When visiting Kirsty Hendry’s Navel Gazing, I applied my usual process when experiencing art – I did not read the two introductory texts accompanying the piece before attending the screening. Being quite passionate about conceptual and politically engaged art, I find that this initial refusal of the textual gives space to my ‘gut feeling’ to shape my experience of an artistic space. Moreover, this approach seemed particularly appropriate as Hendry’s artwork was advertised as exploring exactly that instinctive knowledge residing in our bodily sensations, challenging the primacy of the logical brain.
However, at a first read the work did not leave me particularly moved. Beginning with a reconstruction of how historically the mind was believed to reside in the abdomen rather than in the brain, the video-artwork alternated digital animations with performance by the Aby Watson. She interpreted the character of the gut in a dialogue with the rest of the body that kept on dismissing her importance and her knowledge. The performer kept on breaking from her role, looking off camera, talking with the director and adjusting to different pitches. I found that this choice only disrupted the performance without adding any particular value to it. In a bit of a stretch, I tried to connect it to the Gut’s statement of her lack of ordinary vision which could be expressed by the actress’ disregard for the camera. However, the subsequent presence of texts on the floor from which she was reading, undermined such interpretation.
The performance did not lack some insightful ideas about returning to prioritize what our body communicates to us rather than attempting to rationalise our feelings and sensations and revolt against them. Definitely a reminder that resonates with many of our stressed readers who have recently pulled all-nighters and pushed their bodily limits in service of mid-term essays and papers. Against this particularly hectic and stressful moment the Gut repeated in different pitches that ‘by gazing into your navel long enough you could comprehend the universe’ – a sentence which both stresses the importance of inward looking to learn about our own selves as well as pointing to an interesting connection with the exhibition space – Calton Hill used to house the city observatory.
The artist’s introductory text and Alison Scott’s response essay helped me grasp a deeper level of interpretation for this artwork. Hendry in fact ideated the body as a metaphor to criticize how the political system that is logic within our brain, is presented as normative. The criticism between logic and nature characterized feminist critical theory developed in the 1970s-80s which reclaimed women’s knowledge and worth dismissed by stereotypes of feminine sensibility, weakness and inferior ‘nature’. This feminist reading resonates with the criticism that the Gut has received for being ‘too raw, too needy, too sensitive, too emotional’ and that she embraces in a heightened and inflamed performance. I discovered that the excess of performers is meant to represent melodrama which uses these characteristics as a ‘critique of underlying social and political ideologies’. Besides using the body as site for ideological criticism, Hendry reclaims the importance of the Gut on a scientific basis, presenting how the colonies of microorganism inside our stomach play a vital part in our experience of the world. They are not only essential to our emotional and mental well-being, but they also help to shape our perceptions, thus potentially supporting Gut’s claim of her possession of a divine gaze that allows us to know things without seeing them.
The texts accompanying the artwork definitely added interesting angles to this piece, but unfortunately, they could not wash off my initial gut feeling about it. Moreover, I find quite contradictory that my appreciation of an artwork about gut feeling, came from its textual analysis and explanation. I think I expected a more immersive experience to communicate the sensation of instinctual knowledge. Overall, I found quite hard to engage with a video artwork not complemented with any kind of physical element within the exhibition space even though Hendry’s piece explored bodily positioned knowledge. Hendry’s conception and critical interpretation of the piece shed light on a very interesting project with great potential, whose realisation sadly did not keep up with such promise.
Image: Courtesy of Kirsty Hendry, Collective Gallery