
In Oscar, the abject is made visible and given a voice. The inherent shitness of the world is rendered palpable: in such a way, he might be construed as an innately moral being. As I stepped around the stuff of Mop, I began to think about ‘things’ themselves. Here, the found objects occupied the same space as the sculptural works. This lack of hierarchy produced an equivalence based on the fact of their material being, their unavoidable addition to the realm of ‘things’. An artwork, like a tatty shoe, just takes up space. Thus, if Western capitalism is based on accumulation – specifically, of things – then artworks fuel this system in tandem with other, more banal commodities. Viewed in this way, Keogh’s work performs a paradoxical critique of itself: like the obsessive-compulsive, his work constitutes the performance of a kind of ill-fated hyper-morality.
Oscar is recalibrated as a kind of messianic antihero, an unlikely avant-gardist. Keogh, however, is acutely aware that art no longer has the ability to shock. Art is now a space where bizarre or repulsive occurrences are actually anticipated. Artists, in turn, lose the ability to enact any real response, and are recast as what the artist collective Claire Fontaine calls ‘whatever singularities’, resigned to the impossibility of the ‘New’. In this knowledge, Keogh looks to Oscar as one might Duchamp, yearningly and not without a hint of nostalgia. If, as Jacques Rancière says, the aesthetic regime is predicated on the fact that, ‘everything is equal, equally representable’, then Mop’s work appears to be made in the doomed hope that there exists something that eludes representation.
In the video work, Keogh casts a self-critical eye on his creative co-option of Oscar the Grouch. Aware of the parasitical relationship he has entered into with this character, he also knows that this relationship effectively tempers Oscar in the pursuit of his own personal gain. By adopting the figure of Oscar, Keogh places him into a context also governed by its own models of normativity, with its own specific conventions of behaviour and taste. The art-world doesn’t even blink at his arrival, but simply flattens him within a system of ‘mall-like’ equivalence. Keogh is certainly conscious of the de-radicalising potential of art, and of his own complicity within it. By writing about it, also, I only serve to further placate Oscar’s essentially unreasonable nature. Like the artist, I simply take him out of one bin, only to put him in another: this is the double bind Keogh successfully navigates in Mop. And yet, aware that Oscar’s power is predicated on his refusal to be within any one system, Keogh wilfully places him there anyway.
By this action, the exhibition offers a messy – yet intelligent – summation of the problem of artistic practice in a world where everything and anything – however sacred – is vulnerable to appropriation.