[This article was originally published by CABLE Magazine, now defunct, in November 2017]
Antony Connelly’s debut solo show If You Got the Money closed its doors on 31st October, following a 3-week run. Connelly’s bold and compelling visual language retells the story of the artist’s confrontation with the sex trade whilst travelling in Thailand and Cambodia. Far exceeding a self-serving catharsis of White Guilt or a voyeuristic exploration of the more sordid aspects of global inequality, Connelly’s vivid, haunting dancers demand both empathy and responsibility from the privileged viewer.
The artist is a breath of fresh air – an autodidact almost entirely independent of the ‘Glasgow Miracle’ machine. He is cheerful, confident in his work and sincere in his engagement with ideas. Connelly grew up in Paisley’s ill-famed Ferguslie Park and had little success pursuing formal artistic training beyond secondary school; describing his relationship with art school as one of mutual incompatibility. In 2013 he found himself at loose end between working two jobs and more than a few late nights, and decided to go travelling in South-East Asia. The scale and callousness of the commercial sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia left a lasting impression on the then 23-year-old artist, and the issue of sexual exploitation driven by global inequality has become the principle theme of his work. If You Got the Money comprised a small selection of paintings developed out of this project. The exhibition was hosted by Minus, a fledgling curatorial project which has occupied the single-room basement of a watchmaker in Glasgow’s Trongate with a series of five exhibitions this year.
Connelly’s paintings are significant in that they synthesise a concern with perception and affect; the experience of spectatorship – with the ethics of looking and seeing morally unacceptable things. They are honest confessions of the artist’s emotional response to a sight which horrified him – articulated carefully and without projecting expertise about the subject matter. The viewer is seduced into the florescent light of Connelly’s interior spaces by luminous, plastic figures which dance strangely across the canvas. As the eye adjusts- struggles – to come to terms with the uneasy, contorted forms of the dancers, one slowly becomes aware of a growing sense of dread. The forms are isolated and ambiguous – gelatinous in texture they are faceless, biomorphic and androgynous – their smooth, suggestive contours and bright colours uncomfortably at odds with impossibly angled limbs. A thin white line anchoring the figure in position is present in each scene – a symbol of the invisible economic and cultural architecture which confines many people in South East Asia within prostitution.
The composition of some of his paintings, and certainly his drawings, are highly reminiscent of the Paris Dada bachelor machines of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, or of Surrealist automatic drawing. However Connelly’s aesthetic is entirely free from the more malicious, misogynistic aspects of work like Picabia’s Fille née sans mère (Girl Born Without a Mother), (1915) or Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée (1936). The drawings are diagrammatic; bold continuous lines spun into strange contraptions. I was surprised to learn that Connelly’s drawings in fact began as sketches for sculptures, and that work on the dancers began with a view to making installations. He tells me that the drawings took on a life of their own, progressing from sketches to loose figures with a painterly quality, to works on canvas.
While the artist’s sculptural work is still in the planning stages and the exhibition at Minus sadly did not feature any graphic works on paper, I am extremely glad to have been able to experience the paintings in isolation. In a visual culture which is in many ways an endlessly scrollable feed, which places images of violence and degradation to adverts and animal videos, and which absolutely normalises violence against women in particular, it is difficult to keep making the argument that the documentary images of brutality can make a lasting, transformative impact on the viewer. Indeed, while hope remains that guilt and shame are still ethically operative within society – in the digital realm, the notion of a documentary image – a photograph or video footage- containing reality and truth has never been more challenged or open to abuse. Politically and socially, no-one is immune to having their every public utterance challenged and judged without consideration of evidence or truth. Paintings, however, frequently inspire iconoclasm by silently reserving the right to be both inherently artificial and profoundly truthful.
The artist cites Marlene Dumas, Basquiat and Willem de Kooning as influences – but the most palpable and rather fascinating parallel can be drawn between Connelly and Francis Bacon, the artist who produced the most devastating visions of human misery ever painted. The most enduring similarity between Connelly and Bacon goes beyond the stylistic; both Bacon and Connelly force the viewer to encounter and contemplate the intolerable, bodily suffering of others as an ethical act. A striking moment of confrontation with the intolerable was an experience Connelly had in a bar one night Bangkok’s Patpong Night Market. “We ordered the beers and sat at a table near the entrance and a man popped up from nowhere with a laminated menu. The menu said ‘SUPER PUSSY’ at the top in all caps Comic Sans. It was basically a selection of activities you could do with a girl of your choosing from the bar. We asked the guy to leave us alone and when he was about to walk away, a middle-aged Aussie approached and asked to see the menu. He asked us what we were ‘having’ and we told him we were fine with the beer. He said “Aww boys! You not having a play with any of these meat puppets?” We slammed the beers and left. This whole project started as a kind of visual reaction to him calling these other human beings “meat puppets”” This evocation of meat as a symbol of dehumanisation and cannibalistic consumption by Connelly is striking; in his masterful book on Bacon, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that the artist’s principle demand of viewer is to, “Pity the meat!” he wrote- “Meat is undoubtedly the chief object of Bacon’s pity, his only object of pity, his Anglo-Irish pity… it retains all the sufferings and assumes all the colours of living flesh. It manifests such convulsive pain and vulnerability, but also such delightful invention, colour, and acrobatics.” In his analysis, Deleuze himself uses the idea of meat evoked by the excessive bodies painted by Bacon, to call for the invention of new ideas in political action to tackle the barbarism of the present.
Where Bacon frequently emphasised the abject, violated state of bodies by painting visceral, muddied, deformed figures or by physically damaging the surface of the canvas – Connelly’s figures for the most part, retain a bodily dignity. The artist evokes disorientation, sensory assault and contortion without subjecting his figures to sadistic degradation; he hints at violence through a masterful and subtle use of colour rather than texture. The viewer’s perception of the rupturing misery of the dancers is slow-burning, achieved through contemplation and unmasking rather than a feeling located in a moment of shock or tactile discomfort. In some works, the dancers appear resilient, flexible and capable of transformation; their environments artificial. While Bacon’s tormented figures communicate the artist’s views on the human condition in the register of his somewhat nihilistic, post-war context of the 1960s; Connelly’s dream-like theatres of cruelty are reflections of contemporary social and economic conditions and could- through political will and time – change.
Thailand’s reputation for commercial sexual exploitation and in particular, sex tourism, is as well-known as the country’s ancient monuments and extraordinary landscape, despite prostitution, sexual harassment and rape being illegal. According to a UNAIDS report, in 2014 there were around 123,530 people engaged in commercial sexual exploitation in Thailand. However the continued ubiquity of prostitution within an extremely socially conservative culture is driven by the complex interplay of many factors, and has transformed somewhat as the country has made remarkable progress in social and economic development, moving from a low-income to upper-income country within a generation. Indeed, while research interest in Thailand’s sex industry peaked in the 1990s, there have been few recent attempts to re-evaluate the situation. This research concentrated overwhelmingly on the supply aspect of the industry; particularly the interplay between rural poverty, trafficking and urbanisation as an explanation for women’s routes into prostitution.
Poverty remains acute in certain regions, particularly in North East, North, and Deep South, however overall poverty in the country declined substantially over the last three decades from 67% in 1986 to just 7.2% for some periods of 2015. The stability of this achievement is however, extremely vulnerable to the impact of environmental change and shocks to the global market. In Thailand today, despite these economic improvements, prostitution remains a flourishing industry which takes place within in a variety of diverse venues – from the neon lit, expensive tourist bars, to bathing-sauna-massage parlours, to squalid rooms staffed by debt-bonded refugees. It is estimated that Pattaya alone has more than a thousand illegal brothels, fronted by entertainment venues and massage parlours. The city is visited by over 5 million tourists annually.
The role of culturally specific articulations of gender and sexuality and intimate relationship norms within a highly patriarchal society was less well-researched. As a result of this focus on supply above demand, to a large extent in Western media, Thailand was perceived as essentially a brothel for White Western men, while the purchase of both adult and child prostitutes by indigenous men was somewhat minimised. Furthermore, Rohingya men, women, and children (who are frequently detained indefinitely across Thailand while fleeing Myanmar/Burma) as well as over three million migrant workers from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are extremely vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, indefinite detention, and exploitation.
According to a 2010 report by the US Department of State; in 2007, the scale of commercial paedophilia practiced by both by citizens and by foreign tourists was on such a scale that an estimated 60,000 children under 18 were available for purchase. Thailand implemented a comprehensive anti-trafficking law in 2008 and while NGOs insist that there has been a significant and welcome shift away from the open purchase of children as young as 8, the lack of enforcement capacity and high levels of corruption within the government is considered to one of the main barriers to eradicating child prostitution from the country.
The artist’s visit to the Cambodian coastal resort of Sihanoukville revealed the disturbing reality of child prostitution. Connelly recalled; “I saw a bar that was filled with local women and children sitting and standing almost as if they were on display. A friend informed me that they were probably all sex workers, including the kids. I couldn’t believe it really, but I remember I kept looking over to see what was happening and every now and again a man (usually middle-aged and White) would go over, start talking, take one of the women by the hand and then they’d walk off. That night I seen two of the kids being taken by the hand and lead off towards the strip of hotels behind the beach. It hit me like a brick and made me feel genuinely sick. This was all happening right in the main night life area of this town. In plain sight.”
Five years after the enforcement of the UN General Assembly’s Palermo Protocol on trafficking, the Cambodian Government introduced the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation (2008), to suppress human trafficking and sexual exploitation according to its UN obligations and to address the country’s AIDs epidemic; one of the worst in Asia. With a population of 15.25 million, Cambodia has developed from one of the poorest countries in Asia – in a state of total collapse in the 1970s – to one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.. Economic opportunities for citizens are still limited; more than 70% of Cambodians still live on less than $3 a day. The situation is particularly bad for women, who according to the Asian Development Bank earn an average of only 27 cents for every dollar earned by a man, with agriculture and low-paid factory work providing the biggest source of employment for women and children. According to The Guardian, men will pay between £600 and £3,000 to rent a virgin for up to a week. Significant steps have been taken by government in partnership with NGOs to reduce child exploitation and according to the US base charity the International Justice Mission, there has been some reduction. The estimate that child prostitution, which made up 15-30% of the Cambodian sex industry fell to around 7% 2012. However it is highly likely that the targeting of brothels has driven much of the trade underground. Indeed, research published in the journal Health and Human Rights in 2015 suggested that the 2008 legislation change had left female prostitutes more vulnerable to physical danger and less able to access healthcare. By 2009, 96% of the estimated 35,000 women in the Cambodian sex trade working outside brothels, mostly in entertainment venues or on the street.
Economic development on its own is clearly not enough to tackle commercial sexual exploitation. Legislation is only effective in so far as the police and judiciary are capable and willing to enforce the law and to pursue perpetrators rather than criminalising or detaining prostitutes. Changes to conservative social attitudes towards gender relations and sex in general are crucial if significant change is to be made. Increased opportunities for women in terms of education, economic and political participation are crucial factors in reducing both violence against women and poverty, in South-East Asia as well as the rest of the world.
On the issue of men’s violence against women and children by men, Connelly is optimistic that progress can be made. He says “It doesn’t really help when people are voting chauvinistic, narrow-minded scumbags into literally the most powerful position in the world though. Young men need positive role models that teach equality from the get go. My mum is a feminist, and spoke about equality not only between men and women but between everyone regardless of sex, race or sexuality.” In an art-world both deeply cynical and to a large extent, still enamoured of the myth of the single, White male artist-as-genius, Connelly’s conviction and lack of ego inspires some hope that some creative practitioners are sincerely eager to be agents of social change as citizens, as well as artists.