Graham Fagen’s exhibition, Under Heavy Manners, builds on two decades of work dedicated to examining the ways in which culture is produced and negotiated by people and objects. At Artpace, he has focused his attention on human teeth as a symbolic means to understand complex physical and emotional relationships. In the drawings, video, and sculpture that comprise his installation, he explores teeth simultaneously as objects of intense scrutiny and mediators of human interaction, both intimate and aggressive. He likens them to architecture, suggesting that these prominent and expressive facial structures operate like the façade of a building, demarcating the line between the public realm outside the body and the private realm inside the mind. Straddling the boundary between the self and the other, teeth stand as both a part of and apart from the body.
Two inky specters-both self-portraits on paper-bare their grotesquely distorted and uneven jaws in the space. Far from traditional portraiture, these haunting images depict the shape and size of Fagen’s teeth as he felt them while probing the interior of his mouth with his tongue. Tongue Behind Teeth, the wider, looser silhouette, represents the sensation of running his tongue along the contoured backsides of his teeth, while the neater and narrower bite, Tongue in Front of Teeth, depicts his tongue’s path along their front. The difference between the two drawings suggests the discrepancies between an individual’s self-perception and the way he or she might be perceived by others. Felt from the inside, the teeth and interior of the skull seem nebulous and complex. From the outside, the space they contain seems small and compact.
Themes of bodily perception and judgment are further developed in the second component of Fagen’s installation, Heavy Manners, a four-minute video loop projected in an open space carved out in rear of the gallery by two black theater backdrops. The piece opens with a full-body shot of a lone cellist sitting in an empty room. She begins to perform a deeply sonorous and droning rendition of The Slave’s Lament, a poem by the Scottish writer Robert Burns (who is most famous for having written the lyrics of the New Year’s favorite Auld Lang Syne). Fagen has explored the poet’s connections to slavery in previous works; this time, he invokes human captivity as a metaphor to examine complicated relationships brought about by and expressed in bodily interactions. Building upon his investigation of teeth as an architectural boundary between the self and other, his video makes reference to the common slave trade practice of judging the health and value of a human being by examining his or her mouth.
In a series of very close shots, four actors carry out what could be either a sacred ritual or medical examination. One at a time, a pair of hands dips into an unseen basin; they glisten as they rub together slowly and methodically, shimmering droplets of water dripping from their fingertips. Next, arms join together and one pair of hands caresses and carefully inspects the other. Suddenly, the arms switch places and roles. The same two pairs of arms are linked, but the hands that were being inspected are now doing the inspecting. Successive cuts elaborate this ritual of exchange and inspection: one at a time, a different pair of disembodied hands manipulates the head of each individual-twisting it, brushing aside hair, peeling open eyelids, and tugging at lips to examine teeth. At first, the touching seems almost tender, but as the notes of the cello become rough, so does the handling of the bodies. Finally, as a cluster of arms envelops each body and pulls it off-screen, it becomes unclear whether they are offering a loving embrace or a suffocating grip. As the footage returns to the image of the cellist, we notice that she coaxes the notes from her instrument with the same ambiguous combination of tenderness and violence. By positioning each character in the roles of both examiner and examined object, Fagen complicates our perception of the relationship between slave and master. As the hands move from tender to rough and the cycles repeat, we witness an allegory of the depth and complexity of human relationships, in which the roles of caretaker, aggressor, lover, and victim are never exact and are always changing.
The exhibition culminates with Our Shared, Common, Private Space, an impression of the artist’s teeth cast in bronze and stained with black patina. Perched above an unusually tall pedestal, the bronzed dentures are positioned at the height they would be if attached to a living, breathing body. Suspending them in mid-air, Fagen sculpts the space around the jaws, challenging the viewer to examine them from all sides and fill in the missing architecture. Imagining a body and voice for the disembodied and objectified teeth places the viewer in the role of the examiner, and whether or not our judgment is fair, the sculpture remains silent without us to speak for them.