#2: power couples

So this is Christmas. And what have you done? No one really cares about what you’ve done but everyone cares about who’s doing who. My boss told me not to write about our staff Christmas party in this column, but how could I resist when it only took one glass of white for him to spill the beans?

I’ve been circling around the notion of the ‘power couple’ for a while now, as evidenced by a conversation I had with an old classmate a couple of weeks ago, where we acknowledged that what another artist once told me – “power couple is the ultimate lookbook” – was true, and then proceeded to rank all the couples in the art world that we knew as either low-, mid- or high-key in their magnitude.

“I don’t understand what the difference is between me hiring [his partner] and commissioning you,” he complained over a cheese platter, after his editorial nepotism caused controversy. The point of difference, which he wasn’t oblivious to but which I pointed out anyway, is that we’re friendly but he doesn’t fuck me. People assume he can exercise a certain amount of discretion in judging me. An inevitable conversation about endemic favouritism and social capital and connections ensued, which I tried to round out with a mildly comforting, industry-specific string of platitudes: “yeah, for sure, this whole industry is networking. The matrix of who makes it and who doesn’t is made up of exclusions, value judgements, veiled arse-slapping and insta-posturing, yes. But people have to draw the line somewhere. Sometimes that ‘somewhere’ feels arbitrary and unfair, I know. But this time, your love life is that ‘somewhere’.”

From memory the conversation ended there, probably because there’s nothing much anyone can really say to an overinflated declaration that ‘it is what it is’. But was this a lost chance to probe (or be probed)? I’ve been circling around the notion of the ‘power couple’ for a while now, as evidenced by a conversation I had with an old classmate a couple of weeks ago, where we acknowledged that what another artist once told me – “power couple is the ultimate lookbook” – was true, and then proceeded to rank all the couples in the art world that we knew as either low-, mid- or high-key in their magnitude. We were laughing but the subtext was clear: who you fuck matters and not really because you’re fucking them but because most people aren’t that radical and whoever they fuck regularly over an extended period of time is tentacularly drawn into being their everything. People care about a cock in an arse about as much as they care about a hand in a glove; what keeps you up all night is what comes with coming. Thankfully I’ve managed to avoid relationships in the art world altogether, for many reasons. My preoccupation with the workplace hazards of dating within my sector probably doesn’t have as much to do with politics as I’d like, considering how political it all is. My aversion probably begins with what stops so much from even starting: fear.

Something about the inevitable merge of two distinct individuals into an amorphous mirror without a parameter has always repulsed me. And what I keep seeing in all intra-industry romances that I encounter, repeated in different ways, is a compromise of individual subjecthood in not just the personal and the professional, but in the most sacred intersections of the twenty-first century self: the personally professional and the professionally personal. The high stakes borderline of where you stop and I begin is a boundary that’s either hotly contested (“you’re passing off my ideas that I’ve been talking to you about while writing my thesis as your own!”) or rendered completely unintelligible (“we sat down to write a response to the same problem one day and we independently both wrote basically the same essay. We just have to work on different topics because we think and critique in the exact same way”). It all plays out in the fraught, messy, high blood pressure space you live in when you work in an industry that becomes your personal identity. While I’ve been assured that picking up the mannerisms and methodologies of another through the slow violence of love is its own distinct pleasure, I retch at the thought of becoming a reflection. I know that romantic relationships are more complicated than that, but I guess fear just has a way of reducing all that is infinite into a single tingle down your spine.

While I’ve been assured that picking up the mannerisms and methodologies of another through the slow violence of love is its own distinct pleasure, I retch at the thought of becoming a reflection.

Monogamy-phobia aside, what’s it like on the other side, where you never have to question if you’re bleeding out and into another because you’re so resolutely sovereign as a self? So far I’ve navigated my twenties as a rat, lurking in the sewers of adult social etiquette to create an economy of care that doesn’t include a romantic partner as axis – within my industry or outside it. That’s why I’ve spent this article vaguely speaking around the notion of the power couple rather than to the actual politics of coupledom. I can only really speak to the political fallout of sleeping alone.

So how does it affect your industry if you’re almost always content with masturbation? Well I don’t know if it affects an entire industry as much as it affects those few people I coerce into being my substitutes to conventional, contemporary partnership. I don’t fuck like a wife but I certainly survive by forcing a few unlucky souls to take up the spousal duties of being constantly implicated in my ideas economy. I think and I love like a (fragmented) monogamist, returning to the same two or three people to understand myself and escape my own mind in my work. But unlike romantic partners, who most people are quick to assume are associated with their creative spouse’s labour and output (a societal turn in thinking I like to call ‘the Lee Krasner fallout’), my confidantes will probably never be recognised – or scrutinised – for their connections to me.

The double-edged invisibility afforded to all never-to-be-fucked-but-always-fucking-with-your-psyche ‘friends’ is exactly what baffled my editor into arguing over the ‘line’ between his partner and me. Without the framework of romantic partnership, our understandings of connectedness, reliance and bias struggle to take shape. But within the context of romantic partnership we can see co-dependency and prejudice quite clearly, which is where the argument for actually allowing or even encouraging domestic nepotism comes into play: why not permit an ethical transgression that’s so wildly transparent? There should be a disclaimer of personal investment, sure, for those not in the know, but this category of romantic entanglement (whether it be between the gallerist and the artist, the curator and the catalogue essayist, or the academic and the book chapter’s muse) has such a uniquely intelligible set of politics (in comparison to the myriad other bizarre relationships that germinate in an industry centred around opening nights and open bars)… it’s almost an indulgence to actually act within or witness this love economy. When romantic partners work together, audiences are given an exceptionally easy engagement with cultural production and its biases; it’s a chance to very quickly colour in a text, an artwork or an exhibition with a few (generalised, sure, but at least partially true) presumptions about the palette of social and emotional labour that gives it form. Until people start writing essay-length disclaimers about the incredibly complicated professional ‘friendships’ (there aren’t enough words to describe all the different ways that people relate to one another) they have with the non-romantic partners they hire, I’d actually like to see more blatant displays of power couples working together. Because when I see that, I at least have a (clouded) idea of the creative contexts I’m being party to. But god knows how many shows I’ve seen or books I’ve read just because the wrong person did coke with the right person after someone’s cousin’s uncle bought a post-conceptual sculpture at a grad show. I can only guess.

 

Emma Size

Just another art girl with a museum-gallery complex is an ongoing series of sexy art scene confessionals published the first Thursday of each month on Conversations. Don’t be so vain that you think this column is about you.
Just another art girl with a museum-gallery complex: power couples
Image: Leo Tsao ‘Just another art girl with a museum-gallery complex’ 2017.

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