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Viva la vida
I entered the back gallery at Greenaway where Christine Turner's fifteen assemblages were on show and thought "oh Frida". The large galvanized iron cross and the explosions of fake bows bearing the copperplate-scripted word Mother, the hearts, crosses and plastic flowers that make up Christine Turner's The Martyr's Wall have that over-the-top exuberance and excess that is associated with Mexico and its artist Frida Kahlo, with shrines and religious kitsch. A set of wooden steps lead up to the cross. Two wasp-waisted torsos (Sentinels 1 & 2) covered in dressmaking patterns and affixed with gauze butterflies stand guard in front of the wall. Among the obsessions of women's magazines called up by Turner's imagery and materials are body-shape, motherhood, food and a safe decorative femininity. 'Mother' means dieting, means a waist your father could put his hands around, means floral perfume and a flair for simplistic morality, not to mention martyrdom. 'Mother' is both attractive and repulsive . In these works Turner combines femininity and death in celebration.
The work bathes in symbols of a fluffy femininity, and also in lots of tawdry plastic rubbish (is this an indictment of women as consumers, as progenitors of junk and frippery?), abject materials like extruded foam and deadly dolls' heads, a visceral linkage with the grim games and high stakes of childhood. Opposite The Martyr's Wall is Remembrance, a type of plastic corset draped in tulle. Next to the corset is the work called simply Mother, a plastic shelf with a number of layers in which masses of plastic things, fruit, flowers and so on are united. I recall Susan Norrie's Triptych: fruitful corsage; bridal bouquet; lingering veils (1983) which also seemed to open Mother's drawers of memories and arcana, powder-puffs and hairpins, to form an airless chamber of claustrophobic femininity. The ambivalence expressed here about these issues is what gives the works their power. There is also an element of reclamation of sugar and spice, a recuperation of cloying sweetness.
Memories of the past, of a1950's and 1960's girlhood are strongly present in the work and its secondhand charity shop materials. Turner was born in 1952, thus this was the time when she was introduced to being female. Emotionally charged times. When you turn twelve, your mother bought you a sanitary belt, a bra and a girdle. No joy, no ceremony (no need for a girdle really) you hid your shame in a collection of ceramic ballerinas with gilt edges. In the absence of positive cultural meanings artificial flowers were used as talismans, guides.
Turner includes a tribute to Frida Kahlo in her fleshy bunching together of objects which lack the approval of taste and instead have a sense of fervid excrescence. She uses dolls and doll parts in many works, uses them as icons of childhood, as representations of frozen notions of women, as sacrificial victims and scapegoats and as dream figures who symbolically express relationships between women, mothers and daughters, girls and dolls, mothers and babies. Her idea that the first doll and the first cross were co-terminous is of interest. "I fantasise that it was possibly the first artistic creation of prehistoric culture.... " To me dolls have always had a spooky malevolent death semblance, the voodoo angle, the substitute-corpse. The idea of playing with dolls in the thought of having a baby when I grew up did not occur to me. I remember an episode of the seventies television series "The Avengers" in which a large number of dolls were turned into killers with steel teeth, mechanically and blindly ripping at the flesh of their victims.
That Turner's work emanates from regional Queensland is significant because it is in the country that a stereotyped femininity exists most strongly alongside numerous strong women. In this work the excess of the Country Womens Association craft table or scone fete, the backbone of the country spliced with the salt of the earth, is confronted with its girlish heritage, dolls combined with the accumulations and excrescences of time, clutter, age and desecration. Women's business. The catalogue essays by Beth Jackson and Lynne Seear are both harrowing, as one essayist recalls the alcoholic death of her mother and the other the early death of her daughter. To say that Turner's work has a cathartic effect on those who are ready for it is implicit in these essays.
There is a sense of fertility and fecundity, and of speed in Turner's assemblages. lt is as if these issues have been hidden or bottled up for so long that when they come out they must needs be draped in excess and overstatement. This quality lends the works an urgency and sense of need, an internal drive that makes them more than a sum of collected objects.