Rachel Apelt's X... A reading

Pictured on the invitation to Rachel Apelt's recent installation X, at the Institute of Modern Art, is an image of a counter-curve which is intersected by a perpendicular line at its mid-point. It was this designated point-the point of inflection, an infinitely brief, static point forming the axis of symmetry for what lies either side-which Apelt, in a sense, created with her installation.

She created it not so much spatially as conceptually, by bringing together elements which effected a kind of pause in time and engendered a feeling of expectation, of latent potential compressed within a single moment. The dominant component of the installation was a series of paintings that represent an illustrated alphabet, each of its letters superimposed on images of events from the Western world's distant and recent history. Apelt's alphabet stops at the letter 'X'. By denying us what we know to be the last two letters of the alphabet, she avoided setting up a closure but created, instead, a kind of pregnant pause. As viewers we could not help but reflect on what might come next, indicating that we ourselves had come to occupy point 'X' of the installation's title.

If most-especially formalist-installation is designed to heighten the viewer's awareness of the body's position within space, especially through a consideration of the relationship of the viewer's own body to the surrounding physical space and matter, then Apelt's agenda was obviously quite different. She gave us a heavy sense of our existence in time rather than space; not of the body's presence but its present.

Apelt's concern with time, here, related to her focus on ecology. The theme was addressed through the narrative which she developed with text and image, and in her choice of materials. The images appropriated for the first half of the alphabet broadly covered the period from prehistory to the late nineteenth century. The alphabet began with the prehistorical images of a reproduced Cambrian fossil and an animal painting from Lascaux, and these were followed by a series of images relating to slavery, conquest and colonial exploitation. The images in the second half of the alphabet illustrated twentieth century events, particularly those of environmental degradation, including representations of acid rain and the Gulf War. Accompanying the alphabet panels were lists of verbs written in a childlike hand on pages from a student's copy book. The words in each list commenced with the alphabetical letter they accompanied and related to destruction or decay. One panel, for instance, featured the words die, disembody, deteriorate, decease, despoil, dispossess, defile...

Throughout the alphabet there appeared images relating to rationalist frameworks which seek to explain or to contain the world: a compass, a microscopic enlargement of human sperm fertilising an ovum, the Shroud of Turin (proven fraudulent by modern science), a depiction of outer space, and the image of a young, blond

Caucasian couple which was sent into space in the 1970s to supposedly depict, for any alien intelligence that encountered it, what Earth's typical inhabitants looked like. For Apelt, Newtonian and Cartesian science are constructs in much the same way as is history. Her images here hinted at the way both disciplines have served as instruments to further the aims of colonising powers and of patriarchy. This installation suppressed these rationalist systems for explaining the world.

The artist's rejection of a linear reading of history was apparent in the anachronic succession of images accompanying the alphabet. Although the images traced a progressive historical inversion of the relationship between human beings and nature-from a prehistoric view of nature dominating human life, to one which illustrates human domination over, and destruction of nature in recent times-they did not follow a strictly chronological sequence. Apelt deliberately made her own alphabet a falsely linear container for time. She emphasised instead the cyclic aspects of time, suggesting that the alternative to linear time, an alternative which she sought to represent, is not best symbolised by the circle whereby events meaninglessly repeat themselves, but by the spiral, allowing for repetition accompanied by development. Rows of papier-mâché fruits were strung between two posts in the gallery. Each separate row featured a fruit at varying stages of ripening and decay, followed by ripening again, invoking cycles of seasonal change and renewal. The fruits she chose to model are ones that are native to the Americas and were introduced to the Western world via the process of colonial expansion. The sticks of dynamite tied either side of the fruits referred to the ecological damage that the first world has visited on the third, and warned of the danger of ignoring the present state of the world's ecology. By placing the papier-mâché fruits in opposition to the alphabet images, and above a tie-dyed cloth embroidered with the letter 'X' which here symbolised a turning point, Apelt suggested that if the Western world is to effect a reversal of environmental degradation it must now be as ready to include indigenous people's views about ecology, as it once was to exploit their labour and resources.

As an installation, X was something of a departure from the painting for which Apelt has been previously known. Despite her intentions otherwise, the painted alphabet, with its intricate detail and heavily encoded symbolism, dominated the installation becoming its centre of focus. Because the installation could be seen therefore to manipulate a narrative principally based on images, more than on formal elements within the gallery space, it was hard to read the work strictly as installation. The elements which comprised it read as discrete objects which effected a conceptual unity, though not primarily a spatial one. This was even more evident when the installation was viewed in the day time, in contrast to night when the darkness itself imparted a unity to the space.

All of which is not to suggest that the artist avoided addressing the material conditions of the gallery space in which she exhibited. The work acknowledged but at the same time subverted certain features of the space. Rather than accepting the formal constraints placed on the work by the gallery itself, she introduced subtle interferences. Instead, for instance, of mounting the alphabet panels directly on the white wall, Apelt placed behind them a long panel of dyed muslin suspended by clothes-pegs. Similarly, a counter curve made out of pieces of newspaper was laid partly on the floor, however the artist commenced it so close to the point where the floor meets the wall, that the curve was forced to mount the wall, as if innocently unaware of the floor /wall divide, thus flattening out the three-dimensionality of the space.

Apelt also highlighted certain features of the space by emphasis rather than subversion. She painted a chalky orange-brown frame around the small window set high in one of the walls and collaged a stream of cut out leaves and water drops as though coming down from it, mimicking the 'illumination' that a window typically provides. But these conscious manipulations of the architectural space seemed unrelated to Apelt's themes of ecology, and of non-linear representations of time. Rather than being integral tothe main themes in the work, they appeared incidental.

Part of Apelt's subversion involved her introduction of mundane materials into the high art space of the Institute of Modern Art. Her choice of materials reflected her own ecological concern as she utilised recycled or ecologically sustainable substances-newspaper, tin cans, papier-mâché, plantation timber. Although her installation incorporated high art media, such as painting, her choices of papier-mâché (for the exquisitely rendered fruits) and textile work (in the embroidered alphabetical letter x and in the tie-dyed panel) reflect the conscious adoption of what Jane Magon refers to as a 'folk art' aesthetic1. By choosing to embroider the letter X onto muslin cloth, rather than representing it through a painted wooden relief like the other letters, Apelt performed a symbolic reinstatement of excluded voices, including that of the feminine, which she considers essential to the survival of our culture and ecology.

Previous work of Apelt's has focussed more narrowly on an attempt to reclaim, through mythical references and symbols, a sense of the feminine that is not defined in opposition to the masculine. In the series of works that made up Afloat on High Seas, and the golden carp the golden goose, Apelt made use of folkloric symbols to create a narrative of development and transformation. In the installation X these previous works provided a kind of subtext. They encouraged a reading that incorporated a feminist undercurrent to the work's more overtly ecological references. Yet Apelt rejects the too-obvious label of ecofeminism. This philosophy encompasses widely varying and in some cases contradictory views including those which conflate woman with nature and/ or rest on the essentialist assumption that woman is more inclined to nurturing than is man. Apelt will concede only that she subscribes to a feminism which is implicitly ecological because the history of patriarchy has paralleled the history of ecological devastation.

With its central focus on ecology, and by its illumination of the potential for change within the present moment, the installation X marked the extension of Apelt's concerns from that of creating a space in which a private or personal transformation might occur, to one which addresses a transformation that is potentially global.

notes: 

1. Magon, Jane. 1994. Rachel Apelt: Installation 'X' and Primordial Time. Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art

Christine Morrow is an artist and writer living in Brisbane. Rachel Apelt is a Brisbane-based artist.