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In the catalogue for the exhibition, Australian Photography: The 1980s (National Gallery of Australia, 1988), Anne Ferran's entry follows Bill Henson's. Because they emerged from very different ideological spaces, at a time when such things still mattered, I did not tend to connect them. But, in retrospect, albeit at the cost of finer discriminations, I can now locate some common concerns. Ferran and Henson shared a theatrical bent, with a fondness for staging large-scale dramatic tableaux; they also shared a not altogether politically correct propensity to prey on the adolescent body; and a somewhat unhealthy and unsettling obsession with death and decay, illness and loss.
Of course, their differences are more striking. Henson clearly perceives himself as a romantic existential artist, brooding and moody, with a melancholic, dark personal vision. Ferran is a much more complex artist, more distanced from her imaginary demons, as interested in the pursuit of archaeological and genealogical knowledges as in the staging of romantic melancholic scenes. Unlike Henson, she is interested in histories - of art, of photography, of people and places. And while Henson endlessly reproduces, with little variation, his large dark brooding landscapes inhabited by anonymous naked adolescents, Ferran has moved on from photographs to photograms; from staged tableaux of draped female figures à la grecque to staged images of drapery alone; from the history of the representation of women to the history of colonial New South Wales.
While fossicking about in the drawers and crannies of old colonial mansions, as artist in residence for the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Ferran unearthed scraps and items of clothing. In her recent exhibitions she has used this clothing as subject. The drapery is uninhabited by human bodies, but dramatically staged nonetheless. These clothes are relics of the past, their wearers long dead and gone, and they have but a ghostly presence. And yet they shimmer and shiver with a chilling, a desolate beauty.
First Light, her latest exhibition at Sutton Gallery, focuses on old baby and children's clothes. The photogram technique magically lights up these relics of a bygone age with precision. The images are not blurred and indistinct like the usual representations of ghosts and spectral figures. The fine lace borders of christening robes and patches on everyday underwear record a history of needlework. In some cases, the loose arrangement of the lighted folds of fabric and the partially unbuttoned state of the dress serve to re-animate these clothes. We are reminded not only of the dressing and undressing of children in these garments, of the absent bodies they once clothed, but of lives unknown and undocumented, histories of the everyday. In each of the photograms, one delicate item of clothing is lit up in the centre of a vast heavy blackness, conveying a sense of its fragility and vulnerability, its isolation in a cold clinical environment.
I was reminded of a visit to the Old Cemetery in Ballarat some years ago. In the company of two friends in search of graves of their forefathers, we discovered some impressive monuments adorned with sculpted Grecian urns, high-toned memorial verses and biblical quotations. The cemetery curator, who helped us locate the ancestral graves, was clearly pleased to find visitors who displayed more than a cursory interest in this beautifully tended and little known historical site. He knew his territory well, and informed us that the oldest graves in this Old Cemetery were of Jewish children. He guided us to a collection of cracked and rotting little gravestones lying on the ground. I was transported away from the soaring monuments of the community patriarchs, shamed into acknowledgment of other historical subjects. I wondered how these children lived and died in the early days of booming Ballarat, how they came to die so young, what childhood diseases struck them down, where they came from, how their immigrant mothers coped with childbearing, child rearing and infant mortality on the goldfields. In the narrative histories of Ballarat, we hear about nuggetty bearded immigrant adventurers panning for gold, and about exiled European political dissidents waging battles with the authorities. We don't hear about women or children on the goldfields, let alone the high rate of infant and maternal mortality.
In a similar fashion, Ferran's photograms made me speculate about the lives of the children who wore these clothes, the women who cared for the children, and the women who sewed and embroidered and patched these clothes. In his thoughtful essay, 'Immortal Stories' (Photofile, Summer 1986), a set of reflections aroused by Ferran's tableaux, Scenes on the Death of Nature (1986), Adrian Martin accurately noted that Ferran's work (unlike Henson's) promotes speculation. He also noted the double edge to her work, the way it simultaneously sparks off, affectively and critically, in contrary directions. This is my experience too. In this case, while pulled towards reflections about the past, I was simultaneously made to confront its irretrievability. Because it only survives in pathetic traces - fragments of cloth, rotting stones, printed and carved words - far removed from living, breathing bodies, it is ultimately inaccessible.
Right now, when history appears to be a dying discipline, it seems somewhat anachronistic to be preoccupied with it. And Ferran shows herself to be thoroughly aware of its limitations as well as its attractions. In their search for knowledge and empowerment, the postcolonial and feminist projects have both involved an investigation and a rewriting of history. Throughout her career, Ferran has participated in the investigation and re-writing of women's history, re-staging the myth-making representations of women constructed by classical male artists and scientists; more recently, uncovering the vestiges of anonymous women's lives in colonial Australia. But the darkness, the fragility, the isolation and the cold silence of her relics speak also of the impossibility of gaining access to that living past. We can exhume it, we can fetishise its traces. But in the gap between the desire to know the way things were and the impossibility of retrieving the dead past, of fully reanimating it, lies pathos. We can only view it, Ferran seems to be saying, feelingly, 'through a glass darkly' – not in the religio-mystical mode, nor in the Hensonite romantic mode, but in the material traces of materials.