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Body memory field
There has been much discussion lately about the nature and future direction of public art in this country. Whether influenced by the new funding emphasis on audience development or by artists seeking cultural destinations beyond the privileged gallery domain, art is becoming more and more a part of our experience of urban spaces.
However, despite the energy and enthusiasm with which art is furnishing the malls, parks and arcades of Australian cities, more often than not the 'public' credentials of these works lie more in their spatial location than their social one––obstinate architectural accessories which do little to engage the imagination or conscience of the passer-by. And with our urban social spaces so threatened by commercial interests is it essential that we not only engage with what 'public' might actually mean to us, but demand that art provide a stimulus and framework for the conversation.
It is in such a climate that Justin Avery and Courtney Pedersen's outdoor installation Body Memory Field is so refreshing. Taking place over three days in Captain Burke Park on the river beneath Brisbane's grand modernist icon the Story Bridge, the work comprised a geometrical arrangement of sixteen bodies––stained, wax-coated sheet 'shells'––each describing the undulations of a dormant figure beneath. As appealing and disturbing as any Kiki Smith sculpture, during the day the bodies made an eerie juxtaposition with the frolickings of picnickers, while at nightfall they each glowed with an internal light source, hovering in the darkness like some kind of strange ceremonial beacon.
This sense of ritual, suggesting paranormal conspiracy models or neo-pagan rites, was reinforced by the recent massacres in East Timor, inspiring many viewers to won der whether the work was some kind of funereal political protest. And it was. Not of the limited, illustrative kind frequently employed on protest rallies, but rather a nuanced and visceral one––a glowing reminder to the nearby high-rise occupants as much as to the motorists passing above of the bodies upon which the Western juggernaut is based and prospers.
Body Memory Field is distinct in its specific and deliberate lack of monumentality. Where public sculpture has historically dwelt on the veneration of identities connected with the state (both historical and mythological) Avery and Pedersen expose the limitations of the bronze (and its contemporary surrogates) by presenting us with a figure, not glaring down from above or standing silent and inaccessible, but one with which we feel an intuitive familiarity. The figure 's fragile calico shells suggest strange igloos which the viewer could almost climb inside or landscapes from a museum diorama or architectural model.
In Body Memory Field, Avery and Pedersen have achieved a seductive and intelligent demonstration that public art can maintain a political edge without resorting to didacticism, while reminding us of the urgency, at the turn of the millennium, to consider our histories, collective and personal, as we project ourselves into the future.