Over the past five years Regina Walter has produced a number of exquisite sculptural objects and installations using elements such as light, air, heat and water. Many of her artworks dramatise processes of metamorphosis and mutation in order to convey a sense of spatial dissimulation. This was exemplified in a work, Untitled, of 1995 produced for an exhibition at Casula Powerhouse, Sydney. Residing somewhere between artwork and scientific experiment, this piece consisted of an electric light source which was covered in liquid gel (slowly drying to form a stunning stalactite) and suspended from the roof like a giant glowworm. Emitting small tears of light, this work managed to fill the space but, oddly, occupied no real place in the gallery.
Walter's artworks often seem quite vulnerable and fragile, in danger of deflating, melting, dripping, burning or tearing. This fluid and indeterminate state intensifies one's spatial and sensory experience of the works and it has an important bearing on their conceptual structure. Subverting conventional codes of material usage and exhibition practice, Walter's artworks are meticulously grafted into space to create what one might describe as meta-artwork, or art that constantly reflects upon its construction and its presence within a particular space. Some of the most successful examples of her practice in this area were installations using inflated industrial-sized white plastic tubing.
Walter first used white plastic tubing for an exhibition at CBD Gallery, Sydney, in 1996. This installation, Untitled, consisted of over thirty inflated tubes suspended just off the ground by a thin piece of plastic which hung discretely between the tops of adjacent walls. Stacked to fill the exhibition space without touching the walls or floor, the tubes appeared to defy gravity, floating in mid-air. Inverting conventional spatial relations, the work filled the empty space of the gallery - space traditionally occupied by the viewer – in a gesture reminiscent of Arman's notorious Le Plein, installed at the Iris Clert Gallery, Paris, in 1960.1 Rather than entirely filling the space, Walter's installation forced viewers to hug the walls (as a painting would) or lie on the floor (as a sculpture would) in order to experience the exhibition.
This work was followed by the installation titled Institutional Armature (1996) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Once again using inflated plastic tubing, Walter created a huge grid structure resembling bloated scaffolding that divided the exhibition space into white cubes. Reversing the normal relationship between an artwork and its institutional support, Institutional Armature seemed to support the space while, at the same time, being parasitically dependent upon it. Over time the scaffolding sagged as the bags began to deflate, a playful commentary on the inflated claims so often made on behalf of contemporary artworks as well as on the sagging commitment of many public institutions to young artists.
The relationship between art object and architectural context in Walter's art is complex and unresolved. Her works are rarely autonomous objects, but rather adapt to the peculiarities of each site. Another installation, also Untitled, (1995) at CBD Gallery exemplified the poetic possibilities of this practice. It consisted of a long corridor between the gallery entrance and the office at the rear of the space, constructed from fifty-four meters of polyester crepe. Viewers were forced to walk directly from the street to the administrative area, bypassing the exhibition space. A personal reflection on the artist's administrative role with the gallery – going in each day without looking at the work on the walls – the installation sought to distance viewers from the exhibition space. It could also be read as a comment on the so-called art 'industry', the quick turn over one-week shows in some artist-run spaces.
During 1996 Walter created another work of fabric for Artspace's Glare Window - a narrow corridor sandwiched between a wall and windows looking out onto Cowper Wharf and Sydney harbour. Here the artist used eighty meters of organza to make a tunnel of shadows and reflections, mobilising the light which filtered through one side of the translucent material and bounced back off the other. One of Walter's most conceptual pieces, this work resembled Bruce Nauman's Green Light Corridor (1970-1971) in the way in which light and space were used to confine and isolate the viewer. Nauman's and Waiter's installations also share a certain theatricality, requiring the participation of the viewer to complete the work.
Regina Walter's overriding concern with issues of light and space, the basic elements of painting, links her work to a tradition of artists who continue 'painting' through non-painting means. This is apparent in a recent series produced with colored plastic beads. One of the most beautiful of these bead 'paintings' was Domestic Setting (1997), exhibited at Casula Powerhouse as part of Australian Perspecta 1997. Here an image taken from a lifestyle and homeware magazine, had been transferred into a basic line drawing and then carefully reconstructed in woven sections of colored beads. Placed in a frame, inserted into an existing window recess in the wall of the gallery and then backlit, the dot patterning of the woven beads resembled a glowing pointillist painting. The light-glow filtering into the gallery through the flat beaded surface of the work suggested a sense of three-dimensionality. Domestic Setting appeared to serve as a window onto another world, a perfect world where everything was in its place. This use of light and space to create a play between 'here' and 'there' evokes what Gaston Bachelard has described as 'the dialectics of outside and inside'. Bachelard defines this dynamic as 'a dialectic of division', but goes on to suggest that the categories are actually non-symmetrical and are characterised by a constant interchange between the two.2 Standing in front of Walter's glowing three-dimensional image one's mind was drawn into oscillation between 'this side' and 'that', enticed by the comfortable interior into which, it seemed, one might casually retire.
Other recent works with lights and beads also are characterised by an intimate and decorative domesticity. Lumen Nocturnum (1997) was constructed with light bulbs covered in woven coloured beads, surrounded by retro-lampshades (which had been salvaged from a junk store), and mounted on the gallery wall. As glowing objects d'art, they were reminiscent of a bird's beady eyes or bright and waxy tropical flowers. Giving off heat and warmth as if alive, these kitsch plastic works, dotted across the walls, combined ideas of the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the artificial.
Walter's artworks exist through such close proximity to their context that the distinction between the two is often indefinable. Site is a constitutive component of the form and content of her work. But so are the materials, summoning up the emotive power of the aesthetic realm. The secret of Waiter's work, then, is two-fold, residing in a reappraisal of the expressive qualities of substances and materials along with a finely tuned, intuitive approach to issues of space, in particular of site-specificity.
1. This work, consisting of a gallery filled entirely with rubbish, was conceived as a direct response to Yves Klein's The Void, staged two years earlier in 1958 at the Iris Clert Gallery, and consisting of nothing but an empty space.
2. Bachelard, Gaston , The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press: Boston, 1969, pp. 221-231.
Regina Walter is a Sydney-based artist.
Benjamin Genocchio is a free-lance critic based in Sydney.