To one an/other

Memories from the desert
First Draft West, Sydney & Performing Arts Centre Gallery, Darwin

As I walked up the stairs inside the gallery of First Draft West, having first passed through the lower rooms and their exhibitions, my eye was caught by a strong blue image. The intensity and luminescence of colour of the first of a line of drawings attracted me to the space. Around the walls, at sitting eye level, ran a horizontal line of drawings intersected by a series of vertical panels of text. In the centre of the floor a circular mound of ochre divided and joined two panels of text that lay on the floor. I had entered a place of story telling.

The story being told was that of the women of the desert; two sets of women. Intertwined with each other were the stories of Aboriginal women and their communities, and the story of the artist. The installation engendered a strong sense of their presence.

The text was printed on tracing paper, lending a sense of impermanence and of transparent materiality to the exhibition. The words, and the images of places and people that they evoked, are far from impermanent-one gained a sense of the strength and survival of the community of women in the desert with whom the artist has been involved. What emerged was a mingling of the stories of the Dreaming with the stories of the women 's lives . There was the same tempo and logic of telling: stories of how it was, came about, and is. The recent stories told of how the present had been created-the relationship with mining, with white people, the food, the grog, the machinery. But there was more-the way the women tell the stories-their hold on their dignity, their reality, the place that is them, their strength and humour.

The text was written with an emphasis on the rhythm of spoken language, giving fine details of place, activities, feelings and conversation- the sound of a voice, the path of a journey. The words used to describe the physical environment and the travels of the women and the artist served to locate the reality and presence of the place-that it is of now. This is the women's country; this is the women's dreaming.
This is not a romantic view, but rather an elucidation of presence and place-the breath of time now and past, with the ingredients of possible futures. A mapping of places, of women's lives, of community. As much as we glimpsed into these lives, always within the boundaries set by absence (we were in any case removed physically from the place and people of the stories), we also gained insight into the dailiness of the impact of white intrusion. At the same time it became clear that there is now an interrelationship between cultures and that the stories enunciated a personal, cultural and historical intersection. This was history-telling from the intimacy of memory. Within the text ran the presence of the artist, serving to authorise the intimacy of the content, disallowing voyeurism, because this was as much the story of the artist as of the country and the women with whom she travelled.
The vertical lines of text ran from about head height to the floor, requiring you to kneel and to crouch to read, pulling you down to the ground. Across the floor ran a non-English text in red script on tracing paper. A presence that did not allow entry into content, but acted to enfold the viewer in the presence of the other. It demanded both respect and an acknowledgment of cultural and language difference and served to heighten presence.

In a line around the room ran the drawings of central sections of the body-shoulder to belly, chest to waist, neck to hip. Like the writing, the drawings focussed on detail-folds of skin, the edge of a shoulder, the round of a breast, a line of the spine; they were 'taken' in the moment of movement-bending, reaching, turning. The light on the skin tones, the shadow of the body against indigo blue impacted to make the presence of the women felt in a personal and intimate way. Set at eye level as you crouched or sat, the drawings drew you to the ground where they become a circle of bodies and stories that you might see with the sweep of the eye across a darkened night-time space. This acted to keep the images in constant movement and prohibited an owning of any image and thereby of anybody. The same movement was found in the use of another language in the text.

Fragments of sound filtered into the installation space from outside. The second room of the installation was smaller; a single dim light hung low over a black floor on which an array of rusted, flattened metal objects seemed to float-on closer viewing these were recognisable as billy cans, tins, metal tubes, a toy car, oil cans, a doll's arm. A rake head and shells were placed at the entrance of the space beside sheets of words printed on tracing paper that lay on the floor.

The sound was of distance-wind, a creaky gate, metal clanging, and women's voices. The sound gathered force, faded, came closer, was farther away. The voices that faded in and out appeared to reference the objects. The combination of sound, dim light and objects acted to disrupt time and place, making me feel dislocated and weak, holding onto the floor for support. With the words of the text and the presence of the drawings clear in my mind's eye from the first room, I was surrounded by the sound and felt in constant motion, unclear of where I was and gaining a sense that people lived here, this was their country. There was a sense of something happening that I could hear but neither see nor touch. A physical displacement powerful in its rendering of the distance between the urban white world and the country/land/culture of the Aboriginal women in the desert/drawings/text. The women's voices in the sound piece acted to ground and locate- still faintly fading in and out, carried on the wind or in the imagination. The voices seemed to sit behind the wind and clanging gate.

The objects placed in rows, labelled with numbers as if in a museum collection, seemed like the bones of the dead. They were rusted to the colour of the earth, flattened, perhaps by cars. A reminder of the intrusion of white cultural artefacts into another place, but becoming the flotsam of that interaction. A disjuncture. It is rare that we may enter the intimacy of the presence of the other and the other's place in a way that is neither intrusive nor exploitative. Pamela Lofts 's installation gives us a glimpse and an understanding of that presence.