Saturday 23 February 2019

liars and thieves (FE365)

Years ago, someone once sent me a rather poor photocopy of a photo of my friend Claire Marshall - in Hidden J, I think, it was a show I never actually saw. In the photo, she’s wearing a black dress and a cardboard sign tied with string around her neck, with the word LIAR written in big capital letters. Claire looks vulnerable and isolated adorned by this material textual object, 'othered' as if the sign has been coercively imposed. In some photos of her in this show, a slightly blurred Richard Lowdon is lurking in the background, his eyes directed towards Claire’s back, and his presence seems to confirm this coercion. 

Yet the nomination LIAR remains ambiguous, and any stable reading skids and unravels. Claire seems to be located as A liar, if not THE singular liar. At the same time the word and her gaze also point outwards to any readers of the sign, and the term can attach itself to anyone who witnesses, perhaps to be freely accepted and shared in complicity: aren’t we all liars anyway? Or it can be received as accusation. Who? Me? Oh…

The photograph came to me at a time when I lived in Australia, and petty criminals were being publicly shamed in some states there. A boy who had been caught shoplifting in a glossy new mall in Canberra was punished in the children’s court by being obliged to stand every Saturday outside the ‘scene-of-the-crime’ in the shopping centre wearing a T-shirt with the word THIEF printed on it. Within days of his sentencing, this civic stigmatisation had been co-opted and dispersed as thousands of identical T-shirts were printed, distributed and worn around the shopping malls of Canberra.

Whenever I’ve seen this image of Claire, and it has often been reproduced since then, I have wanted to undo her isolation, and have tried to imagine (it’s not so hard) a proliferation of liars on street corners and in courts of law, in shopping centres and front gardens, in railway stations and pubs and theatres and universities and online. A community of liars, with no clear way of ever knowing if any of us were telling the truth.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

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