This show is Dominique Blain’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. It opens up (almost literally) in a particularly threatening way, where, at the entrance to a long, narrow gallery, is positioned her 1991 piece Probe, whose acerbic combination of deadly threat from shotgun and rifle muzzles, and intensive surveillance from binoculars, spyglasses and camera lenses, leaves the viewer with a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth. This piece is indicative of the stance that Blain’s installations assume – a critique of the Western European urge towards colonialism and imperialism. Looking at the reverse side of this installation, the viewer becomes the aggressor, looking down the rifle barrels at an imaginary quarry.
More poignant still is the opposition of the two parts of Details (1992) on walls either side of the narrowest part of the gallery. On the right is Details 1, which ostensibly shows eight innocuous looking portraits of African and Oriental workers, timeless photographs, whose poor quality is symptomatic of the snapshot. However, when the viewer examines the corresponding photographs in Details 2, opposite, he or she is confronted by the uncanny, for here we see that the portraits in Details 1 are in fact “details” of these photographs showing those workers performing demeaning tasks at the behest of their white colonial masters, bearing them in litters or pulling them in rickshaws, or simply in groups, carrying their masters on their shoulders. No longer innocuous, they could be exhibits of evidence in the case against colonial oppression. These images serve as sharp reminders of the arrogance which accompanied colonialism, and the contemporary feel of these photographs is a warning that these are tendencies which we could topple back into at any time.
Historicity dictates that at the time of such colonial expansion, in the nineteenth century, the kneejerk reaction that Blain’s sombre satire represents, would have been unthinkable, patriotic fervour would have destroyed it at birth, so it is very sobering to reflect, retrospectively, on the evils that were perpetrated in order to get where we are now. It is to be hoped that our emotional response to these works will prove prescriptive for our future actions.
Blain is a master of the optical pejorative, no comment is needed to qualify these damning visual statements whose conscience-stinging lash makes for uncomfortable viewing. The viewer searching for redemption here is out of luck, no palliative is on hand to ease a guiltridden mind, Blain puts the boot in no uncertain terms. Ninety pairs of boots, suspended from the ceiling, make their assertive statement in her best-known installation, Missa (1993), which in its normal format is reminiscent of a phalanx of spectral soldiers marking time, awaiting orders, subordinate to both hierarchy and time – this piece is usually shown in a square formation – here is elongated, front to rear, an army on the march, its aggression on the loose, ready to strike if, when and where required. Each pair of boots has its right foot raised, a moment frozen in its block of silence, the sound of an army on the march is spine chilling, the silence of this one is eerie.
Imperialism, racism, sexism, fascism, all come under the scrutiny of Blain’s analyses, chewed over then spat out as targets for her fiercely satirical works, she gives no quarter. She juxtaposes the incongruous in her Untitled (1987) where a fresh cigar, an unspent bullet, and an extended lipstick are offered up not only as visual similes but as symbols of greed, power and sex, three components of the capitalist engine that propels the imperialist machine that drives Western “progress” that galvanizes Blain into action.
Japan Apologize (1993) is fortuitously topical, as in the same week as this show opened, the Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Hashimoto made a formal apology to Britain for the atrocities perpetrated upon British prisoners-of-war in World War II. This piece is a masterpiece of paradox, showing as it does, through the presentation of a traditional kimono, the cultured, civilized face of Japan which, even the greatest leap of faith, cannot reconcile with the brutality meted out by her soldiers during the Second World War. The crux of this image, however, is that the kimono, being empty, is making a hollow gesture, its open skirts revealing nothing but a void. The doubts that beset the viewer here, reflect those expressed by British ex-P.O.W.’s this week.
The evidence supplied by the cross-cultural references in Untitled (1987) leave us standing accused. The narratives which spring out of the image of two U.S. offduty servicemen flanking a seminaked tribeswomen outside her hut, are all tainted by the tawdry. This woman, the subject of exploitation, whatever its degree, is as much a trophy as the zebra-skin covered stool which stands on the gallery floor in front of her image on the wall. The opposition here of degenerate sophistication and primitive naivete offers a cameo which is a distillation of colonial abuse.
Avoiding the overt pornography of violence, which is present only by implication, Blain’s contextualization of otherwise prosaic images and objects to produce the requisite effect, i.e., razor-sharp critique, is both deft and incisive. It is always chastening to see one’s culture depicted as the “other,” and, by confusing and cross-referencing our accepted stereotypes of the domestic and the military, by awakening us to the ubiquity of the trappings of state power and control in the contemporary world – to which we have become oblivious – she rings the alarm bells, shaking us out of lethargy and into the realization that yes, perhaps it has got something to do with us.