DEEP TRASH in the Underworld at Bethnal Green Men’s Working Club
On October 21st, DEEP TRASH in the Underworld was held as a live art and club night-cum-exhibition organised by CUNTemporary, a non-profit organisation that provides a stage for queer and feminist research and art practices. The live event commenced with a fictional haunting of the Bethnal Green Men’s Working Club with a spell cast to bring in queer vampires, drag witches, afro-futurist voodoo, feminine magick, and other gender-bending, shape-shifting occult assemblages – a display of forms adorned by those emerging from between the cracks of hegemonic normativity, namely capitalist systems of definition, reduction and oppression.
The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club’s worn down wooden interior is covered with odd trinkets and a never-ending series of old clocks, but on this night it was taken over to create a three-story event. There were forty artists exhibiting, including performance art, video, and prints, in an exploration of excess; excess outside the limitations of biological, cultural, scientific, social-economic systems; excess as the rejected, non-useful; excess as an expression or performance of exteriorizing internal realities.
The top floor was the club and performance space which featured a drag show set to club music including Britney Spears’ all-time classic song “Toxic.” Meanwhile, on the first floor, in Wingshan Smith’s Petty Person Beating (2017), the artist took offerings, performed incantations and ritual processes such as using a stiletto heel, a feminised weapon, to tear blown up photographs of global political leaders including Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Theresa May. As each of their faces were crossed out to rid evil spirits, this served as an encounter between rituals that are passed down generation to generation and the instability of the current global political climate.
At the same time, it was easy to confuse the audience with the artists, as visitors were encouraged to dress up (or take off their human skin and transform into their actual form) which added a kitschy DIY element to the event. Artworks sometimes read like bumper stickers. (witch kitsch) Both humorous and irreverent, one piece in Aiden Moore’s Occult Trash (2016) stated: “I like my coffee how I like my magic – Black”.
Petra Brnardic’s psychedelic alien B-horror tentacular trans-species feminist digital collages were a world of words in themselves. In particular, Blooming (2014) was a floral bouquet bursting with snakes with a woman’s legs splayed wide open in some horrifically vulnerable position, each foot balanced on a skull. Yet there was no head attached to the woman; the woman is her body and only that. This piece played with the tradition of the memento mori, the Christian concept of humility by being reminded about one’s own mortality, especially seen in still life paintings using the symbology of skulls and clocks and dying fruit, but this combination of fantastical elements was also a jarring engagement with occult practices and the subjectification of the female body in ritual, of pain and pleasure and sacrifice, ultimately allowing the female form to rise to the status of a goddess, which her other digital collages also evoke.
Throughout the exhibition, many artists’ work explores feminine spiritual energy and bonding, like the idea of the coven as a familial/familiar grouping. (witch-care) “Open source your spells,” says Ayesha Tan-Jones in her video Whychcraft? (2017). There were also instances of exploring womanly identity in terms of reproductive and emotional labour. Tabitha Knight’s The Great Unknown (2017) is a depiction of the artist as a mother but animalistic, carrying her children on her back. Gwenndeloon and Sebastian Adastra’s Goblin Fruit’s Pink Moon (2017) featured a lesbian-vampire paradise where squelching sound effects add an uncomfortable, visceral layer to the performance. The vampire couple are shown to be drinking tampon tea, able to sustain themselves through (each other’s) period blood.
It is easy to draw a link between spirituality or mysticism as manipulation of energies through performance or practice-based ways of being. Giorgio Agamben theorizes the face as a space for encounter and potentiality; however, in this scenario it is the body that is realized as immediate encounter. Queer, trans-feminine bodies, often hypersexualised and objectified, were given a space to explore their particular potentialities. For a radical exploration of intersectional politics, spaces must be consciously inclusive, especially in a context that includes Pagan, Eastern, and African ritual practices and spirituality; oftentimes it is cultural material being appropriated or exploited despite a rejection of coloured bodies. However, CUNTemporary managed to strike a balance, and provide a platform for marginalised identities within marginalised communities. While the audience was primarily white, there were examples of artists, such as Wingshan Smith, who performed her own cultural identity through inherited ritual practices.
DEEP TRASH in the Underworld was a fun, social event that provided a unique space for LGBTQ+ artists, bringing together club atmospherics and exhibition tropes. A majority of the artworks, performances, and videos in the exhibition were boldly grotesque and sexually explicit intended for shock value and making bold statements, while also exploring the profane and rejecting classifications like the “profane.” With toilets marked “genderfull,” this was a event for “genderfullness” as opposed to “genderlessness.” and fulfilled the exhibition’s aims of “authenticity through artifice” proving performance art has the potential to explore relations in quite literal, embodied terms.
Images courtesy of Arts Feminism Queer
Photos: Thomas Hensher