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Kim Mahood's installation Mat was part of the Free Space installations shown at the Institute of Modern Art in November, 1993. Mahood's installation marked a considerable achievement in its ability to tackle the Australian landscape tradition with an approach which integrated the contemporary avant-gardist concerns of minimal-conceptualism and the installation aesthetic. Yet the work preserved and expressed an authentic rapport with nature that in many respects is antithetical to the essentially urban discourse of minimal-conceptualism: a discourse which in the minds of many here, in Brisbane, is identified with the Institute of Modern Art more than with any other local artspace.
The work consisted of a grid of barbed wire mounted 1.2 metres above the ground and covering the entire area of the large upstairs room. The floor was covered with sand in a large chequerboard pattern which allowed the polished wooden floorboards of the gallery to show through, and the viewer to walk within the installation. At intervals Mahood had pressed an imprint of her body into the rectangles of fine white sand. These imprints were also scattered delicately with coloured ochres and black and grey ash. The delicacy of the imprints and the shapes formed by the ochres and ashes bore a marked contrast to the brutality of the barbed wire and its gridded configuration. A handmade paper, three-dimensional impression of Mahood's body also hung hauntingly and forebodingly from one of the stretches of barbed wire.
This brutal grid implicitly imposed upon the natural landscape and upon the naked body reminded me of the work of Mike Parr who has produced many self-portraits in which his face has been trapped within a grid. And in order to 'escape' his self-portrait Parr has by means of automatic drawing and expressionistic distortion taken on the more 'deterritorialised' configuration of a natural landscape. In Parr's work, as in Mahood's, landscape is compared with the body or the self and is contrasted with the grid, or the map, which comes to represent those rationalistic socio-cultural forces which impose themselves more or less violently upon nature.
However, Mahood's art is crucially different from Parr's because in spite of his attraction to nature Parr has always been a city dweller, an urban Australian. Mahood on the other hand is a sophisticated artist who also has an authentic contact with what is generally accepted as being the essence of Australianness-the outback. For most Australians the outback is a mythic entity but Mahood was brought up there, in central Australia.
Recently her father died and she decided to make a journey, alone, back to the desert in order to explore the identity which this land and her father had given her. She says that when she was out there in the desert there emerged a process of reaction against the gridded logic of civilised representation. From this reaction an attempt to make direct contact with the land came forth. She describes the process of 'painting my body and pressing it into the ground sheet I was carrying' as a spontaneous response to being back in the desert. Mahood reports that she 'only later recognised this as a reaction against the maps and the journals, all of the paraphernalia of history, that I was carrying with me. I started to recognise how much that was controlling where I was, and how it was insulating me from that direct relationship [with the land]'.
An urban artspace dedicated to the intellectual discourse of minimal-conceptualism and its heritage seems far far away from Mahood's experience in the desert. Yet remarkably she managed to create a work that expressed something of her desert experience while at the same time evoking the concerns of contemporary cultural theory and its increasing antagonism to mechanistic rationalism. It seems remarkable to me that the discourses of deconstructive avant-gardism and the Australian landscape tradition could ever meet, but I think they did in this work and that it had considerable power and depth owing to a successful and unexpected conjunction of opposites.