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Second Nature is Fiona Macdonald's latest exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art. This title, Second Nature, suggests easy, familiar modalities of thought and action. Second Nature is an almost unknowing and automatic habitual response pattern. Macdonald views second nature as a 'parallel universe', however the exhibition presents a darker and more sinister registration around the notions implicit in the title. This particular parallel universe is ominous, unstable and threatening.
The combinations of Reductions or specimens as Macdonald calls them create a disturbing series of relations between the works themselves and their content. The specimens for our delectation are that of the landscape, painting, image, monochrome and object. The artist states that 'The idea of reduction refers to a condition of dumbness. These works are dumb-in both senses of the word. They are mute silent objects and also stupid or stupefied-they have been dumbed down'.
The viewer enters a ground zero envelope of space. Macdonald has emphasised the qualities of the ill-proportioned room allocated to her by choosing a dingy, even gloomy lighting system. This enhances the peculiar energy of the similarly ill proportioned and oddly emanating array of objects.
The denser spaces of theoretical discourse are immediately suggested with two photographs of a moonlit scene of a cliff and the sea. Both photographs are roughly stapled to their support. In the first of these images the viewer is able to project into and through the landscape, to become one with it and be swept up into a sense of the sublime. The glimmering light of the image is extraordinary. In contrast, the other photograph is a surly intervention. Here the image has been supplemented to the level of surfeit with a thick coagulating caul of suppurating, creamy white paint designed to counter the previous photograph's intricate detail. Macdonald has further defied/defiled the image by puncturing the picture plane. Like a remnant of a bullet or missile attack the tear marks protrude outwards towards the viewer. The image is literally simultaneously exploding and imploding.
There are two floor pieces - one white, one black. They have a strange sort of weighty geometric intensity. The first floor specimen is a white rubber clad cube carefully placed on a flat square of white. The rubber has been meticulously folded to reveal hints of the structure and its materiality. However Macdonald sections off an area of the form with what looks like simple sandwich wrap, thus thwarting the tantalising glimpse of the comparatively more natural material of cardboard underneath. This act engenders the seemingly mute object with an eerie animation, echoing both hospital hygiene and children's sanitary pants. The other floor specimen is covered in black PVC that moves as you move around it. A rhomboid reminiscent of a double bed gone wrong, the queer shape and quivering glossy surfaces animate the menacing object. This slight animation experienced in the floor works continues in a similar piece, Reduction (monochrome specimen). A large rectangle of pale pink plastic is tautly stretched across a rectangular frame and placed on the wall. Here, the body sex allusions are simple and obvious, but are destabilised again by a wilful fluttering in a disarmingly feminine gesture from the top right hand corner of the object.
The video component Reduction (image specimen), also in black and white, is a somewhat sadistic and relentless work. lt features appropriations from Muybridge (the Bactrian camel and the Rocking Mule) and takes from Macdonald's latest film Museum Emotions. Disembodied and in formal opposition, neither the camel nor mule can ever communicate and interact with each other. This failure or absence is compounded in the scenes where the actors in Museum Emotions attempt to communicate with each other while waiting desultorily for the next shoot. Their visages and body postures display the gamut of expressions related to nervousness, ennui and frustration. The actors, like the camel and mule, are locked into a system of repetitive acts and ration ales outside of their control. There are echoes of Marcel Duchamp here. Even the constructions and manifestations of gender are no help in the impossible dreams of 'true' communication.
The largest work in the show is the ironically entitled Reduction (wallpaper specimen). This monstrous gold and black flocked decoration slumped and rippled anxiously against the wall. The pattern was of loosely rendered organic shapes. More specifically, two repeat motifs emerged from the shimmering gold ground. The first was the seven-headed cobra, symbol of the short-lived 1970s urban terrorist organisation, the Symbionese Liberation Army. The other motif was a stylised series of shapes derived from the photograph of the SLA's kidnap victim cum convert-the gun toting Patty Hearst, also known as Tania. Whereas the other pieces in the exhibition are meditations on the various languages of illusion and abstraction, this specimen refers to domesticity and the key authority in that space, albeit often submerged, the figure of woman. Before its dramatic demise in 1974, the SLA was infamous for being 'a woman controlled ', miscegenation promoting, consciousness-raising cell. The story of Patty Hearst the young beautiful heiress converted to carbine carrying revolutionary army member and sexual libertine and then the reverse journey back to meek, but now not so beautiful and forever suspect heiress, could be viewed as a postmodern paradigm. A script written a long time before the likes of Butler, Sedgewick and Co, Patty is an example of a subject whose gender is an artifice masking a chaotic psychological interior. The ruptures and instability of Hearst's character are mirrored in the deliberate lack of traditional formal qualities in this work.
In earlier statements Macdonald has decried the tenets and interpretations of abstraction, yet this exhibition clearly shows that although tendentious and moribund, there is still a deal of power in those abstracted languages and interpretations. In this exhibition there are echoes of Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and Robert Morris in the types of alchemical and visceral effects that materiality produces. Here there are no inexorable, logical connections between content and form. The parallel universe that Macdonald suggests is an unruly and perhaps anarchic terrain.
Second Nature, then, is an erudite and informed but ultimately disquieting engagement with the semiotic and phenomenological attributes of objects.