*Trigger warning: sexual assault and swearing*
The first time a man touches me, I’m still a child. I see him across the pool, moving closer.
The water is as blue as a baby’s eye, and as warm as tears. We are chlorine, burned sausages, ice-cream, diving to the pool floor for lost coins. Too young to be this old. I’m only ten, pretending to be a jellyfish. Rash vest ballooning around me, I bubble through the blue, pulsing like a heartbeat, shivery and skinless. I’m a jellyfish. I’m a girl. I know how to sting.
I see the man in sunlight. Then in shadow. Then in sunlight. I see bruises on his arm. Underwater, under sky. Sunlight, shadow. Moving closer. I can’t see his face too well. Maybe he doesn’t have a face. The thought makes me giggle. Sunlight, shadow. I can’t see his face. Eyeless, he watches me. Mouthless, he smiles. I duck under water, come up. He’s right beside me. Talking to someone on his right. Watch him turn around, like the end of summer. Like ice entering my blood. I see he has brown eyes and a crooked nose and he’s looking at me funny and I can’t think, fear clutched in my palms, but I hear him say, sorry. Then he slides his hand up the inside of my thigh.
And I fall into his mouth.
September, 2023. The grass is dead. The birds stand with their beaks open. Inside the art gallery, the air is cool. The sun breaks on the floor as I turn my back to the door and walk into the exhibition. Today I screamed in a lecture. Screamed and screamed. I couldn’t stop, and I don’t know why. I’m scared of bright lights. Dogs. The veins in my arm. Swimming pools, raw meat and men with brown eyes. They told me to get some water. They told me that this is a safe place. Sucker. No place is ever safe when you carry the violence inside you.
I’m here today to see Alice Lang’s feminist art exhibition, Flowah Powah. I know very little about the artist whose work I’m meant to be reviewing. I know she’s cross-disciplinary, making use of a diverse range of media including ceramics, paint, and, um, penis straws. I know she’s an Australian, based in Los Angeles. I know she likes pink shit. I’ve seen some of the artworks online, though, and I expect them to be good. I want to be punched, kissed, bitten. I want to be hurt.
The first painting I see is green. It’s made up of psychedelic ripples and swirls of colour, like oil shining on a puddle after the rain. I want to dip my hand in it, swim in it, drown in it. It’s less of a puddle and more of a sea. In the center of the paper, the lines give way to splotches of colour. They’re purple as blood, like a wound in the page. I see splotches of a lighter purple, orange, morning blue. It’s only when I take a step back from the artwork that I realise the splotches are spelling out words. GAS, GRASS OR ASS. I want to drown for a little longer, but I have a tight schedule today. Onto the next artwork.
This piece is also a painting, this time explicitly feminist. It says SLUTZ VOTE. The words are spelt out in tiny, 70s-style flowers, surrounded by hypnotic swirls of pink. It looks like rainbow ice-cream. I want to lick it. The plaque beside the artwork tells me the work is about the fluid nature of language, and the need to reclaim sexist slurs. I struggle with the debate around reclaiming problematic words. If I say ‘slut,’ then two minutes later, my brother says it. I say ‘retarded,’ then my friend shames me for stimming. Maybe we’re trying to hurt ourselves. Maybe we’re all holding guns to our heads because we’re afraid someone might shoot us. Maybe we’re jumping into the fire so they can’t burn us. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s less painful that way.
Next artwork. A series of paintings, all joined together like a patchwork quilt. I wasn’t kidding when I said Lang liked pink shit. Each of these paintings displays a different way to use the word “shit”. “Dipshit”. “Dumb shit”. “Deep shit”. A lot of them are very pink. Across the room is another patchwork painting, this time displaying ways to use the word “cunt”. Both artworks look sugary, edible. Pretty. I think of how fine art has largely rejected prettiness. Of how recently an artist won a major award in Australia for cutting themself with razors. Many artists are trying to shock people with ugliness and pain. Lang’s philosophy is different. Shock people with beauty. Thank you, Alice Lang. I can. I will. I do.
Now I move towards the ceramics. A male figure is in a handstand, only their legs and feet visible. They’re wearing socks, but no pants, their genitals flopping. The next sculpture is of a female torso in a flowered shirt, their midriff bared. As I move between the sculptures, I interrogate how I perceive them. The male figure looks ridiculous to me, with their tiny, flapping penis and comical flowered socks. It reminds me of a story I heard at my first high school. Some boys from St Laurie’s streaked across our school oval one afternoon, wearing nothing but undies, or in one case, a single sock. They frolicked through the grass, the sun shining off their bare chests and arses, hoping the girls would see. How funny. How hilarious. Boys will be boys. Would it have been funny if I ran into their school naked? Rolled around in the grass, getting sunburned and muddy, licking the classroom windows? I would have been expelled.
The guy who touched me in the swimming pool was shirtless, while I was fully clothed. And yet my body was the sexual object. Back in the gallery, I observe the female ceramic figure, with their bulging breasts and wide hips. The female ceramic figure is a slut. They should get some clothes on.
Outside, sunlight. The wind is a hungry child. I pick a leaf from a tree so I can feel something die. Walk to the train. Summer is like a beast eating itself alive. Bend in the river, lines on my palms. I throw the leaf into the water. Hot pavement, passing ghosts. I think about the exhibition, the swirling paint, the ceramic figures, my own thighs and hips. Lang possesses an optimism about the world that I don’t really share. The idea that we can change the meaning of words, through how we speak. That we can change the political nature of our bodies, through what we wear. That “lowbrow”, feminine aesthetics can be regarded in the same way as the more traditionally male “fine art”. That someday, sexism will go away. I don’t believe that. I never will. But it was lovely, for an hour, to be surrounded by rainbows, flowers, birthday-cake blue, and baby pink. It’s lovely to know that somewhere, there are women who believe.
At the swimming pool, my mum buys me a popsicle. It’s later, now. The sun is melting like ice cream into the water. I sit with my legs in the water, then change my mind. There are sharks in this pool, and sharks eat jellyfish. I get up, walking like I can hear music. Mum is waiting by the barbecue. Hot chips, tomato sauce, sunscreen, water dripping down legs. I eat with my hands. My mum and my brother laugh, birds take flight inside my chest. I am not yet afraid. Maybe you want to reach through the screen and shake me, hold a gun to my head before someone shoots me. Push me into the fire before I get burned. You dipshit, dumb shit, cunt. Leave me alone. Let me be young for a moment longer.
Flowah Powah is now showing at the QUT Art Museum, which is located at Gardens Point campus.
The exhibition is on until 1 October 2023. Admission is free and the gallery is open to everyone.
Check the website for more information about this show and future exhibitions.
Hannah Vesey is a thrift-store clothed coffee addict with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. Her fiction focusses on mythology, scientific discoveries and moral dilemmas related from neurodiverse/ autistic perspectives. Her work has been featured in Scratch That Magazine, Urinal Mag and in the QUT Literary Salon 2021 Collection. She was the winner of the 2022 Allen and Unwin Undergraduate Writing Prize. Follow her on Instagram @hannah_vesey_