It has been exactly one week since Brow Books' latest family member went out on its own into the Australian public. We are nothing less than proud to publish Charlie Fox's fantasically freakish, gruesomely gorgeous, magnificently mutant debut novel This Young Monster.
This Young Monster is a hallucinatory celebration of artists who raise hell, transform their bodies, anger their elders and show their audience dark, disturbing things. What does it mean to be a freak? Why might we be wise to think of the present as a time of monstrosity? And how does the concept of the monster irradiate our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents?
From Twin Peaks to Leigh Bowery, Harmony Korine to Alice in Wonderland, This Young Monster gets high on a whole range of riotous art as its voice and form shape-shift, all in the name of dealing with the strange wonders of what Nabokov once called ‘monsterhood’. Ready or not, here they come...
Our edition also features a brand new introduction from Adam Curley, one of our favourite writers, which you can now read in full below.
Down on Bent Street (truly): Leigh Bowery’s grave in the Macedon Cemetery. I suppose we go to see all sorts of things to make them and by comparison ourselves real, the way an introduction to a book suggests: Well, here we are? On the railway platform a man eating roast chicken from a cardboard boat told me he’d travelled from Queensland to heal homeless people with his hands. He sucked on the fat shiny fingers that exorcised imaginary demons from poor souls.
In a 1988 television appearance, Bowery described his outfit thus: ‘I’m wearing a cropped number this time, with a fabric face, you might have noticed.’
And this piece of Bowery, the title of his collaborative 1987 dance production with Michael Clark: No Fire Escape in Hell.
Macedon is regional Victoria, an hour’s train ride from Melbourne, but it isn’t The Country. It smells of damp earth and chimney smoke; the coffee is good. The headstone on Bowery’s grave is a big white thing, a bulbous cement centrepiece almost the shape of the Maori pikorua, which is a symbol of intertwining life paths. The grave is a double plot, Bowery buried alongside his mother Evelyn, who died the same year as him, 1994.
Paths. An age-old metaphor and no metaphor at all. The paths of the two physical bodies under the ground, a mother, and her son who followed the great queer tradition of wandering far from home. Those paths of gay men and AIDS; more like an intersection? Paths that aren’t paths but selves, which somehow, ridiculously, constitute a single life.
Beneath the headstone is a plaque that reads “Togetherness” – just like that, in quotation: the title of the sculpture. Bowery might once have covered the object in fake blood and hair and birthed it in a stage performance or even just over there in the wildflowers. Coated it in sequins and worn it over his face. As Charlie writes, Bowery was both queen and king of finding ways to externalise ‘a squelchy region in the head that’s concerned with humiliation, longing and physical pain coupled with the kinky reasons that they might be alternately craved or feared’.
It’s rude to think someone would find his own headstone amusing, but Bowery worked in separations, seeking expression outside as a way to get to.
Where are we? This Young Monster is a book of second skins and transformations, filled with people who wore masks so they might live.
Charlie has had me thinking about Gillian Wearing’s ‘Spiritual Family’ photograph series. In Me as Arbus (2008), Wearing poses as Diane Arbus, donning a silicone mask made by Wearing after closely studying the few self-portraits Arbus took in her lifetime. In Me as Mapplethorpe (2009), Wearing recreates Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous 1988 self-portrait, taken the year before his death. Wearing’s masks are expertly crafted and, photographed in black and white, are uncanny likenesses of her subjects, save for pronounced eyeholes out of which she looks.
Wearing’s real subject in the series is the fabric of identities, and the creation of self and self-portraits – the simulacra of the artists she has admired and studied layering over her own being. Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Claude Cahun, Andy Warhol in drag, a lifted top revealing his abdominal scars (fake), an amalgam of Christopher Makos’s photos of Warhol gussied up and Richard Avedon’s images of Warhol the year after he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Wearing as Warhol is grotesque, an assemblage of inhuman parts – but the image is alluring, too, its feminine and masculine qualities appearing almost to oscillate, the mask expressing the trauma of scars that can’t really ache.
Exhibited, one and a half metres tall, Me as Mapplethorpe is discomfiting, Wearing’s Frankenthorpe a real monster form, his illness moulded in unreal skin, the artist’s own skin visible around her alarmed eyes. Wearing has said she wanted not only to recreate Mapplethorpe’s image but to inhabit him, imagining what he was feeling and thinking in the moment: ‘When I looked at Mapplethorpe’s original image I wanted to understand what he was feeling: is it physical or emotional pain, or both?’
Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits were at once documentation and self-creation, and in the years before his death, documentation of a dismantling self. A 1985 self-portrait depicting his face haloed by white light, the effect of having quickly turned his head, was taken before he was diagnosed with AIDS, but revealed discolouration on his neck that would become more prominent as his condition worsened. He was, the curator Carol Squires wrote, ‘miming his passage from flesh to spectre, fashioning a contemporary spirit photograph’.
The studio session for his 1988 self-portrait, aided by Mapplethorpe’s brother Edward (who relayed the scene to Squires) and his studio assistant Brian English, began with Mapplethorpe kneeling with his skull-topped cane before physical discomfort relegated him to a chair, producing a portrait in which his face, further from the foregrounded skull than it was when he was on the floor, is out of focus. Wearing’s mask in Me as Mapplethorpe is crisply in focus, pulling the viewer back into a consideration of Mapplethorpe’s private experience, only to find Wearing. And Wearing’s eyes: windows to her self, channelling and performing as Mapplethorpe, imprisoned in the image of another. And what behind them?
Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face (2012) was included in a 2017 exhibition of works by Wearing and the French artist Claude Cahun at London’s National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition’s title, Behind the Mask, Another Mask, derived from Cahun’s writing on her own work. Cahun (born Lucy Schwob and adopting her androgynous alias) was preoccupied with her representation, leaving upon her death in 1954, at the age of sixty, photos and writings that dismantled her identity and pieced it back together in unworldly configurations.
Cahun’s self-portraits depict her in cold profile with a cleanly shaven head; costumed as the wife in Barbe bleue who escapes a grim fate at the hands of her murderous husband; as a disembodied head under a glass bell jar. ‘I will never finish removing all these faces’ reads the text on a collage of Cahun’s many looks, titled I.O.U. (self-pride) (1930), credited to Cahun and her lover and collaborator Suzanne Malherbe, who worked as Marcel Moore.
Masked as Cahun in her photograph, Wearing holds a silicone casting of her own face, the transformation of subject to object, as Roland Barthes described it, passed over – a turn more plainly depicted in Wearing’s Me as mask (2013), in which a hand (presumably the artist’s hand) holds up the Wearing mask, the rest of Wearing out of sight. Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face reconstructs Cahun’s 1927 self-portrait in which the artist, her face femininely painted, sits with kettle weights on either side of her, a message printed in marker on the chest of her white bodysuit: ‘I AM IN TRAINING DON’T KISS ME’.
Wearing leaves out the weights and the text, less interested than Cahun in commenting so directly on gender roles. The image instead displaces Wearing’s personhood, retroactively putting it in the hand of her artistic forebear – Wearing also behind Cahun’s likeness, almost completely disguised and still the owner of that ‘Me’ in the title. The image doesn’t challenge the viewer to pinpoint Wearing’s self so much as it disperses the self, or selves, entirely.
Cahun in Disavowals, her 1930 memoir/manifesto: ‘While waiting to see clearly, I want to hunt myself down, war with myself.’
Once found: mayhem.
The writing on Cahun and Moore’s I.O.U. (self-pride) has variously been translated: ‘I will never finish removing all these faces…peeling off these faces…wearing these faces.’ The word, soulever, can also mean: ‘to rise’, ‘to swell’. In Reading Claude Cahun’s Disavowals (2013), Jennifer L. Shaw writes that Cahun and Moore likely intended the word to evoke multiple meanings, placing ‘less emphasis on the masquerade as dissimulation and more emphasis on the mask as a means of reimagining the self and of creating desire…’
Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait has become emblematic of the loss of gay artists during the AIDS Crisis. Cahun was the muse for a 2018 collection by the French fashion house Dior. Revisiting the image, I see that I’ve misremembered the traumatised expression in Me as Warhol, imagined a different mask altogether. If anything, the mask shows stoicism, shows Warhol’s usual detachment. Whose face was I conjuring? Whose trauma? We carry people through time, reconceive them to suit our need in the moment. Surely all anyone has is to say in response is: you’ll never find me.
Monsters cause trouble, they disturb definitions, they discombobulate what we think we mean.
Charlie gathers his spiritual family in This Young Monster: real, fictional, ghosts embodied, masks cast and tried on, Bowery, Arbus, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alice from Wonderland, Arthur Rimbaud, beasts, ghouls, vampires. As Rimbaud hammed in A Season in Hell: ‘One hell of a household!’ Hosting these figures under the same roof, barrelling across decades through their aesthetic conversations – this might be seen as a personal exercise in asserting a certain position in the world. To those who don’t have much, kinship is a form of power: grow a big enough family and you can build an entire universe in which to exist.
(Let me live in a place where young Leonardo DiCaprio, on film as Rimbaud, freakishly popping a wine cork with his shoulder blades, is worthy of serious [semi-serious] contemplation.)
Charlie doesn’t draw moral lines between monsters good and bad, and it would be disingenuous if he did. Is A Clockwork Orange a queer text? A thousand dress-up parties have the answer. (And Alex, too, in the British edition of A Clockwork Orange, lamented, as he considered his future, the youthful success of Rimbaud, or as he identified him, ‘this like French poet’.) Terrifying things can be layered on us, haunted and haunting masks making their way into our pile.
Aged eleven, twelve, my friends and I would stage sleepovers to watch the Halloween films, taking turns to become Michael Myers and scare each other from behind doors. Boys in the dark, all of us queer and at the edge of puberty. Around the same time, Martin Bryant shot thirty-five people at Port Arthur. His face on the front pages of newspapers would become a case study in the media’s digital manipulation of images. His skin made pale, his eyes darkened to look more demonic.
Bryant was known to have been friends with Helen Harvey, a woman twenty-five years his senior. One of Bryant’s neighbours told the papers that Bryant would sleep all day and wander around their property at night. Years later I searched online databases for speculation that Bryant might have been gay, recalling it in the air, and found his ex-girlfriend telling a reporter that he was into bestiality porn, that he had hundreds of teddy bears in his bedroom. At twelve I knew this about perverts: they were sometimes, often, men who liked boys. I invented their faces, knowing that I, too, would one day be grown.
Where, beginnings and ends? Where light and dark?
So many of the biographies in This Young Monster have violence at their core: physical violence and violence as it’s becoming more popularly used, experiential violence, most often violence enacted by and through men. Violent and absent fathers, desperate fathers, wartime, men who dream up girls and women in their work only to torture them. Charlie’s invocation of Alice and his flip through American cinema’s pin-up boys of the nineties each play out as horrors of masculinity. Examining what we do with violence, inherited and immediate, is, if they need one further, a raison d’être of Charlie’s essays. Reclaim, make art, make trouble, create desire.
Charlie marvels at the masks he uncovers, wears them over his own, his words chasing down those moments of transformation, seeking the slim spaces between masks, between skin and mask, continuing the work of writing what makes us human.
This above is the introduction to This Young Monster, published by Brow Books. You can purchase a copy of this book by clicking here or at all good bookstores.
Adam Curley is a writer living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne.