Review: The unspoken clitoris in Heather B Swann

 Heather B Swann, Karen Woodbury Gallery, Level 1, 167 Flinders Lane, until 21 September


Standing almost two metres high, a large and blunt horn curves forward.  With the title *Husband*, this black eminence seems something between a rock from Stonehenge and a human figure, but very phallic, like an archaic fetish, let us say Bonehenge.

Created by Heather B Swann at Karen Woodbury Gallery, the extravagant big-boy has an unsettling little window at the bottom with a face set into it.  It seems like a tasteless rupture for the grandiose formal integrity of the sculpture.  But on symbolic grounds, the physiognomy at the lowest part of the colossal erection is a challenge to your nerve.

If it’s the husband’s face—and you can’t tell for sure—then it suggests that the male headspace is all penis, overblown and overbearing.  If it’s a female face, which is likelier, it might suggest that the woman is oppressed by the overpowering marriage tackle.  But the way I see the female face is that it marks the point of contact with the clitoris.

Men and women don’t really line up.  During intercourse, they overshoot one another, so that his sweetspot doesn’t act upon hers.  The part of greatest pleasure to her is independent of the greatest thrill to him.  It makes sense, then, that that the phallus would make a failed monument:  it needs to have a mod, another face put in lower down, to acknowledge its use to the female.

But according to Swann, it isn’t just the penis that needs two faces.  A branch can sprout several faces.  Called *Bachelor*, a horizontal trunk is populated by male heads, perhaps each the progenitor of a scion, as if making a Tree of Jesse that has tumbled.  Or perhaps, given the title, it’s a gentleman on the look-out, multiplying his head to gaze at prospects from every branch.

Swann’s most uncanny invention is *The dream of Hans*, which is a girl-spider, a headless human trunk suspended by a eight legs.  This nightmarish fiction proposes that four women have been sacrificed to yield the eight legs and one body.

As a biological fantasy, the creature would be dysfunctional.  Leaving aside that she lacks a head, the legs are arranged to thrust perpendicularly to the spine.  Rather than carrying the body forward, the two pairs of legs could only push the body to the side; and even so the one side would counteract the other.

Perhaps *The dream of Hans* caricatures the male tendency to carve up women in the imagination and to isolate their body parts for visual consumption.  The feet, for example, only touch the ground at the pads, as if their shape is conditioned by unseen stilettos.  Compared to any Freudian spider, it is fashionably sanitized, without a black hairy volume in the middle.

In all events, the process of dismembering and reconstituting the fetishized body parts, free of a head, is extrapolated grotesquely.  It has resulted in a hideously stimied erotic monster, a human queen of insects, let us say insex, as creepy as they come, a girl-cockroach with neither brain nor groin.

This phantasm can be compared to other figures whose head is absorbed into the torso and arms.  Bearing the title of *Lump and sticks*, these figures bury their heads either by standing on it, driving it into the wall or doubling it over and clutching it with their arms.  The body becomes “lump and sticks”, a depressing lump that comprises head, torso and arms, and then desperate or compromised sticks for legs.

If it’s all too unflattering compared to the titanic dong with the face, other readings are possible, as with all symbolically inflected art.  Swann is fascinated by the shape of ancient barrows or *tumuli*, burial mounds that make a lump of the figure and are also about the generations spawning one another.

But putting a face to the barrow, literally, is left to Ichwan Noor in *Crossing contemporary cultures* at MiFA (278 Collins St) with a wheel-barrow, whose aluminium tray is a huge human face.  The face itself has little substance but the shell must carry a lot of dirt.  Sculptors, it seems, are reclaiming the symbolic with a vengeance.

By Robert Nelson

Robert Nelson

Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age. Robert’s most recent book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, was published by Craft Victoria, 2014, available freely online.