verge in rain

Robyn Backen
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

During the French occupation of the Rhineland around 1760 the French troops quartered in Cologne developed a taste for one of its most famous products. A remedial agent and a perfume, it was alternatively ingested, smelt, or poured over soldiers' bodies. The scent, called after its namesake eaude- Cologne, became even more popular when the troops returned home with large supplies of it after the declarabon of peace. Its powers were to be no less prized by Napoleon who alone secured fifty bottles a month. Its fame comes down to us of course in the ubiquitously titled '4 711 '-itself merely the street number of a manufacturer located on one of the city's new ring roads devised by the French to confound their enemy.

 The association of carnality and care is never far removed. The tender memory one has of mothers with bottles of 4711 appearing from their handbags to scent wrists and cool necks in summer on tiny handkerchiefs is also the same one that sees it daubed over lips to ease congestion. Here, aesthetics and beauty mingle with nostalgia and the sanitary. This collusion between the aesthetic and perfumery might seem odd at first. Hegel, after all, had dismissed smell from the proper appreciation of art on the grounds that it merely involved a process of wasting away. Modernity above all preferred to deal primarily with the theoretical senses of sight and hearing. But this has not universally been the case-for Cicero painting and perfumery were equally appreciated as pleasurable aesthetic arts which were grounded in the sensual.

Robyn Backen's installation "verge in rain" folds into three parts. On one wall a saline-drip releases immeasurably small amounts of a rather pale and yellowy-green substance that leads from a large bottle of 4711 eau-de-Cologne. A small plinth, sheltering a glass dish, slowly receives its contents. Faint at first, this scent suffuses the room with a mixture of tenderness and disquietude. A number of petite cotton handkerchiefs elegantly embroidered with the letters spelling verge in rain' stand out against the wall behind the line of the drip. Backen manages to interlace a host of associations at this point. One is drawn to the recognition of both a certain love and a certain trauma. These charms, after all, have been impossibly used to adorn bodies in war and to compliment bodies lovingly. Tears and salts vie with a carnality no longer capable of holding a distance from its own dissolution. One looks in this instance to the salve of memory for a tear wh1ch saves the eye from mere mechanicity. From the opposite side of the room a small peep-hole reveals to the viewer the filmic image of a shifting eye. Not merely iconographic, its life like mobility gives way on occasion to a single teardrop. This is not the eye of Bataille with its attendant themes of violence , sacrifice, death, and erotics. This eye tears, and if it is also sometimes tearful it is not simply the autoptic gaze after surrealism, but an eye which knows and feels the gaze in and through its own materiality.

The central portion of the installation converges on a large, tall and brown oval shaped dining-table split into symmetrical halves. A single white rectilinear column stretching from floor to ceiling rends the form-the kind of column one often finds in the middle of gallery spaces, but fabricated m this instance. At the top of the column an oval ring of copper piping is punctured by thirty orange rubber hoses, which fall to various points just above the surface of two pools which form the surfaces of the table. The pipes release their salt water contents by infinitesimal steps through eyelets into the body of the water-table which, by the electrolytic conversion of the salts, functions as a simple and natural battery. A trail of hair-like wires leads from one hemisphere to the other where the current powers a collection of floating digital. clocks that signal the rhythm of an organic generation. If

Backen alludes, at this point, to the problem of satiny levels in the Australian landscape, the references to temporality and the uneasy mix of technology and nature indicate a more complex and nuanced relation between ecology and Geist. Technological space and the experience of intuitive lived space indicate a more fluid transition from one to the other. The relation of eras and technicity marked in the sensuality and materiality of the unseen in this instance is present in a temporality which is always transitional. lt is this feature of a temporality that is never finally present that is called forth here-that is, a presencing that always remains on the verge of presentation.

Backen's referential and symbolic structures coalesce here. Witnessing the destruction of the original4711 eau-de Cologne factory in Cologne during her first explorations of this installation in a flooded factory site on the Rhine in 1994, "verge in rain" thoughtfully and skillfully goes on to explore relations between matter and transposition, fluidity and exchange, rationally and sensuality, temporality, destruction, and the care of the body in both its natural and manufactured idioms as something that is never divorced from the poignancy and drama of existence.