Natalie Billing
Soapbox Gallery, Brisbane

That we might be able to order our thoughts completely is a robotic fantasy, yet people constantly nurture habits which give them a fleeting illusion of control over life. The impossibility of this task is reiterated in any given tragedy or comedy, with us, the audience, baulking at the consequences before returning to our own entrapments of routine.

Given that the intrusion of memory is one of the chief demons which prevents clear and concise thought, it is a surprise that Natalie Billing labels herself  'overly sentimental'. Her exhibition does not evoke the rusty cluttered image of nostalgia. Rather, it appears the artist may have devised a method to kill memories. In the aesthetic vein of Christian Boltanski, Billing makes an architectural mockery of a bureaucratic reference room. Lining the walls with wooden shelling and cardboard boxes, Archive represents a reordering of the artist's personal possessions. In each archive box is an object, wrapped in plastic and labeled with its genesis in the artist's memory. In a way, Billing has executed a self-portrait through her belongings, in a style not dissimilar to that of the Dutch renaissance artist Hans Holbein. The only link between the objects is that all of them have, at some stage, come into the artist's existence. Through the process of sorting, they become 'evened out', practically neutral alongside each other. Each memory is marked, allocated a certain amount of space and made arbitrary. They are accounted for, and therefore not needed. Wrapped in plastic, the insinuation of museum specimens further suggests that a slaying of memory has occurred. If these recollections are not already dead, they have, at best, been made public property.

Where would the minute documentation of our personal history lead us? My guess would be complete insanity. The very moment we were to become aware of all the objects to which there is memory attached, it would be too easy to lose oneself in history. Nietzsche makes the point that it would be possible to attach such worth to the study of history that life becomes stunted and degenerate: '...imagine the extremist possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming…’[1]

Among Natalie Billing's 'history projects' is an attempt to list every memory up until the age of fifteen. The artist is aware of the implications of taking on such projects—she knows she is treading deep water and, characteristically, everything spills over in the final room of this installation. After the formal rigidity of the first two rooms, the third is a mad archivist's lab: boxes lie around the floor waiting to be packed, half-written sheets fly out from the typewriter, and earlier artworks are placed around the room in an archival purgatory. Clearly, part of the artist's dilemma here was whether artworks can be projected with the same kind of sentimentality as other objects.

In a way, Archive is a very compact exhibition. If the artist were to continue her work in the preparation room, the sequence would naturally lead to only one box, which would contain the memory of this artwork. When this becomes a memory, all of the other memories will be compacted into this one box.

Natalie BIlling, Archive, 1999. Installation detail, Soapbox Gallery. Courtesy the artist. 

Natalie BIlling, Archive, 1999. Installation detail, Soapbox Gallery. Courtesy the artist. 


[1] Nietzsche, F., 'On the Uses and Disadvantages of the Uses of History for Life', Untimely Meditations, p. 62.