This Artist's Childish Utopia Could Be the Cure to Po-Faced Activism
Instead of being the self-serious activist art I was expecting, it was an endearingly petulant show of defiance.
In a place called Govan in Glasgow lies the Pearce Institute. Its website states that it is the "heart" of the Govan community. Govan, I'm told by a Glaswegian friend, doesn't have much of a community. It also doesn't seem like the right place for Buzzcut, the alternative arts festival taking place here. It seems an even less appropriate venue for artist Kayleigh O'Keefe's latest rendition of her naked feminist performance-art piece Gash Land.
Kayleigh's website describes Gash Land as "a utopian fanny wonderland" existing in her and her fans' minds. But if it were a real place rather than a concept, where would this idyllic land – somewhere "all citizens could be free to express themselves without persecution" – be located?
"My bedroom. That's where Gash Land manifests – that's where the gash palace is. There is no ideal venue for it. Unless somebody [were to give] me a town and a big expanse of land and let me bring all my citizens to it," she tells me over the phone.
We were supposed to speak during her show, which lasted four hours, but she was riddled with a chest infection. "I ended up in hospital the next day," she says. "I think [the show] was a success. At first, I felt like it went really, really badly, but everyone engaged and a lot of people really enjoyed it."
Kayleigh O'Keefe was born in 1986 in Sheffield and has a thick accent, which permeates her work. Gashland, as a concept, is about – among other things – creating a land where people will always and forever have a "Reyt good time." The other tenets? "Eternal adoration for the glorious leader, and no one can be mean to Kayleigh ever again."
What intrigued me about the show was that it fit neatly within a culture of safe spaces and body positivity, but also showed a degree of childish petulance. Kayleigh spent most of the time I saw her sitting naked on the floor, surrounded by blankets, like a tired and cranky infant, being fed Tunnock's Tea Cakes, before standing up and being "fisted" by cardboard hands attached to bamboo sticks. It was fun.
"The way I do it – my activism – is by actually creating those spaces," she says. "It is conscious, but it's in a more natural way. I don't think there's much point in me ranting about it or starting a petition. If I want it to be better, I'll do it like that and lead by example. We can make it better – come to my country that I've made, where it's better. But part of it is that it's all about me and my idea of what's better."
I'm no art type. I like paintings of Greek men with tiny cocks stabbing lions in the throat. I like armless statues of women. I like giant tapestries of serfs getting bludgeoned to death by boy princes and their hareem of burly lunatics.
By rights, Kayleigh's whole schtick – and Gash Land as a concept – should annoy me as much as any other attempt to subvert paradigms with nudity would. But it didn't. Perhaps I didn't see it so much as an art installation built to make me think, but what I reckon it's meant to be: an invitation to a world where change is achieved by people actually doing something, rather just tweeting about the vague idea of doing something.
"One week I got slut-shamed a few times, and so I got really mardy and thought, 'What can I do? How can I change things?' I decided if I created my own country where nobody was allowed to be mean to me and everyone had to live by my rules, what would that be like?" says Kayleigh. "And so the ethos is that. Everyone can be free to do what they want, as long as they follow my rules."
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