Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy

 

Looking at Gabi Dao’s gelatin ears, I wonder if they’ve changed shape. When she installed them, she mentioned that they might work better hanging, but since the space is a shelf, we didn’t discuss it further. Now I am a little curious about the consequences of that decision, not only for how the work means, but about its longevity. Is it possible that the heat of the apartment during the summer contributed to the rear ear’s misshapenness? What will happen when the work is shown again? Will they return to shape if left to hang?

Longevity, misshapenness, heat - these words spur other thoughts about ears: about the form, function, and feeling of ears. I don’t really like ears, as a body part. That comes from a discomfort with my own ears’ shape, but also from knowing that ears, like noses, continue to grow throughout a person’s life. I’ll admit that I have been fascinated by older peoples’ ears, scrutinizing them for clues to the person’s age, wondering where (when) the ears started. I have a similar fascination for people with ear spacers, as well as earring holes, with or without spacers or earrings. Some of it, I imagine, is envy for people’s comfort with their ears.

Somebody recently pointed to a line in my left earlobe that isn’t there in my right earlobe, and I slapped their hand away. Since then I can’t stop seeing it in mirrors, so much so that I think the line is actually in my right ear. Part of me thinks the line comes from lying on my left side more than my right while reading, watching tv, or sleeping, but I don’t like thinking that my body has become permanently marked by sloth. I can’t think of a way to exercise my ears back into shape. It’s a similar anxiety that rises when I worry that one of Gabi’s ears is flat now where it wasn’t before.

Is gelatin resilient? I don’t know. Gabi told me the ears are made of gelatin, vegetable glycerin, liquid foundation make-up, and a temporary tattoo that has almost completely rubbed off. Each ear is in a separate pink mesh bag, bags that once packaged vermicelli noodles. There is a gold ribbon that ties the ears' bags together, but it only looks gold where it bunches into a bow. The ends are almost transparent, with some flecking, as if they were sheets of collagen, adding to the macabre nature of the sculpture (collagen being the primary ingredient in gelatin, along with animal bone and skin). There’s a matte character to the ears’ surface that, in combination with the ears’ exaggerated size, makes it a little uncanny, perhaps because the glycerin makes the surface a little bit oily, too. Mixed with the barely perceptible surface striations that are remnants of the mold, that oiliness rewards close scrutiny with a feeling that can gently turn a stomach. After a few months on the shelf, there is also now dust in the concha, fossa, and antihelical fold. That dust produces a different feeling, one related to the injunction to always clean behind your ears, but also to the medical advice to never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. I feel like I could get my elbow in these ears.1

Eye Ear

It is apparent that the ears are soft; they look more edible than not. The colouring, and perhaps some of the uncanny matte, comes from the make-up, and seems to fall close to the middle of a skin tone spectrum. It’s the chromatic ambition of those post-race miscegenists who fantasize about the world eventually fucking itself latté. So we have ear as fantasy, and ear as horror. Outside of their bags they read as film props, and remind me of the comically, grotesquely large ears and noses from Double Dare, the children’s game show I can’t remember ever watching but yet have a bodily understanding of. In the obstacle course climax of each show, children would don goggles and race through a series of goopy, messy stations, one of which inevitably was a giant nose with neon green mucus-filled nostrils the contestants would have to stick their entire arms into, or a giant head they would have to enter through one ear and exit through another, struggling through a canal clogged with simulated ear wax. The first sculpture of Gabi’s I ever saw was a cartoonishly large nose, as part of the installation Open Sesame. There was a sound component to that work that allowed the audience to move in and out of the nose - conceptually, not literally - but that’s not possible with the ears. They look back at you: could they be your ears, if you lived long enough? Are they prosthetics, marketing tools for plastic surgeons like the one in Manda Bala, who made a career out re-crafting ears for kidnapping victims who had an ear removed to prompt ransom payments?

<i>Manda Bala</i>

Like a range of body parts and areas, one’s ears are only ever shown to one’s self through a mirror or photograph or drawing. It makes them difficult to know visually. I am aware of my ears when I am embarrassed, and they heat up. I was uniquely aware of them that one time I had anaphylaxis and my ear canal swelled before my throat did. I am aware of them when play fighting or when somebody touches them. And I am aware of them when I move them, or open my jaw in order to pop them. I can move them independently of each other, because as a child I remember thinking that was a cool trick, and I worked hard to isolate the muscles in my face that would allow me to mimic it. I find fewer opportunities to perform that trick than my younger self would have liked, though. And I can flex something in my inner that produces some kind of sound sensation that is part crackling, part rumble, like a cart rolling across a tiled floor above me.

All this is to say that it took some thinking to understand how I know my ears. It reminds me of this thing I sometimes do with my tongue: I twist it and press it flat while running it along my bottom teeth. For some reason I naturally twist it in one direction, to the right. It’s a habit I’ve cultivated fairly recently, after I discovered that the sensation it produces is grotesque. It feels as if my lower jaw has pivoted seventy to eighty degrees counter-clockwise, like a roller coaster car slowly turning a corner. I know it feels like that because of muscle memory. For decades my tongue had only encountered the back of my teeth straight on. Every time I pronounce the schwa, or “th” (the voiced or devoiced dental fricative), my tongue meets my teeth, and orients itself in my mouth. By twisting it and pressing it flat against my bottom teeth, that orientation is disrupted, and it causes a small panic in by body, one that I for some reason enjoy. My body tells me my teeth are pointing to my left, instead of up. My body doesn’t understand what my tongue it telling it.

I’m not sure my body understands what my ears tell it, either, at least corporeally. I know that ears aid balance, and contribute to proprioception, but I understand them differently than I understand my eyes, nose, and mouth, all of which I can easily position. It’s difficult for me to position my ears. It’s even difficult for me to consider them as separate unless there is a particularly directed sound stimulus. Otherwise they are as indistinguishable as nostrils.

So to have separate and separated ears on a shelf in my living room is uncomfortable for me. But that didn’t stop me from looking at them, or caring for them. Like the grotesque feeling that comes from a simple twist of a tongue, a sideward glance at Gabi’s ears would elicit a “Hm. Gross” response in me. It twisted my space in a way that I will miss, a little.

 

1 I know one time, after taking seriously the medical prohibition against sticking a Q-tip in my ear to clean it, and foolishly taking seriously the hippies’ recommendation to loosen ear wax with drops of olive oil, I lost hearing in my right ear for a few days. I had been regularly swimming in the ocean and then traveled by plane, and the combination of air pressure and pollutants resulted in near complete deafness. In the few days before arranging a visit to a clinic, I remember simply nodding to strangers who were speaking to me and hoping that a nod was sufficient response. Sometimes it wasn’t, and I had to turn my head to use my good ear. When I eventually made an appointment at a clinic, the nurse-practitioner performed an ear lavage, a service that could be a spa package on its own. The lavage cleared the blockage and returned my hearing and, in large part, my understanding of how my body operates in space. I told her about the olive oil and the avoidance of q-tips, and she told me that was a good idea. I asked her how she cleans her ears and she said: “I use a q-tip.”