Mary Simpson (born Anchorage, 1978, based in New York) works with film, photography, painting, print and installation, as part of an ongoing investigation into gesture and affect. Considering gesture as a mute or dead language, she seeks to recuperate gesture’s mythic (and allegorical) potential, as well as point to the way in which gesture might take the place of meaning.
Simpson’s images are often presented in a heightened state of negotiation, where the original moment of creation—the first material ‘body’ of the image—often appears as a figment or ghost. The basic shape of a circle, created by dragging a palette knife across a surface (in her series ‘Please Look Behind You’, 2011, for example), is pushed through a printing press, imprinted onto multiple sheets. Each sheet is then embellished and abstracted from the original, until the ‘idea’ of a circle is presented as a compressed accrual of repetition and removal from it’s starting point. Repetition (as well as its impossibility) is a recurring subject in Simpson’s practice. In the case of ‘Marsyas’, 2010, a film made with frequent collabo-rator Fionn Meade, a human arm attempts to interact with a black and white poster, touching, stroking and patting the image. Yet, with a certain nod to slapstick, this arm appears to be covered with a photocopy of the very same limb, sellotaped to the body. The gesture is revealed as a copy of itself; the limb, a fragment.
For the MAP Commission, Simpson has developed a sequence of images adapted from ‘Please Look Behind You’ and ‘Marsyas’. Taking the phrase ‘This won’t hurt a bit’ as a warning that prefaces pain and the puncturing of a body’s surface, the artist creates an affective register of images in place of critique. Beginning the sequence with this particular phrase paired with an ethnographic portrait of a nude female, Simpson notes the quality of this opening gesture, thus:
“In the Land of the Headhunters (changed to In the Land of the War Canoes to stem contro- versy) is a silent fictional film by Edward Curtis from 1914, in which Curtis assembled members of the Northwest Kwakwaka’wakw tribe to dress in costume and act out an imposed narrative of native cannibalism. In one scene, a member of the tribe dresses in full Eagle costume and dances a traditional Eagle dance in front of a black backdrop—it’s the only moment in the film where a character is separated from narrative context, thus allowing for the gesture of the performance to step forward and become visible. In this coming forth, the gesture is resilient and maintains its authenticity even in the face of violent decontextualisation.
The image of the woman—a vintage photograph from an unknown photographer—embodies this out-of-context quality; the directness of her gaze is different—it goes beyond or overcomes the typical centerfold notion of a nude female. Here, her gesture recalls the Eagle dancer. Both images present a disconnection from the moment when the photographer imposes a typical centerfold pose, while the subject’s ‘presentness’ draws from their own context, their own gesture. The woman’s adoption of the pose is discordant with the imposition of that pose.”