Toxicity and Intoxication: Catherine Telford-Keogh and Katie Bethune-Leamen at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery

22 May 2019

By Shannon Garden-Smith 

In an essay on disgust in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed asks: How can we tell the story of disgust in a way that works with the complicated relations between bodies, objects and others? (1) Considering the exhibitions of Katie Bethune-Leamen and Catherine Telford-Keogh at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (UWAG), we encounter similar questions: How do disgust and pleasure go together in desire and consumption (understood as both shopping and eating)? How do we compose ourselves in relation to the ineluctable intimacy of consumption as contact, contamination, and in/digestion? What is composition other than a proposition about taste and desire, about the proper discernment of value and waste? At UWAG, an oblique dialog takes place along these lines, between these exhibitions, approached together, separately. What seeps across the boundary between these bodies of work are shared engagements with the activity of composition as the ongoing activity of managing the messy material and symbolic relations of insides and outsides, bodies and boundaries, of compulsory consumption.

At UWAG, Telford-Keogh introduces a new suite of works in the lineage of her earlier Source Supplements (2018) floor-sculptures. With innards of mass-manufactured foods and other commodity-miscellany saturated in acrid-hued resin, these sculptures formally and functionally recall enlarged mouths, stomachs and ashtrays—vessels where heterogeneous matter merges, coagulates, nourishes, festers. Bound in steel flashing that suggests a biomedical or food-grade surface, this new group of objects is more science-fiction slick than its predecessors. In acerbic orange, dental-hygiene-glove green, and deep burgundy, the three sculptures, all titled Nutrient Pool (Threat StimulatorX) (2018), congeal kinships between ingestion and indigestion, consumer and consumed. Like plastic saturated core-samples, these engorged pools assemble merchandise familiar from Telford-Keogh’s previous work. Food products, objects that suggest a spatial slotting together, and inedible objects that mimic food—dill pickles, hot dog trays and silicone bra inserts, for example—abound. New to the Nutrient Pool series are pain-relief pills and nickel-plated beaded chains that settle seductively into the belly of the sculptures. These object-entrails appear evocatively bacterial, with Advil gel capsules and loops of beaded chain accreting like gastrointestinal microorganisms. As imitation gut flora, the beaded chains tether the mouth/stomach-like form to the bathtub plug chain as much as the chained pen at the doctor’s office or bank teller’s booth. Image: Nutrient Pool (Threat StimulatorX), 2018 by Catherine Telford-Keogh. Photo by Laura Findlay.


Telford-Keogh’s material poetics gesture to a gut wrought with indigestion. It’s a notion her work pivots on, encompassing Donna Haraway’s celebration of indigestion as “the origin of complex cellularity…perhaps the world’s first complex worlding,” which resulted when “some bacterial sorts of critters ate others and got indigestion and stuck around with each other.” (2) Indigestion is a generative act for Telford-Keogh, too. Her sculptures embody the process, with objects swallowing other objects in “a complex material eroticism, in which distinct objects and bodies maintain their autonomy, but also come to inhabit the same space, come to inhabit one another.” (3)

More immediately legible as enormous lab dishes than ashtrays, with the Nutrient Pool series, Telford-Keogh nudges her sustained material-spatial exploration of “the violence of sanitation” (4) into the laboratory or the examination room. Here, the dish might serve as petri dish, isolating matter for observation, or it might act as a refuse vessel for carrying unwanted matter away. In both senses, the objects point to a deep-seated uneasiness with Haraway’s model of messy indigestion. Telford-Keogh works with products borne of this uneasiness, examining the space of the container/divider that promises to keep contaminants out by stuffing it full of its own toxicity. In aligning these materials with the spaces and processes of bodily in/digestion, she locates the structuring principles of market rationality and sanitation deep within our bodies. Her basins of material in/digestion then might be understood as operating like “contact zones”: a term Haraway uses to describe spaces in which subjects are co-constituted in and by their messy relations with others, through intimate, often uncomfortable touch. In the contact zone, things come to be through fleshy encounter, complicating distinctions between self-other, subject-object.

Image: Installation view of Dental Dam by Catherine Telford-Keogh. Photo by Laura Findlay.

At UWAG, Telford-Keogh names the mouth from the outset, titling the exhibition Dental Dam—a latex or polyurethane barrier for obstructing the transmission of bodily fluids. It’s an object that does double-duty in oral sex and the dentist’s office, providing a barrier between the mouth and genitals or isolating parts of the mouth during dental procedures. Dental dams are objects that touch, and in so doing, they locate touch in the mouth, in bodily fluid, and in their synthetic polymer skin. The object links the mouth to the lower regions of the body, to pleasure, sex and dental hygiene by materializing the contact zone border in plastic. In a 2016 text tracing the emergence of plastic in the early 20th century, Telford-Keogh examines plastic’s commercial provenance as entangled with food and fear of contamination. Marketed in early ads as “a protective barrier against ‘strange hands,’ dirt, and germs,” Telford-Keogh notes how this new material “kept food fresh and free of germs,” while also acting as “an impenetrable, protective, clear synthetic barrier against the hands of unknown people…safeguarding and preserving the integrity of normative healthy bodies.” (5)

Sara Ahmed takes up related questions around food, boundaries and fear of contamination noting “the politics of ‘what gets eaten’ or consumed is bound up with histories of imperialism.” (6) Telford-Keogh’s use of plastic engages this expanded politics of consumption (as eating/buying) with consumer desire for the material fashioned out of the utter disgust of the touch of “strange hands.” For Ahmed, disgust is about contact: “it involves a relationship of touch and proximity between the surface of bodies and objects.” (7) As such, disgust “operates as a contact zone; it is about how things come into contact with other things,” (8) relating intimately to the abject object, which threatens to elide self into other—subject into object. In Kristeva’s seminal writing on abjection, her disgust at the skin on the surface of hot milk demonstrates how abjection transforms borders into objects. (9) In Dental Dam, Kristeva’s milk skin (the “disgusting border object”), figures instead as a plastic skin, a border transformed into an object in order to stave off disgust. But, as Telford-Keogh intimates through her contact zone mouth/stomach/dish forms, the plastic “border object” does not remain an external food wrapper or a way to assert the boundary between the body of the “clean” subject and that which lies outside of it. Instead, the plastic border object wends its way inside the subject’s stomach, pervading the food chain as insoluble waste.

Except in glimpses of teeth and tongue in the show’s two vinyl image prints, Dental Dam mostly withholds the mouth itself, or, rather, distends it, so it figures everywhere. The mouth reads in armatures for the body, in dishes and trays, and the preponderance of petroleum-based materials. In TentaculumTM (Dental Dam) Fixation Pro Vital Series (2018), one of two explicit pictorial representations of the mouth in the show, the dominant image of a dental-dam swathed mouth appears to drip with beads of condensed breath. Produced in the slick plastic surface of vinyl advertising, the simulation points to the presence of saliva, petroleum, and other liquids elsewhere in the show—a cocktail that repeats in various guises. Tiny found images punctuate the dental procedure like icons on an unkempt desktop. A drooling lip, a raw fish filet, and ads for Haier (a company that got its start in refrigeration and now produces a full suite of domestic appliances) are among the digitally collaged content. Revealing slivers of pink tongue through abstracted, looping letter cut-outs that whisper at brand names or taglines, the prints draw out funny, formal connections with the objects embedded in the Nutrient Pools—the image of the fish filet and the embedded silicone bra insert rhyme in shared slick, pink-fleshed translucence, for example.

In linking the mouth with the lower regions of the body, Dental Dam brings hygiene in contact with sexuality and with parts of the body that expel waste. A perverse amalgam of food trolley, surgical supply cart, gurney and dental chair, two set-like furniture/shelving constructions, X-Autopoiesis. Secretlab Titan 5172601 and X-Autopoiesis. Secretlab Omega 5109201, evoke the mouth through the dental chair—an apparatus that supports and realigns the lower body in order to grant access to the mouth. Flanked by two arms of a custom-fabricated steel-tube shelving unit mounted on casters, the chair in …Secretlab Titan 5172601—a cream and winter-mint green pleather gamer seat—thrusts upwards in a perpetual incline of examination. The tilt reveals a band of chewed gum, pushed into a crevice between the upholstery and undercarriage. It’s a material move that connects tactile manipulation with the mouth as much as the hands, evidencing the mouth’s touch and echoing something of Hannah Wilke’s chewing gum vaginal forms. The sculpture’s connected shelving units feature a veiny stone inlay which support shallow cafeteria trays containing Bio-Pure®, saliva, and Shell® petroleum. Clear, acrylic lids set loosely atop the trays drip with condensation and provide a window onto a burgeoning colony of fuzzy blue-green mold.

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Image: Detail of X-Autopoiesis. Secretlab Omega 5109201, 2018 by Catherine Telford-Keogh. Photo by Laura Findlay.

Like food gone rancid, the molding cafeteria trays evoke disgust—an effect that intensifies within the scheme of the (ideally) sanitized biomedical/dental object. In Dental Dam, Telford-Keogh introduces Bio-Pure® a proprietary microbial formula that performs such sanitation work by eating through waste collected in dental evacuation lines. The product works by feeding off of organic waste suctioned out of patients’ mouths. As “an active colony,” it “eats the waste away!” (10) Adding Bio-Pure® to her Nutrient Pools and cafeteria tray brew, Telford-Keogh reconstitutes Haraway’s voracious, worlding bacterial critters as a trademarked formula with an appetite for sanitation. Where her work frequently engages cheerful corporate affect as a veil for disgust, here, the drive toward clean remains exuberantly disgusting. She positions the mouth not only as digestive conduit, but as a direct source of food/waste, engendering a sludgy feast in the bowels of the dental office.

Engaging disgust in petrochemical-saturated mouths, guts and bowels, Telford-Keogh’s accretions of matter trace commodity desire and fear of contamination through complex relations of consumption and taste. As disgust at the notion of the “unclean” and the breakdown of boundaries between bodies originally stimulates plastic’s circulation in the marketplace and material world, the commodity aesthetics of sanitary cheerfulness obscure an anxious desire to put distance between the disgusting body/object and the “clean” subject. Telford-Keogh turns this logic of disgust back on itself, on the materials designed to maintain these boundaries and the attending commercial affect that ensures the happy satisfaction of sanitation.

Following Telford-Keogh’s rhyming relationships between materials, there is something like an imperfect rhyme at work between Telford-Keogh’s work with plastic and Katie Bethune-Leamen’s approach to porcelain as a material saturated with bodily associations—the hand and mouth, the vessel and support, and the implied acts of pouring, sipping, slurping, and so on. As with Bethune-Leamen’s recent exhibitions, Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats. is to a significant extent animated by an array of lumpy porcelain forms, distributed throughout the exhibition space, appearing variously and vaguely as figures, supports and adornments—tumorous and scatalogical heaps of porcelain slathered in goopy glazes of lavender, lime, and peach (11)—forms flirting with animation and thingliness in a parodic reverberation of clay’s mythical figural potency. (12) These commingle with familiar materials from Bethune-Leamen’s recent exhibitions—custom-fabricated steel and ceramic supports, digitally-printed textiles, soft and irregular tubes of fluorescent light—alongside eclectic ephemera from consumer culture: a vintage Parisian metro advertisement for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain; a magazine advertisement for Salem cigarettes featuring the actor Tom Selleck (five of these, actually); a large-format photograph of a cardboard display stand for Bourjois cosmetics; a package of Excel gum; a bunch of “attractive found purple garbage.” (13)

Image: Installation view of Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats. by Katie Bethune-Leamen. Photo by Toni Hafkensheid.

In Bethune-Leamen’s work, these heterogeneous materials are coordinated through an associative approach to production and display that recalls Elizabeth Grosz’s theorization of art as a mode of intensification that is

fundamentally bound up with the two features that characterize all of animal existence: the force of sexual selection, that is, the vibratory power of seduction (attention, attraction, performance, courtship); and the force of territorialization (the loosening of qualities from the milieus in which they originate and function through the construction of a boundary or frame within which these qualities can exist in different form). (14)

The titular figure of the orchid mantis, incorporated as a graphic pattern on swaths of digitally printed silk crêpe de chine, appears as a kind of emblem for this spirit of the work. This particular type of mantis is understood to practice a form of predation called aggressive mimicry, which is a mimicry not of any particular orchid, as in an act of camouflage, but rather the performance of a more general orchid-ness for the predatory purposes of attraction. It doesn’t blend in so much as it stands out as something that it isn’t. The mantis imagery, all high-key pinks and greens, flickering between figure and ground, appears as a decorative motif and mimetic principle for the play of attraction and association in Bethune-Leamen’s exhibition.

For example, a large blob situated on the corner of the reception desk at the entrance to the gallery—glazed, as a pastry (say, a donut) is glazed, in a goopy dripping creamy blushing pink—poses as office décor, gently pulling the reception desk into the mise-en-scène. The checklist indicates that this object is a part of a multi-component work with the title Coin Rosé All Day (large pinky blob; baby pink neon with porcelain holders; bokashi box flown home across the ocean, here photographed and a print made to scale of the original, in a perhaps ridiculous frame; orchid mantis polka dots print–cotton… (2018) epitomizing the territorializing logic of Bethune-Leamen’s approach to installation in this mouthful of materials gathering around the blushing bokashi graphic of the Bourjois cosmetic box. Adjacent to this stands Blobby mint green porcelain stack supported by mint green stand (2018)a towering, tapering stack of mint-green piles of porcelain, secured to the wall by the described support. This rhymes with the adjacent Tom Selleck stack with image of found Excel gum pack photographed and printed to scale, the colours of which determined the colours of the frames, (2018) where Selleck is featured in a uniform column of framed cigarette ads, interrupted by the backside of a prosaic package of gum, which we are informed provides the palette for the stack’s custom-fabricated frames. These round-edged frames hold the advertisements at a 90 degree angle to the portrait orientation of the page, which features the tagline “I can talk about enjoyment. I’ve tasted it.” This slight shift away from a literal reading suggests a more oblique approach to iconographic familiarity and associations of seriality with consumption, enjoyment and taste, where semiotics yields to affect, an expression on the tip of the tongue.

Image: Coin Rosé All Day (large pinky blob; baby pink neon with porcelain holders; bokashi box flown home across the ocean, here photographed and a print made to scale of the original, in a perhaps ridiculous frame; orchid mantis polka dots print–cotton…, 2018 by Katie Bethune-Leamen. Photo by Toni Hafkensheid.

Bethune-Leamen’s assemblages are at once figure and ground, dwelling, or environment. The suggestion here is of a space—Quangle Wangle’s hat, (15) say—that virtually encompasses the exhibition, making of the gallery a space of animation, anthropomorphism and pareidolia, (16) entangling or incorporating the viewer in a constellation of associations that hover around the work. The body is everywhere—a scattering of suggested torsos, limbs, organs, heads—often humorous and/or scatalogical. A pair of eyes is fixed at the upper threshold of a gallery wall; (17) clusters of ceramic fingers hold layered sheets of fabric and latex yardage to another wall; (18) a porcelain blob on a steel support forms a gross approximation of a nose in front of a pair of short neon tubes arranged as a set of hikimayu eyebrows on the adjacent wall. (19) Tall custom-fabricated steel armatures adorned with evocative porcelain blobs, draping fabrics, and the titular hats suggest gaunt and ambiguous forms of figuration.

Again and again in Bethune-Leamen’s work, the cheerful and banal aesthetics of consumer culture—the soft pink-to-white gradient of the Bourjois cosmetics branding, the flirtation with corporate and commercial approaches to display and décor in the adornment of the exhibition space—collide with the endearingly abject, awkward, monstrous, etc. In this work, there is a play between the abject and the cute, as Saelen Twerdy has observed. (20) The ‘cute’ is among the weak or equivocal aesthetic categories that theorist Sianne Ngai posits as crucial for understanding contemporary experience as it is shaped by and reflects the conditions of capitalism. For Ngai, the cute is a commodity aesthetic, a genre of easy consumption, of reduced or simplified pleasures, where the relational demand of the commodity is a demand to be needed and adored through consumption. The abject, of course, is associated with the inverse—the threat of self-loss in the incoherence of the disgusting, in the repulsion of the disgusting border object, as in the expelled or unconsumed refuse of the body.

Image: Installation view of Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats. by Katie Bethune-Leamen. Photo by Toni Hafkensheid.

Crucially, in Bethune-Leamen’s work, the abject appears as something like a cartoon, a cute parody, where parody is understood as a form of deviously playful mimesis. The porcelain figures in particular, effusively incoherent, encapsulate this coincidence of the abject and the cute as it scrambles the coordinates of taste in the distinction of attraction and repulsion, value and waste. Beyond critical attitudes of sanitation or negation, Bethune-Leamen’s assemblages present situations in which attraction as an aesthetic relation is complex, capacious and deeply complicated. This is crucial, or critical, insofar as it entails a nuanced engagement with affective, psychological and material entanglement in the circuits of consumer culture—beauty, health or entertainment as industries—both elective and ineluctable, through an insistence on pleasure, play and seduction against the normativity of good taste.

Taken together then, Bethune-Leamen and Telford-Keogh’s bodies of work at UWAG suggest approaches to composition as a critical mode of consumption, of possessing and being possessed. For both, pleasure in the formal excesses of composition is neither superfluous nor superficial but essential to the messy and ongoing activity of managing the psychic and material toxicity of contemporary life contingent on consumption. This is not the consumption of the mindless, distracted or hypnotized consumer, but a more ruminative and disruptive activity. Their work opens up a space of indigestion, engaging the uncomfortable proximity and instability of self-other and subject-object relations, through and with desire’s inherent optimism, which is perhaps how shared worlds of meaning are composed.

  1. Sara Ahmed, “The Performativity of Disgust,” The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2015): 82–100.
  2. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble,” Lecture, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Santa Cruz, US, May 9, 2014, (accessed May 11, 2019).
  3. Shannon Garden-Smith, “Catherine Telford-Keogh,” Border Crossings, vol. 37, no. 3 (Aug. 2018): 135–136.
  4. “In Source Supplements, Telford-Keogh explores the receptacle as structured through the ethos of capitalist, neoliberal production and imbued with the violence of sanitation. Re-designed as the space-saving storage container, the receptacle is co-opted by the logic of hygiene in pursuit of economical, clean, ordered space.” Garden-Smith 136.
  5. Catherine Telford-Keogh, “Dupont Cellophane: A Synthetic Barrier Against Strange Hands,” PRECOG Magazine, Vol. 1 (2016): 49-55.
  6. Ahmed 83.
  7. Ibid, 85.
  8. Ibid, 87.
  9. Ibid, 85.
  10. “Complete Evacuation System Cleaner.” Bio-Pure, Bio-Pure Products, Inc., (accessed May 11, 2019).
  11. From one body of work to the next, these forms appear indistinctly as food, poop, boobies, organs, animals, creatures, “nugs”  “guys,” or “friends” as Bethune-Leamen occasionally indicates in her titles.
  12. In a wide range of origin myths, the first bodies were made of clay.
  13. Katie Bethune-Leamen, Attractive Found Purple Garbage Summer 2018 (2018).
  14. Elizabeth Grosz, “Art and the Animal,” Farimani Vol. 1 (2008): 6.
  15. Amongst the numerous references in the title of Hat stand/Maypole/Quangle Wangle’s hat/Jodorowsky’s hat (2018) is a reference to a poem by Edward Lear which describes a creature, the Quangle Wangle, with a hat that is one hundred and two feet wide.
  16. Pareidolia’ is a term coined in reference to the human tendency to search for meaning in vague visual stimuli.
  17. Eyes? (2018).
  18. Creepy pearl fingers… (2018).
  19. Composition for Yatsuya Kaidan (Tokyo National Theatre kabuki performance and Utagawa Kunikazu woodblock print) poisoned! dead! and resurrected! as most impressive avenging ghost swathed in phosphorescent flames, here with phosphorescent green hikimayu, glazed porcelain, powder coated steel, neon (2018).
  20. For further analysis of the cute in relation to Bethune-Leamen’s work, see Saelen Twerdy, “Loving and Leaking: Katie Bethune-Leamen’s Cute Blobs,” Eastern Edge (2015).

Dental Dam and Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats. ran from November 8 – December 15, 2018 at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery.

Feature Image: Installation view of Dental Dam by Catherine Telford-Keogh. Photo by Laura Findlay courtesy of the University of Waterloo Art Gallery.