In her writings on abjection, the French philosopher Julia Kristeva famously described the feeling of disgust we experience when our lips touch the weird skin that forms on the surface of warm milk. Laura Duffy’s work is an invitation to a dance party on top of that gross, sticky surface. Working mainly with experimental video and lo-fi animation, the Wellington-based artist creates a glitchy digital world where desire and repulsion can heave, moan, and grind against each other on the same sweaty dance floor.
Duffy describes her practice as exploring a queer pleasure derived from failure, error, and disgust. Take, for instance, Garden of Purity: Open Your Mouth Wide and I Will Fill It, which she remade in early 2021 for Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum, after initial showings at the Wellington artist-run space Meanwhile and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The seven-channel video installation behaves like a decadent feast from a seventeenth- century vanitas painting that has been left to rot. The screens perch on wonky steel frames, creating peculiar relationships with viewers’ bodies. Sweet, luscious surfaces erupt into syrupy secretions that ooze through a field of candy-coloured mould spores. The decay pulses with an unmistakably sexual energy. Disrupting the border between revulsion and seduction, the work evokes both the thick mucus that drips out your nose and the luscious sap that seeps between your legs.
At the heart of Duffy’s recent work is her interest in queer ecology, a school of thought that aims to break down outdated heteronormative notions of what is ‘natural’ by celebrating the messy complexities found in nature, biology, and sexuality. In the face of climate change and other environmental crises, there’s a strange sense of optimism in this. Instead of despairing over the toxic mess that humans have created, queer ecology explores how to coexist with and thrive alongside other species by imagining creative alternatives to binary oppositions: natural versus unnatural, nature versus human, and nature versus culture.
Duffy’s exploration of this topic oozes with joy—emphasis on the ooze. In late 2021, she was commissioned by Serena Bentley at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in partnership with Circuit to produce an experimental online work. Spawn, a short silent video, was hosted on ACMI’s website until March 2022. It poses the question: What do freak science, fairies, and queer-flower coding have in common? Although I’m not sure I understand the question, Duffy’s response is a witch’s brew of natural and unnatural materials that bubble and squelch together in her digital cauldron. Or perhaps it resembles what happens after you drink the toxic potion—the digestive secretions of your guts trying to extract nourishment from the indigestible slurry. Either way, there is a clear sense that the artist is enjoying the squirminess of the material.
This sense of finding pleasure in the imperfect runs through Duffy’s practice. Her video installation !Error!, at Wellington gallery Enjoy in 2020, layered glitchy footage of an improvised dance party, set to the music of Strange Stains—awkward human bodies coexisting happily with the hiccups and fuck ups of a digital world. Similarly, in the aforementioned Garden of Purity installation, she refused the neat-and-tidy museum mounts the Dowse offered. Instead, she taught herself to weld, in order to make her own wonky stands that resembled disfigured skeletal structures, whose flesh had been stripped from their metal bones.
Duffy is increasingly experimenting with sculpture and found materials. In her 2021 solo show Maybe Someone Is Starting to Bloom at Auckland’s Parasite gallery, Duffy repurposed her homemade stands into metal sculptural forms balancing mysterious concoctions that seemed ready to tip over and pollute the gallery. Nature footage played alongside grungy assemblages of manmade and natural elements—a plastic orchid balanced on tubing, wilted botanicals encased in resin. These works recall the genteel Victorian tradition of pressing flowers to preserve their perfect beauty. However, in Duffy’s work, the beauty does not lie in the preservation but in the decay. Duffy’s Garden of Eden is full of diseased plants, where the spreading rot and the detritus scattered through the grounds are as valuable as the flowers themselves.