Nike Savvas

Institute of Modem Art, Brisbane

Both the title and the construction of Nike Savvas's work, Communiqúe, imply that beneath the level of the objects with which we are presented, an actual and perhaps exigent message lies shrouded in encodement. Thus the work appears dense with trapped possibilities, at one remove from what knowledge of the code could release. The would-be decipherer of Communiqúe is placed, however, in a state of perpetual and frustrating denial as the work simultaneously demands and refuses decipherment. For the elements with which Savvas has furnished her code—a number of painted squares arranged grid-like on wall and floor, the four fluorescent colours with which they are painted, and thirty Ulysses butterflies—are intractable things, calculated to expose the limits of our interpretative reach.

That Savvas flatly denies us any kind of leverage, any familiar ground from which we can begin to comprehend the work, is clear once it is understood that Communiqúe is a code whose rules must be deciphered from the coded message alone. 'Meaning' must be drawn from the logic of the work's actual construction, not from an appeal to general experience outside the corporeal event of the installation. And accordingly, the sense of individual components—squares, colours, butterflies—cannot be deduced from the work as a whole in the way the sense of words is deduced from their overall contextualisation within a sentence. Savvas forces us to work from the other end, in the hope that some detail or other will make the subject of the code appear momentarily through the metaphoric veil. Yet we encounter nothing but a series of potential in-roads which reveal themselves as cui-de-sacs: a private language which can communicate only backwards to Savvas herself.

While our exclusion from the hermetic circle of the code seems inevitable, it is nevertheless the case that Communiqúe is far from an inarticulate object. It is a reflexive impossibility for Savvas 'not to communicate', as her very incommunicability speaks stridently of a refusal to participate in the cultural 'game': to flatter and affirm the cultural identity of the viewer. We are rendered powerless in the face of a repository of meaning that is walled with silence, while Savvas's secrecy becomes a form of armament. Thus Communiqúe initiates the transference of meanings which originate from the work's closure and inaccessibility—meaning as a side-effect of meaninglessness.

While their function in the code remains indeterminable, individual components cannot help but crystalise meanings. For example, the pattern of squares creates an arrangement of marks and spaces that corresponds to the pattern of letters in written text. Yet this is resemblance to text is obviously calculated to mislead, impelling as it does the assumption that the top left-hand square is the first letter in a 'real' text which is merely eclipsed by a layer of paint. The futility of 'reading' Communiqúe 'left to right' becomes clear once the mirage dissolves and the arrangement of squares is seen for what it really is: as a gigantic grid, without beginning, centre or end. Savvas's invocation and concomitant disavowal of text suggests that the work is about the deficiencies of language. Her preoccupation with language—its cultural specificities—is evident in such other works as Presence of Absences 1 & 2. The grid, without hierarchy, without end, is the antithesis of syntax. The linear, hierarchical model of time unfolding which it involves and its presence here implies that cognition will not arrive 'at the end', but rather that it is always deferred.

Fluorescence, the property of substances which reflect light waves of greater length than those they absorb, is the product of an imbalance, of a lack of reciprocity—a metaphor for the unequal partnership between viewer and artwork. Communiqúe will always reflect back the possibility of more interpretations than the viewer can address, because Savvas ensures that something will remain forever lost in any translation of the work.

The work 'Ulysses', which Savvas embeds in our consciousness by the adroit enlistment of butterflies, introduces its attendant and disparate connotations of the Ancient Greece of Homer's Odysseus and the fragmentary modernist world of James Joyce. That this work unites in one sound both connotations of a lost age in which philosophy assumed the requisite ability of language to capture and accommodate Truth and the real, and of a later age in which words were no longer accepted as the transparent emblems of a reality lying 'beyond' them, ably demonstrates that meanings cling to words in an arbitrary way. It exemplifies the propensity of words to acquire myriad meanings over time; their mutability in transmigration.

As 'real' objects, the butterflies function as clichéd, but ambiguous, visual symbols. In contrast to the coloured squares they evoke the organic world, their wingedness suggesting freedom. Yet the butterflies are fractured with paradox, given that as signs of nature and liberation, of 'life', they could only be produced by the termination of their real life in nature as insects. In Communiqúe they are equivocal symbols forever evoking life and death, interminably transient. Pinned and preserved behind perspex within the grid of squares, they act as a metaphor for those 'avant-garde' artists who took up the challenge of the grid, that ideal, liberating form which promised (falsely) to evacuate art of all presence of the social, and more importantly, of all responsibility to a comprehending public, but which, as Krauss observes, was fundamentally restrictive in the exercise of that freedom.

Savvas seems mindful of Joyce's character, Stephen Dedalus's credo—"Silence, Exile and Cunning"—which was Joyce's own as the writer of fictions apparently designed to exclude the 'common reader'. While Communiqúe overtly refuses access to the viewer, it also problematizes the concept of its own aloofness. Savvas's invocation of Joyce is relevant in another way. A likely contribution to Joyce's preoccupation with the materiality of words, his refusal to take them lightly or for granted, was his 'outsider' relationship to the tradition of English literature. Like other exemplars of poetic modernism—Pound, Eliot, Yeats—Joyce was not himself English. While a sense of exclusion from the dominant language may have fuelled a productive hypersensitivity to words, the writer's Irishness must have engendered a debilitating sense of cultural and political 'otherness'. An analogy with Savvas, of Cypriot parentage, suggests itself. Her withdrawal into a private language 'inscribed' in coloured squares creates a kind of no-person's land between two languages: the first, the vanished mother tongue, the second, the imposed English language. The critique of language which Savvas performs in this and other works provokes an awarenessthat the English language may not possess words which sufficiently accommodate nascent thoughts or ideas emanating from the experience of a different cultural background.

Like Stephen Dedalus drawing forth a phrase from his treasure and pondering the materiality of language—"Words. Was it their colours? "— Savvas leaves us to consider the limitations of language. Communiqúe bypasses words to speak of whole systems of meaning which are irreducible to words, including one's concrete experience of the installation itself, the corporeality of which can only be stultified, travestied in its inscription of language in a glib paraphrase. We can only talk around it, conscious that, whatever interpretations we may devise, it will always be Savvas's prerogative to protest. And yet, what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the work is that while Savvas's construction of an impenetrable code indicates a desire to safeguard against the appropriation of her work by the dominant language of art criticism—indeed, against the standardizing norms of language itself—this strategy can only fail because the work frankly invites its own absorption into a tradition of discourse which has as its raison d'etre the deconstruction of language, and which in the context of current criticism could not with any conviction be called 'marginal'.