a text written for Liam Fallon: The Hotspot, an exhibition at Castor Gallery, 18th March - 23rd April 2022
‘from afar, my body passes through thine, and thine, from afar, through mine’
Jean Genet (1910-1986) spent most of his unstable childhood on the run. He turned to petty theft and rebelled against authority; those who asked why he had been out all night or questioned his use of makeup. Aged fifteen, he was detained at the Mettray Penal Colony marked as a vagrant, and then at eighteen he joined the Foreign Legion in an attempt to better himself. It was short lived. He was dishonourably discharged on the grounds of indecency after being caught having sex with another man. Genet spent following years in and out of prison, but his captivity allowed time to secretly write a series of poems and novels which found a cult following. The French authorities planned to issue him with a life sentence, but Jean Cocteau, Jean Paul Sartre, Picasso, and other well-known fans of his work, successfully petitioned the President, and he was never locked-up again.
As Sartre later wrote, Genet would always remain a curious and ‘eternal coupling of criminal and saint’. In 1950, experiences of prison influenced his short film Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love), and this has been a long-standing inspiration for artist Liam Fallon. It’s a film about falling in love, partnership, and dualism – themes that also appear in Liam’s sculptural works. It sees two prisoners, divided by a thick cell wall, and their only contact is through a tiny hole, just big enough to pass a straw through. Plucked from a mattress, this straw becomes the means to share a cigarette. They smoke through it, back and forth. Although distanced, they fall in love, whilst jealously monitored by a guard, who watches them through the peepholes of their cell doors. In Sartre’s book, Being and Time, such voyeurism is used to explain our consciousness of the other. He paints the scene, describing how he kneels to peer through a keyhole, to look at someone in their bedroom. He watches as an observer in an inward act. He then hears footsteps behind him and is caught. In that moment he jumps up, and feeling shame, he’s no longer simply himself, but becomes an object to be judged. In Un chant d’amour, the guard too sneaks between peepholes to observe the prisoners in intimate moments. He watches them undress, wash, masturbate, pick their toenails, urinate. When they catch his eye, both parties experience the same sudden jolt of realisation. In many ways, Liam makes us feel the same. He draws you in with his bright colours and bold outlines, but on second glance, an intimacy is exposed which throws you off balance, and skews your initial perceptions.
Take for example, two indentations in the walls, they seem strange and architecturally jarring. You approach, full of curiosity, and as you get closer, you come to realise they are bellybuttons. Cast from Liam’s own, 3D-scanned and enlarged. Of all his artworks to date, they seem to aptly distil themes in Genet’s film. The key ingredients are there: they are holes in a wall, intimate, voyeuristic, flesh turned object. You can quite literally gaze at Liam’s navel – a nod to Genet’s many close-up shots of body parts in isolation. They are also a pair, a couple, partners, and this is an important and consistent thematic nucleus of Liam’s work. This is also seen in a sculpture that takes the form of a stylised rugby scrum machine. Liam is interested in ideas of hyper-masculinity, and how the scrum is charged with homoerotic associations. The sculpture, with head holes at either end, is fixed and static, and any attempts to use it would be futile. Just like Genet’s prison wall, It keeps two people apart as they desperately attempt to get closer together. White sports socks linger on the floor as a ghostly presence, a signifier that the machine was once warmed by body heat, and evidence that an encounter once took place.
Elsewhere, the gallery wall is peeled back through its middle, and it brings to mind childhood television. Liam is very interested in cartoon physics, where the impossible is made possible through various tragicomic scenarios. Lift the corner of a mountain and hide yourself under it, paint a chasm in the floor and fall into its void, get flattened by an anvil and live to tell the tale. This is a sculptural intervention about longing to break out of concealment, striving for freedom. Again, there are of course echoes of Un chant d’amour, especially its moments of absurdity and dark comedy. This is the aftermath of an attempt to get closer to someone by breaking through the wall, only to reveal another barrier, a layer of bricks underneath. The tools of this failed endeavour, hammer, and shovel, or at least the spaces they once occupied, are also displayed. Their removal exposes voids which pre-empt how they would be used. This is important to mention, as Liam thinks of his artworks as chapters in a story where everything connects, and his exhibitions as a constantly unfolding narrative. They are full of uncanny symbolism, and queer-iconography for the viewer to pick through. Regardless of background, or sexuality, we can all find something relatable. Put in the simplest terms, Liam’s work is about the journeys, frustrations, and heartbreaks of love.
It may seem strange to think that Genet’s film, just 25-minutes long, and largely unknown, could forge such a profound arc through Liam’s sculptural practice. It is, however, a sophisticated and multi-layered vignette of queer-experience. It may be short, but it is brimming with obstruction, the uncanny, anxiety, repression, furtiveness, joy, connection, discovery, and yearning. Themes to which Liam can relate. To paraphrase the words of Genet, Liam highlights the breaking point between the visible and the invisible. His artworks are imbued with personal experience, and Un chant d’amour has become a skeleton key to unlock this even further.
Image: courtesy of the artist and Castor Gallery, London