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Structures of necessity
How to deal with this project? Structures of Necessity was delicately attuned to the individuality of each participant and steadfastly determined to evade the crude, over-familiar forms of decision-making in the contemporary art world. Yet the project, which originated from an idea by Liz Coats, was motivated by the (correct) perception that access to the benefits of power is essential for artistic practice. In such a circumstance the operation of critical speech tends to be inhibited. One is involved in an embarrassing paradox: in pointing to the operation of powers unwanted and disowned but employed nevertheless, and necessarily so.
Structures of Necessity, subtitled "an exhibition in two parts", presented thirteen people of diverse occupations and passionate commitments, including, unusually, a writer not the author of the catalogue, a marine biologist and a social historian, as well as a divergent group of artists. Each participant chose the work exhibited and contributed a text to the catalogue edited by Liz Coats.
To my way of thinking, Structures of Necessity severely tested current critical responses in Sydney (including my own, of course). As a group exhibition by women it embraced the inevitable risk of description as "ghettoising" art by women; was categorised by some quarters as a "seventies" show for its non-hierarchical and participatory ethos; and was dismissed by others for its eclectic mix ("the works didn't go together"); and insouciant indifference to certain currently fashionable modes. With the exception of this piece, the published record of recent art events remains completely innocent of reference to Structures of Necessity, as telling an indicator of contemporary critical valuation as any available. (Not even damned by faint praise!)
More positively, Structures of Necessity offered, as several critical colleagues remarked, "an interesting way to look at work". Without any clear guidelines, without an announced theme or stylistic category, one was thrown back on more personal, more tentative, constructions of the work. Structures of Necessity, in presenting diverse and developed works, forced the viewer to respond to the particularities of each contribution - no quick conclusions here - whilst appreciating the complex relationships embodied in the whole, both in the works themselves and in the accompanying catalogue texts. Perambulation, meandering around in and about the multiple cross-references suggested by the contiguities and serendipities of the exhibition, was a delight. Mind you, as is often the way with such adventures, the journey turned out to be more interesting than the destination. In the first exhibition I confidently read the works as a spectrum running from the domestic to the public sphere, from amateur facture to mass spectacle made by professionals, "commencing" with a 1940s patchwork and other domestic items collected by Wendy Hucker, of the Pioneer Women's Hut Museum near Tumbaramba in rural New South Wales, and "culminating" in Jill Scott's Media Massage videotape. lt all seemed so clear, an interesting series of transitions: from Hucker's installation to Leah MacKinnon's well-loved drawings from/of treasured personal memories, through Christine Cornish's photographic meditation on the ontological status of a humble glass bottle; via Virginia Coventry's recent painting Architecture to her exquisite panels, Of Two, exploiting and exploding multiple binaries; next on to Nicole Ellis' explorations of landscape traditions and finishing with Jill Scott's video.
Reporting my travels, I found my account well received but treated as idiosyncratic. Other responses stressed the diversity of the works, or their individual characters. Which suggested to me one of the great merits of Structures of Necessity: the role, and the responsibility, of the reader was highlighted by the exhibition. Oh frabjous day: to be uncertain once again, to have to think. This is exciting.
Yet by the second part of the exhibition doubt (travel weariness?) had set in. I enjoyed this section less, while valuing certain works very highly, particularly Maryrose Sinn's remarkable evocation of the expatriate experience and Joan Brassil's and Liz Coats' differently intelligent lyricisms. (They both sing the land: their songs come to one on wings and water).
The Problem? No exhibition can exist in two parts, as the catalogue subtitle tried to suggest. The necessary structure of the exhibition form - one neither challenged nor respected by this dual installation - demands a classical unity of time and place: one has to see the works together. This was not an exhibition therefore, but a curatorial project and had to stand on its merits through each component.
In my opinion, these merits are now in doubt. I question the usefulness of the participatory ethos as a guide to Structures of Necessity, precisely because, inevitably, this structure involves a certain necessary logic. This was a project conceived by one artist and embraced by others. lt would be incorrect to automatically attribute decisive power to any one participant: here, as elsewhere in this review, I wish to adhere scrupulously to the publically available material on the project, material gleaned from the catalogue. Yet willy-nilly, Structures of Necessity was the product of the operations of power. In its making, decisions involving selection, modus operandi, catalogue policy and numerous other factors contributing to the final shape of the exhibitions were carried out.
I have no difficulty with this fact, this necessity. Power is, of itself, neither benign nor malicious. More importantly, it cannot be evaded. This was an early lesson on seventies feminism, long before reading Foucault fleshed out pragmatic political perceptions in more ample substance. I quote from a venerable text of the American Women's Movement, the politics of which are so often maligned. In 1972 the activist Joreen wrote about power and the avoidance of structure in groups: " ... to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an "objective" news story, "value-free" social science, or a "free" economy. A "laissez-faire" group is about as realistic as a "laissez faire" society; the ideas become a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others".1 Which is not to say that the participants of Structures of Necessity are duplicitous or opportunistic or even naive, as are so many in our "professional" art world. All the contributors to this project are professionals in the best sense of the word. Indeed, their participation in Structures of Necessity indicates a commitment to exploring working relationships that others avoid. For better or worse, all are implicated in the exercise of power(s). And not always for the worse.
1. Joreen, in (ed.) Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine and Anita Rapone, Radical Feminism, New York, 1973, p. 286. Originally written in 1972.