Keith Murray: And The People Bowed And Prayed

Keith Murray

Keith Murray – And the People Bowed and Prayed

6–28 November in the Main Space

Artist Talk & Opening Reception Friday 6 November, 7:00 PM

Essay by Jennifer Johnson

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming
And the signs said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

—Simon & Garfunkel

Keith Murray’s practice is playful; signifiers of sex are simply the toys Murray plays with through his/her gender bending performances and installations. There is a sense of joy and wit in his/her performative mash-ups and reappropriation of signs, and although Murray’s work provides contentious perceptions of serious social issues, it is essentially sensual, seductive, and hilarious.

Murray’s imagery layers seemingly unrelated and often contradictory symbols. By conflating gay and transsexual imagery with religious iconography and everyday symbols of consumer culture, Murray weds historically sacred imagery to the profane and mundane, destabilizing the traditional hierarchy of social and gender identities attached to such signifiers. This mash-up of meaning and re-mixing of conventional hierarchies and representations reminds us that signs are arbitrary, man-made creations to which we ascribe value and consequence. The power of a sign is the power imbued upon it by us, the audience.

Although signs are culturally manufactured, they operate as mutually exclusive, limiting agents creating a binary of either/or—in this case, male or female. Murray’s practices, however, challenge the existence of restrictive gender categories. Murray believes that there is a feminine and masculine component to each soul. As such, we are all simultaneously part male and part female, without necessary contradiction. On August 2nd, 2008, Murray celebrated this fact by marrying him/herself in a ceremony that unified both masculine and feminine identities. Dressed as half-man/half-woman, Murray vowed to love and honour all aspects of him/herself, and pledged to rebel against gender politics by challenging the signs that reduce individuals to single sexualities.

The Dolly Shot

Murray discredits the exclusivity of signs in The Dolly Shoot, a three-minute looped video projected onto the wall. The video is shot as a single continuous dolly away from Murray lip-synching Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Beginning as an extreme close-up of Murray’s mouth, the frame moves out to expose Murray’s naked and strangely illuminated body resembling an otherworldly vision. As the dolly laterally pulls us away from Murray’s image, we are exposed to new signifiers that subvert the previous gender identification: lipsticked lips are challenged by an Adam’s apple, subsequently contested by breasts, and inevitably confronted by Murray’s penis. These conflicting gender indicators coexist in one body, harmoniously preaching endless love. Murray’s ability to simultaneously evoke a pop-country icon, John’s vision of a breasted Christ in Revelations 1:13, Hindu deities, and drag queens is a testament to the layered complexity of Murray’s symbology. By presenting innumerable readings of each of his/her pieces, Murray refuses static meaning and the limitations enforced by the exclusivity of categories, allowing the work to be experienced on a visceral level.

Murray confronts the often-arbitrary organization of signs in The Neon God We Made. Over 3000 plastic glow-in-the-dark toys and religious figurines are collected and arranged into a 7′ by 7′ heart-shaped mandala, playfully exploring how categories are built out of the accumulation of signs. The Virgin Mary stands behind a seated Buddha at the heart’s crest, surrounded by Hindu deities, dinosaurs, skulls, Star Wars figurines, a Magic-8 eyeball, and the miniature animals of Noah’s ark. These figures, typically unrelated, have been appropriated by consumerism into gaudy kitsch unified under prescribed parameters. Murray’s presentation of these objects, bound together in the shape of a heart, creates a pop-culture celebration of the joyful relativity between all symbols and meaning, and so allows for positive identity construction through their reappropriation.

Although Murray’s work can be read in a multitude of fashions and confronts conventional social values, it first hits on a visual and then emotional level. Despite the usage of mass-produced cultural signs, Murray’s work is personal and does not require knowledge to be understood, but rather demands faith; Murray asks us to believe in the ability of people to see past markers of difference and instead celebrate their potential for empathetic understanding.

In keeping with this spirit, Murray’s final piece is an exercise in faith, but also in will. In Transliminalbaptismal Murray builds a candle-surrounded altar to a video projection of his bathtub baptism. Murray wills his body to contort within the confined space while he attempts to keep his tongue in the liminal space where the water’s surface meets the basin’s edge for one complete revolution of the tub. The potential abject quality of this unlikely “rim-job” is minimized by the bright cleanliness and purity of the image. In an endless loop Murray never abandons the quest to maintain the precarious position between borders. Murray prostrates himself in his efforts, sacrificing his body to the goal of sustaining balance.

Murray’s installations expose the archetypes that structure our self-conceptions, reminding us that these symbols are ultimately cultural, and potentially under our control. Murray asks that we find the humility to see past signs of difference to share his/her faith in the unifying power and tolerance of love common to us all.

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