Something Unspoken


Installation View, Garden District, Hiram To, 2009

Set within the Garden District of New Orleans, Tennessee William’s gothic dramas Suddenly, Last Summer and Something Unspoken draw the viewer into an underworld of taboo, falsehood and hypocrisy, its occupants continually haunted by ‘something unspoken’.  Suddenly, Last Summer, set in 1937, describes the sinister lengths to which Violet Venable (played by Katherine Hepburn), grieving mother of Sebastian, is prepared to go in order to suppress the truth about her son, his sexuality and violent death.  In eulogy to her poet son and to their relationship she recounts ‘We would carve each day like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture until suddenly, last summer…’  And thus the film exposes the excesses of human nature - obsession, ambition, manipulation, greed, lust and jealousy until the truth is finally revealed in the garden, an eccentric netherworld of Sebastian’s own making, filled with primeval and carnivorous plants.

Hiram To’s Garden District is the premise for a similar unmasking of truths, drawing parallels between plant nature and human nature and the strategies that both plant life and people employ for survival.  The individuals appearing within the work— Merle Oberon, Jiang Qing, David Hampton, Chung Ling Soo, Tania Head, Shin Jeong Ah, Neil H. Roderick II and C. S. Leigh— were the skilled creators of survival strategies in the form of elaborate subterfuges, inventing alternate identities for themselves for a variety of reasons.  Some sought to change their identities for career advancement, such as actress Merle Oberon and illusionist Chung Ling Soo (né William Robertson).  Others used this strategy for money or shelter, such as David Hampton, or to gain attention and acceptance as in the case of spurious September 11 survivor Tania Head.  Sex offender Neil H. Roderick II masqueraded as a 12 year old boy undetected for months until concerned teachers, believing him to be an abused child, investigated his home life.

In Buried at the Door, a disembodied hand is seen knocking at the door of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind who uses different personae in order to hypnotise and cheat his victims.  The image itself has undergone a series of transformations at the hand of the artist.  From its original form as a moving image in Fritz Lang’s 1922 film Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler, the image first appeared in the form of a frontispiece wall panel in Hiram To’s 1992 work KARAOKE.  For Buried at the Door, the doctor’s name plaque and the unidentified hand have been removed from the wall and ‘re-placed’ onto the floor, woven into the pile of a three-meter diameter carpet, creating a physical as well as psychological boundary.  Alluding to concealment and containment, this key work suggests that secrets as well as alter egos are required to be sealed and unspoken. 

The main body of work in Garden District comprises eight blue-toned lithographic printing plates and Carving Days. In the former, images sourced from books, magazines and the internet have been reverse engineered back to the very printing plate itself.  Through this process, the artist attempts to pare down the lives of his subjects into constituent parts consisting of botanical diagrams and illusionists’ tricks. In ‘unprinting’ the images and unsetting the cultural values accruing to them over time, To builds a new ‘blue print’ which refers not only to the colour of the plate, but also the metaphorical mapping of the subterfuges unique to each of the characters.

For example, in Merle Oberon, Transportation: Elastic Lady Illusion, Alpine White Crow Foot an image of the Hollywood actress who spent her entire career concealing her mixed race background is overlaid with a botanical drawing of the poisonous plant Alpine White Crow Foot and a diagram exposing the illusion of the Elastic Lady, a cabinet in which the body of the magician’s assistant appears to separate into impossible sections. 

Chung Ling Soo (a character who first appeared in To’s I Love You More Than My Own Death, a work presented at the 52nd Venice Biennale) is the subject matter of Chung Ling Soo, Penetration: Famous Spike Mystery/Pillars of Fear, Fly Blown Mushroom.  Furthering his career by assuming the identity of a Chinese illusionist, American William Robertson worked in direct competition another famous (real) Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo,  evolving into a personal feud.  Robertson ultimately died onstage from a wound inflicted by his own famous ‘catch the bullet trick’ . 

In another work, David Hampton, who claimed at times to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, managed to inveigle himself time and time again into the households and friendships of wealthy American society. His exploits subsequently became the inspiration for the play and film Six Degrees of Separation. David Hampton, Production: Frame of Life Illusion, Purple Fox Glove again overlays a distorted image of Hampton with a complex diagram of the Frame of Life illusion with the toxic foxglove plant.

Carving Days, the exhibition’s other centerpiece, is a continuous vine of hand-painted pennants connected with emerald green satin ribbon which disappears vertically to the ceiling, in reference to another illusion, the Indian Rope Trick.  The geometric designs painted on the pennants are letters of the alphabet devised for International Maritime Signal Flags. With characteristic playfulness, To creates a deliberate distance between language and understanding. Viewers are obliged to read between the gaps and to accept that this array of flags is not merely a random collection of patterns but is in fact a transliteration of Violet Venable’s self-consciously theatrical eulogy to Sebastian, creating a tangible divide between observation and interpretation.

Combining and layering references to botany, news reportage, history and cinema, Garden District draws together these assorted personalities, each of whom have created their own truths.  As Sebastian Venable once told the distraught character of his cousin, Catherine Holly (played by Elisabeth Taylor), the key witness to the events surrounding his death, ‘Truth is the bottom of a bottomless well.’  Looking to find the ‘truths’ buried within these life histories, again and again we are confronted with ‘something unspoken’, an ever-extending spiral of mysteries and uncertainties to the extent that ultimately, the truth may never be known.

Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2009


This essay was written to accompany the exhibition "Hiram To - Garden District", Goethe Institute, Hong Kong, May 2009