Violence of Everyday Objects: Thoughts on Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s “Flame Tempered”
written by Conor O’Brien, The Living Gallery
The first object in Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s show “Flame Tempered” is a ceramic knife. It is without much definition, and barely noticeable from a distance, fading into the white walls of the gallery. It seems small and fragile compared with the other pieces on display, especially the dramatic eponymous piece of the show. But this object sets a certain tone for when one goes on to encounter these other objects. The knife occupies a strange space in the world of objects: it belongs equally to the world of the everyday mundane and the world of violence. The particular knife Lindsey-Hall has chosen to cast highlights this fact. It is unclear without further definition whether this particular knife is a normal kitchen knife or some kind of hunting tool. The distinction between mundane object and weapon is obscured.
Objects do not have intent; they reflect the intent of their user. It is this reflective quality that is most unsettling aspect of everyday objects. And it is for this reason that even prior to understanding their context, the collection of ceramic objects exhibited in Lindsey-Hall’s show seem so unsettling cast in their ghostly, monochromatic white. The knife is the most obvious example of the crossover between the world of the mundane and the world of violence, but as soon as one is put into this frame of mind, it is difficult to not imagine the inherent danger of the other objects: a plunger, a bottle of bleach, a soup can, baseball bats. Without further definition, the objects in the show are reduced to pure reflectivity, bound neither by the world of the mundane or that of violence: each could cross with ease between these worlds.
Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, a former lobbyist for queer-rights in Kentucky, researched and catalogued in a database a series of violent hate crimes targeting homosexual and transgender people, using this research to form the context for her work. While initially a photographer, Lindsey-Hall has of late produced ceramic sculptures of the everyday objects that she has discovered often become weapons in these violent crimes. At the “Paris is Burning” film screening and artist talk event at the Living Gallery, the artist talked about her process. She takes the ceramic objects out of their molds before they’ve dried completely so that she’s able to manipulate the slip. During the talk, she commented on how unlike photography, this process allowed her some intimacy with the object: how her hand-print is implicit in the manipulation of the clay, and how this manipulation of clay object parallels the violent act. It is an attempt at understanding the act by bringing her into closer intimacy with it, rather than the distanced understanding afforded by photography.
This process is most prominent in the surreal “Flame Tempered,” an installation of over 70 ceramic baseball bats, manipulated so as to suggest a swarming motion around a lightbulb situated in the center of the piece and which casts the piece in a dramatic, cinematic light. The artist’s photographic background translates into this piece, in the play with light and shadow, the sense of suspended motion. The piece was based on a hate crime that occurred blocks from the Living Gallery in 2008. The bat she used for the mold is one from her childhood: one with which she learned to play softball. This is a further heightening of the two poles of the object, at once a symbol of nostalgia and irrational hate. This personal context also heightens the artist’s intimacy with work, and by extension, the act it is based on.
By moving the crime from outside to inside the gallery, the artist asks for all viewers to participate in this intimate understanding of crime, criminal, and victim. Lindsey-Hall says on her website that she was interested in the bat as “an American symbol of masculinity, sport, and in this case, violent object.” Speaking at the artist talk about her interest in casting the bleach bottle, Lindsey-Hall mentioned how she felt the idea of cleansing, the need to “clean” someone who perceived to be dirty or immoral, was wrapped up in the use of the object for violent purposes. The work suggests that these objects, so often encountered and barely noticed, blending into the fabric of daily experience, not only have the potential for violence, but also that their mundane use is not entirely divorced from their violent use. Something about the fantasy of masculinity in the use of the baseball bat, the desire to purify in the use of the bleach, translates with an unsettling ease into an these acts of violence. We are invited to contemplate how the ideology and the violence exists already even in the object’s conventional use. In part due to their reduction to these characterless form, the objects in Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s show ask the viewer to understand the crimes in which they are used not as a detached observer but as an intimate participant.