Just a few days ago while visiting my parents, my mother described to me her latest interest: Cycladic sculpture. The shapes were female figures, and the society was matriarchal - men had not yet understood their own role in procreation, she explained. Implicit in these historical artefacts was a creation question: could patriarchy, in its current form, be usefully understood as having begun in the Bronze Age as a secondary phase of the existing matriarchy wherein the men at the time, newly knowledgeable in the vital role their own bodies played in making babies, are incensed by the pride and entitlement therein to make weapons and conquer each other? In this context, Jesus' immaculate conception is a civilising event - it collapses the instability of this (patriarchal) dyadic mode of being, extinguishing the constant pressure of individuation it generates, in favour of a (matriarchal) primeval monadism, a cosmic oneness that alleviates this "life and death" struggle.
To be honest, I had been worried about Zoë Brooks. We both have studios at Holy Rollers in Prospect (just north of North Adelaide), and periodically I would poke my head around to peer at the neighbouring studio spaces. What I saw in Brooks' space was nothing short of Satanized biblical verse, alive and screaming silently like something from a VanderMeer novel, scrawled in drippy blue paint all across all three of the walls that delimit her studio. I didn't linger, but I found my thoughts returning to the scene, trying to process what it meant.
Brooks had in fact been collaborating with Justin R Monaghan of JR Faith Creations, and together they had, in a fit of creative energy, written on her studio walls. From the "about" section of his website, Justin's work evolves through a spontaneous creative process, and he signs his paintings with the name Jesus, lettered in ancient hebraic script. Also on his website, perhaps by way of explanation, Justin quotes Picasso: "Painting is not done to decorate apartments but is an instrument of war." The culmination of their collaboration, Healing in the Midst of Fear, was exhibited in at FELTspace, March 2017.
When I ran into her a couple of weeks later, Brooks was in fine spirits. We joked morbidly about the debauched scene in her studio, and about the prospect of "going crazy", and reminisced on the vivid imagery afforded to those stories by so many horror films since Carrie et al in the mid 70s. In retrospect, despite the exhibition, our debriefing, connecting and laughing, I hadn't fully exhaled.
It is useful, in my opinion, to understand art as a type of thinking, or an attempt to think; and as such, art always happens between people. Brooks’ process here, of art-making as a series of facilitations, firstly with Monaghan in Healing, and subsequently, with St Luke’s Catholic Parish Craft Group for this show, Live by Faith Not by Feelings, seems to have connected, in both instances, with an obfuscated and ancient kind of cultural technology.
Perhaps what I found most troubling about the scary scrawling wasn't that it felt like an empty trope and so had lost relevance, but the opposite - it connected with a part of myself that had been, and still is, in a very real way, engaged in a very serious psychic struggle. Something about the abruptness of their collaboration seeped down into the ugly foundations of my personality and connected with something entitled and belligerent - a place of primeval dyadic instability, ala the furnace in the basement of the house in Aronofsky's Mother!
Whatever it is, Brooks, Monaghan, and Aronofsky aren't the only ones investigating it - there seems to be something of a group effort at work. Mindhunter, a series ostensibly investigating the mechanics of the thinking of serial killers, points at it when David Fincher and his team of writers over at Netflix have their protagonists discuss how a sociopath could possibly become the president of the United States, to which the rhetorical reply is " ... how do you get to be president of the United States if you're not?" I watched this episode when #me_too was trending, and for me it seemed like the two were related: we were using social media to process something, a related thing to what was being investigated in Mindhunter. And that we are, in some way, manifesting a collective will to knowledge.
We might even risk a "neurological", timescales-based interpretation of Live by Faith, Not by Feelings. Without getting too deep into it (there is an online talk by Uri Hasson, titled Your Brain On Communication that covers this topic), it seems that our brains are structured according to the timescale that that part of the brain processes. The timescales it takes to render a narrative, ie. minutes to hours, are processed in and close to the frontal cortex, where we have traditionally understood personality, identity and agency to manifest. Žižek's description of the masculine position as being angled towards the destruction of narrative, might then translate to a privileging of those parts of the brain responsible for processing shorter timescales over those parts of the brain responsible for processing longer ones.
In her investigations into immaculate conception, I don't think it is any coincidence that Brooks came to knitting. I myself became quite obsessed with knitting about five years ago - just when the therapy was starting to take. Something about the vigilance required to stitch upon stitch, continuously onwards, to not lose the thread; this seemed vitally important. Žižek would say that this is the feminine position - angled towards the retention and compatibility of narratives, rather than towards their destruction.
I wasn't privy to the sessions Brooks attended at St Luke's Catholic Parish Craft Group, in Noarlunga, but this seems consistent with Luisa Redford's account in the catalogue essay - matriarchs discussing how the lives and deaths of their friends and family members fit into a larger scheme; knitting themselves and their loved ones, alive and passed away, into the fabric of their community. The stitching of a new generation into an older one.
The group, through this lens, is a secret cache of redemptive cultural technology: this is the running stitch; this is when and how you use a backstitch; this is how we can talk about trauma; this is how we mend a fabric that has been torn. The effects of those depraved forces that cut narratives short, that explode the possibility of their continuation, are able to be managed through the labour of somehow stitching together these smaller moments we know to be real, into bigger, more encompassing narratives. From here you could definitely mount the argument that knitting perhaps, not the printing press, ought to be the technology par excellence of modernism. And perhaps this is why Žižek would say that the only way to atheism is through Christianity.
Terence McKenna would say that there are no political solutions, only technological ones. With knitting as its predominant medium, immaculate conception is revealed in the work as a civilising technology, returning us to the primacy of the mother. Brooks' treatment of IVF similarly reveals it as a technology of immaculate conception. After this, it is hard to know. I think that maybe we are in a crisis. I find it hard to describe more directly, but I do sense that we are in one. I don't think it was just the scrawling on the wall. Maybe we have always been in it. I can't really explain very much, except to say that toxic masculinity doesn't quite seem to do it justice. Perhaps a better descriptor might be psychotic masculinity. And when I stepped into Brooks and the craft group's Live by Faith Not by Feelings, what I felt was relief.