12.56am: Male states: F* me.
12.56am: Music begins. It is James Blunt, 'Nights Like These'.
Outside the Queensland Supreme Court stands a public artwork by celebrated contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama. It’s bolted to the curved wall that faces the entrance to the courts. The work is a 90-metre-long installation consisting of cartoon-like eyes made out of steel and enamel. “Eyes are Singing Out” is Kusama’s only public work in Australia and, in a literal, dimensional sense, her biggest permanent work in the world. When I worked in a café attached to an art gallery on Mary Street, I would take the bus into the city. My bus would glide past the mural, those eyes peeking out between buildings, unnoticed, noticing.
People love to engage with Kusama’s art publicly. In 2017, thousands of people visited the retrospective of her work held at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Yet it seems like most people don’t recognise this public work as Kusama’s. The closest thing I have seen to a ‘selfie’ with ‘Eyes are Singing Out’ is a press photo from the high-profile trial of Gable Tostee. When reporters gathered outside the courts, the eyes, suggestive of a watchful public, would observe both him and the press. They were always in the background, unblinking.
1.03am: Male: Shut up or I will make you come again. Female: Shut up or I will beat you up.
The first Kusama work I saw was her 'obliteration room' at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2005. When Kusama was a child, she says she saw the world through a screen of colourful dots. In this work, designed primarily for children, Kusama provides a sheet of colourful dot stickers and invites audiences to 'obliterate' a domestic setting by placing these dots across every white-painted surface. In 2014, the work returned to the Queensland Gallery. I watched adults, posing inside the colourfully dotted rooms, sitting at the brightly stippled dining room set or upright piano, posting photos of themselves online. The longer the exhibition remained open to the public, the furniture became less discernible in the photos. In 2005, when I was in high school, and before apps like Tinder and Instagram had caught on, students would take the sheet of stickers out of the gallery. Instead of placing them in the white room, on the white furniture, obliterating the scene as Kusama intended, they’d bring them to school and stick them all over the outside of their lockers. Predating social media but still publicly displaying their engagement with Kusama’s work.
1.06am: Female says she loves people and that 'she is all good with dying'.
1.07am: Female says: I know you want to kill me because you told me so. Further reference to dying from smoking.
1.08am: Further conversation about galaxies, travel to Alice Springs, religion and gods.
1.09am: Male says that he 'doesn't think there is anything after this, you die and that is it'. Male says: Throw me off the balcony and that is it. This is it, boom.
A few times a year Jetstar offers cheap flights from Brisbane to Japan. Nearly all of my friends have been to Japan now – except for me. When I used Tinder, I would decide who to match with based on almost the exact, same photo each time. In this photo, the ideal candidate would be crouching against Kusama’s Pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima, the ‘art island’ that has become a Mecca for contemporary art lovers. This photo in a potential match’s profile inferred that they were ‘hip’ and cool. This was the ultimate point of persuasion with regards to dating in my relatively conservative home state.
A search on Instagram for the public work’s title returns thirteen photos. A search for Naoshima returns 87,597 photos, with an image of Kusama’s pumpkin appearing every three or four posts. Noticeably, “Eyes are Singing Out” isn’t utilised for cultural capital in the same way as her other works. The Toby’s Estate coffee kiosk, implanted in its center, gets the bulk of audience interaction. Beyond a small plaque with an explanation from the curator, there’s no grand signifier indicating it’s a Kusama piece. And although there were initial press releases about the artwork, there was little mention of it in mainstream publications. I wonder if Brisbane's residents and visitors even know it’s Kusama’s work at all. When the work was unveiled, the former Queensland Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie bemoaned the cost. Purchased in the same round as a mural by Indigenous artist Sally Gabori and a geometric ceiling painted by Queensland artist Gemma Smith, the minister was quoted as saying: “White paint would have been good enough for me."
1.46am: Male asks how long she is living on the Gold Coast. Female says: Geez, God didn't want me here for long. He has kicked me out already.
1.48am: Female asks if she can go over to the window and have a look. Male says: Don't jump off or anything.
1.52am: Female calls male a 'social demon' and male asks if she got the photos he sent: 'our balcony photos'. Male says: You are so much more drunker than me. I need to catch up.
It’s strange, the visual access to people’s lives we’ve been granted. When I used to use Tinder I never read people’s bios. I enlarged photos and swiped through quickly. I moved to Melbourne at the same time as a friend, and I recommended Tinder as a means of meeting new people. She told me she couldn’t because she wouldn’t know what to write as a bio. I told her not to have one. I never looked at those anyway, I said. She shook her head at me and I was forced to defend myself: I’m not shallow. Not reading bios is the kinder thing to do. Everyone hates writing them. Putting yourself into words is terrifying. Sharing photos of your life, though – lounging on your bed with friends, driving in your car, cradling your dog – we’ll share these moments without a second thought.
1.56am: Male states that his mum is in Adelaide because his pa died of cancer. Conversation about male finding out about his pop dying.
1.57am: Doesn't think he has been so sad before. Female says: Sorry brah.
2.02am: Female: UK men are funnier and have bigger d*s. Male: Not bigger than mine. Conversation continues about (male genitalia). Male asks if his is 'the biggest'.
Queensland has always had a complicated history with artistic expression; it has long been criticised for its lack of high culture. It is a sporting state: sunshine, tanned bodies and relaxed citizens. When the Gallery of Modern Art opened in Brisbane’s South Bank cultural precinct in 2006, Queensland begun to construct a more refined cultural legacy. Queensland as a creative destination was arguably held back by the long-serving state Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was derided for his overuse of police brute force against demonstrators. He was a god-fearing, patriarchal figure who posed a threat to civil liberties. In focusing on developing physical infrastructure and largely ignoring intangible cultural investment, Bjelke-Petersen was nicknamed the “hillbilly dictator”. He was someone who firmly believed that the end would justify the means.
2.09am: Male states she is a ‘woos’ and offers her food. Says that if she ‘was going to go all kung fu on me then I will kick your a**’. Calm conversation.
2.10am: Sound of a struggle. Female: That really hurt my vagina. Male laughing and female replies: You sound like a f**.
What does art do? How did its prolonged absence affect the development of Queensland and its citizens? How did it change the way we were seen? When we don’t invest in the intangible benefits of creative inspiration, how does it affect us? If you only act according to precisely calculated benefits, what do you miss in the transaction?
When author and contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton held a public lecture in Brisbane in 2014, he caused a furore by referring to Brisbane as an “ugly city”. On Facebook, one of my friends jokingly threatened to form a queue of people who wanted to punch him in the face at his public event and tagged de Botton in the post. When de Botton actually replied, my friends all became deferential, and the aggression slipped off them like a silk gown.
2.14am: Male says: You are not my kind of girl. You have worn out your welcome. You have to leave. Female says: Ok, it is all good. Female is out of breath. Male states: You have to leave. Female replies: OK. It's all good. Male says: I thought you were a nice girl.
2.14am: Male says: You are f*ing insane.
In 2014 Gable Tostee and Warriena Wright met each other through Tinder. By the end of the night tonight, after drinking and going back to his apartment in the Gold Coast, Tostee locked Wright out on his balcony and she ultimately fell to her death. Tostee was charged with murder and manslaughter. Twenty-six months after Wright’s fall, Tostee was acquitted of both offences.
The whole case is reminiscent of artist Ana Mendieta in 1985 who, after an argument with her husband Carl Andre, the sculptor, fell to her death from their 34th floor apartment in Greenwich village. A 911 call by Andre has him tell the operator they were fighting over him having a greater public profile than her. He later told police that he had been watching television with his wife before she went to bed and when he got up later to join her, she was gone. Mendieta had been found to have consumed considerable amounts of alcohol before her death. Despite scratches found on Andre’s arms and face on the night of the incident, Andre was acquitted of her murder based on insufficient evidence.
What is remarkable about the Tostee case is the existence of an audio recording of the event. After a number of run-ins with the law in his youth, Tostee would often secretly record his nights out on his mobile phone in case anything happened. He said it had come in handy when people levelled unfounded accusations at him. The recordings are, at best, unclear about who is to blame: both Tostee and Wright use threatening language towards one another. Without being able to see what is happening, it’s difficult to distinguish between behaviour that led to the fatal accident, and what is simply two drunk people who seem to, at least for some of the recording, enjoy a dynamic of domination during sex. Either way, it sounds as though Tostee locked Wright out on the balcony. It sounds like Tostee was inside the apartment when she fell.
2.15.31am: Male says: I thought you were kidding and I have taken enough. This is f**ing bull** ... you are lucky I haven't chucked you off my balcony you god damn psycho little b** ... who the f** do you think you ...
Tostee frequented a bodybuilding forum, Misc, often. Using the username GT, he would brag about his many Tinder conquests. He referred to them as ‘sloots’. Tostee also revealed to the ‘Misc-ers’ that he kept a log with dates and times of all the girls he had slept with, revealing his obsession with documenting everything. He wrote, “I feel amazing after rooting a hot girl. It's a huge confidence boost”. During the trial, he used these forums to assert his innocence and defend himself. In a post titled ‘Regarding the balcony tragedy’, GT wrote:
“The death of Warriena was the most tragic and distressing event I have ever experienced. Knowing I was the last person to be with her, it has left me permanently scarred and not a day passes that I don't wish I could go back in time and prevent it … I know my lawyers might crucify me for writing this but I feel that I needed to speak out as I have had no voice so far and have sustained so much abuse having my hands tied.”
2.16am: Male states: I thought that you were just playing around but I am f*ing sick of this s*. You're a god damn psycho. I am going to let you go. I am going to walk you out of this apartment just the way you are.
You are not going to collect any of your belongings, you are just going to walk out and I am going to slam the door on you, do you understand? If you try and pull anything. I'll knock you out, I'll knock you the f* out. Do you understand? Do you understand? Do you understand?
2.17am: Male says: C'mon, get up. Get up. Female states: I am so sorry. Male states: I don't care. Struggling. Male: You don't understand do ya? You don't understand anything at all do you? Struggle. Male states: Let go. You think that you hit me and I was going to fall down like in the movies. More laboured breathing sounds. Male states: Let go of it. Let go. Let go. More choking sounds.
There were reports that Tostee initially took to Tinder after being banned from nightclubs for ‘creeping out’ women. On the night Wright died, there’s evidence showing Tostee back on Tinder. After the trial ended, a woman who claimed to be his current partner defends him to a stranger through Facebook messenger chat. She says he is an extremely intelligent and misunderstood man.
2.16am: What. What - got something to say- say it. Female breathing heavily. Female states: (unintelligible) sexist. Male replies: Yeah right. I am the one who is injured. You don't have a god damn scratch on you.
2.18am: Still laboured breathing sounds. Breathing slows. Male: Let it go.
2.19am: Sound of something dropping (metallic).
2.19am: Movement and rustling and sounds of female calling out. Sound consistent with door unlocking. Female states: No. Possible sound of glass door being hit.
It’s funny the way we often link creativity to sensitivity, creating the impression that an artist is someone who must be approached delicately, their vulnerabilities respected, their emotions seen to be as profound. Gable Tostee was known as a skilled artist. When Tostee was a teenager, he was discovered to be involved in a small homemade Schoolies Fake ID racket. The judge in this case implored him to use his immense artistic talents for legitimate pursuits.
2.20.46am: Male: Who the f* do you think you are? Hey?
Female: No, no, no. No! No no no.
Male: You tried to kill me huh? Well, why did you try and hit me with that. Huh? Shut your filthy mouth.
Female: No, no, no, no, no. (screaming).
Male: It is all on recording you know. It is all being recorded.
Female: No no no no no no no no no no no no. Just let me go home.
Male: I would but you have been a bad girl. Sound of door sliding shut.
2.20am: Just let me go home. Just let me go home. Last words of just let me go home. Male: (heavy breathing). Faint scream detected.
In the photo from Tostee’s trial, the one with Kusama’s eyes in the background: Tostee, once lean, muscular and handsome, has become chubby. He’s spent time in prison, and the stress of months under public scrutiny are revealing themselves. During the trial, he wore conservative square glasses frames: they are removed in the photo. His head is tipped back, his eyes are closed and he is holding himself. The effect borders on devout and reverential. Members of the press are gathered behind him and there is a scrub of cameras, microphones and mobiles surrounding him. It is only in the background, behind the crowds, that a wedge of Kusama's artwork can be seen. A cluster of eyes.
2.22am: Male: Where the f** are my keys?
2.23am: Male: F**, f**, f**
2.23am: Oh my god. Sounds of getting dressed, pulling jeans up, belt etc.
2.26am: Sound of sirens in the background.
2.26am: Sound of lift button.
2.28am: Walking noises. Footsteps.
2.39am: Walking stops.
Kusama’s work is not only suggestive of surveillance and accountability. In the artist’s statement, the work is also about optimism and love.
The numerous eyes that we dreamed about have spread into the whole sky, carrying with them a message of visual sensation.
It is a message of world peace and the overflowing happiness of humankind we have been praying for all the time. There is no end to the glorification of the peoples around the world.
Their beautiful souls, having turned into hundreds of millions of eyes, continue to watch our future.
These eyes will keep on singing out louder and louder that love is forever and infinite, to the ends of the universe.
The small attached plaque explains that, “‘while all senses are integral’, Kusama’s work serves as a reminder that it is through the experience of seeing another that our empathy for humanity is instigated and negotiated.
When the news broke of Wright’s murder, I found myself immediately taking a side. I considered Tostee’s pretty-boy playboy arrogance and history of objectifying women. Recently, long since the trial, Tostee was criticised for posting an insensitive Facebook update: “Happy International Women’s Day to all ma hoes!! ;)”. On the night of Wright’s death, CCTV footage showed Tostee leaving his apartment moments after her fall, seemingly unshaken, ordering pizza nearby. It seemed irrefutable that he had the chilling profile of a murderer.
3.10am: Male states: Um a piece of supreme please.
3.11am: Paper rustling. (Eating pizza).
When excerpts of the audio recording transcript were released on nightly news broadcasts, the story started to slowly change. At first, only the clips affirming Tostee’s aggressive behaviour were released. Then followed clips of Wright’s equally aggressive use of language. I remember sitting at the airport with my parents in Brisbane, about to fly home to Melbourne, feeling uncomfortable, believing that news outlets were clearly taking this murdered woman’s behaviour out of context. I believed that Tostee was going to get away with scaring this woman to her death. When Carl Andre was acquitted of Ana Mendieta’s murder, feminists in the art world were furious. The feminist group No Wave Performance Task Force staged a protest outside a retrospective of Andre’s work at the Dia Art Foundation in 2014. When comparing the evidence in Tostee’s with the Mendieta case, it is similarly hazy. Based on the established onus of proof in the criminal justice system, acquitting Andre based on “reasonable doubt” had to be the correct decision. Still, I sympathised with the outrage – another female artist never got to reach the level of genius she was capable of achieving because of male arrogance.
I read the transcript of Tostee and Wright’s encounter and my judgment changed. I believed she had fallen as a result of her own actions. Tostee, a man whom I didn’t like and who repulsed me, seemed innocent. Wright’s behaviour was out of control, I thought. Then I thought, she was drunk off moonshine vodka that Tostee had inexpertly brewed at home. To convict Tostee of murder, the jury needed to be convinced that as a result of his actions, Wright had died. That Tostee locked her on the balcony without reason, that he could have foreseen the possibility she would try and escape. Even though Tostee had restrained Wright – choked her, even – minutes before her death. Wright, after all, had been violent towards him too, throwing objects and trying to hit him. It was only through their words – captured on Tostee’s recording – that my opinions about these two strangers would jostle for dominance, sliding over and across each other. Yet, despite understanding the fallibility that comes with listening, second-hand to a conversation, my conclusions were never delicate or unsure.
Back on the Misc forum: a poll above GT’s’ ‘regarding the balcony tragedy’ post asked the Misc-ers to vote on GT’s innocence. 76% believed he is innocent, 6% believed he is guilty of murder, 10% believed he is guilty of manslaughter and 12% believed he is guilty of a lesser crime. By recording their sexual encounter without Wright consent, one could argue that he was still misbehaving. However in Queensland, while it’s illegal to take photos or videos of someone’s private activities without their consent, recording conversations without the participants’ knowledge is not. But the morality of his recording is irrelevant.
Like Carl Andre, Tostee was acquitted of Wright’s murder. The image of Tostee with Kusama’s eyes in the background was taken after Tostee’s verdict was handed down.
Following the verdict, people were angry. The public believed Tostee got away with murder. News articles detailed all of the information the jury wasn’t allowed to consider, as if justifying the jury’s mistake in verdict. It strikes me that Wright wasn’t allowed a chance to explain herself. I wonder, if she had an online forum of supporters, what she would have said. Because, again, it all comes down to what was said. Nothing was seen.
Using apps like Tinder and Instagram is about watching and being watched. Our lives may be staged, filtered, cropped, but they still work to build an image of ourselves that we want to present to the world. We’ve always cropped parts of ourselves for public consumption, we’ve always censored ourselves in some way or another. By letting others see the results of those raw manipulation of ourselves, we engage in a process that reveals more about our internal motivations. Arguably our humanity is apparent now, more than ever.
Yayoi Kusama posing in "Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field," 1965.
In the late 1960s, Kusama staged a number of “Love Happenings” – orgies in studios – around Lower Manhattan. Press releases were sent out, photographers and journalists were invited. Elements of the work were reappropriated from her previous works to dress what would be considered the ‘stage’ for the performance: the fairy light ceiling from “Peep Show or Endless Love Show” (1966), the phalluses from “Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field)” (1965) strewn across mattresses. Audiences were invited to look into a hexagonal-mirrored chamber, watching models take their clothes off and began to fondle each other. Kusama would be present at the ‘happening’, painting bright polka dots on the nude bodies of the models. But the models never actually had sex during these orgies. According to Kusama’s manager James Golata, the situation, the lights, the cameras, and eyes of the press “precluded being aroused”. It became more about the aesthetic of sex than a corporeal experience. The experience of viewing, when itself seen, appears to self-combust.
3.23am: Phone call connects his father.
3.23am: Male states: Hello dad. I might have a bit of a situation. See, um, I met up with a girl for a date tonight and she started getting really aggressive. It was all right at first and like we, you know, had sex in bed and she kept drinking. We were both drinking and I think that she thought that it was like a joke or something and she kept like beating me up and whatever. It was ‘cos she was really drunk and whatever and I, like, forced her out on the balcony and I think that she might have jumped off.
We can’t be all-seeing, all-knowing. It is not a gift we should hope for. We can’t come to any conclusions about another person’s humanity, nor can we judge them entirely. Kusama’s work teaches us is that, even with a thousand eyes, we aren’t able to see every part of a person’s character. We will never see every element, every aspect of the context shaping a person’s decisions. All eyes go to the future, seeing as much as we can, feeling love for humans in all their unsettling weirdness, in all their attempts at a life worth living.
It’s a process. Seeing, not knowing, unseeing, and seeing again. It continues like that; ad infinitum.
Chloë Reeson is a non-binary writer and editor raised in Queensland. They are the co-creator and writer of Homecoming Queens, a web-series for SBS On Demand. Their fiction and essays have appeared with publications such as The Lifted Brow, Yen Magazine, Stilts, Overland, Voiceworks, and Bumf.