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Eleanor Avery, Britt Knudsen-Owens, Caitlin Reid
Questions have lingered with me since viewing Eleanor Avery’s ‘Wonderland’, Britt Knudsen-Owens’ ‘Face’ and Caitlin Reid’s ‘Every gesture has a sound, (Every sound has a gesture)’ at Soapbox Gallery. What was it that linked these three very different exhibitions? What was it that made them collectively so haunting?
In viewing the exhibitions, one came upon each artist’s work as if being witness to an event that has just occurred. In Avery’s ‘Wonderland’ what has just occurred is an accident. A tree in which a small plasticine house was situated has just been completely uprooted and fallen across the space of the onlooker, irreparably damaging and scattering the makings of the little house. Was it pushed or did it fall by chance? Juliana Engberg, in writing about the exhibition ‘A History of Happiness’ reminds us that we know from Freud that falling is both pleasurable and filled with anxiety.1 Falling can recall the childhood games when a caring adult always caught us. However as Engberg notes ‘in dreams as in life… we remove the hands of waiting adults and find ourselves free-falling, uncertain of our fate.’2 The child/adult’s leap out of the known is the event that has just occurred. We are ecstatic and fearful. We are traumatised. Did being here, make this happen?
Knudsen-Owen’s ‘Face’ creates a corridor through which we pass. On one side a large cloth, perhaps bed linen, has been ripped to shreds in either play or anger. Then, with possible regret, it has been madly restitched to create a wall of shreds surging to the floor, redeemed through imagination. On the opposite side of the room the adult has emerged to stitch the now coloured shreds of cloth onto an array of coloured paper, creating symbols of order and beauty.
The title ‘Face’ reveals ambiguity at its heart: it refers both to confidently meeting, facing up to something, as well as to the needlework process of covering over with another material. In ‘Face’, we face on one side the chaotic play of ripping apart and imaginatively reassembling. On the other side these acts are covered over by redirecting the loose shreds into motifs of colour and order. Just ever so slightly we can see the threads of their own becoming.
In Caitlin Reid’s ‘Every gesture has a sound (every sound has a gesture)’, erratic drifts of swirling smoke are caught on a canvas. Back when smoking was a regular past-time in the home, smoke rings late at night were seen to be silent sensual messages of wistful desire. Perfect circles of smoke would writhe and twist and morph away. Like a child blowing bubbles, they were wishes that float and disperse. In ‘Every gesture has a sound, (every sound has a gesture)’ the smoke rings have been captured by the artist who, in a shrilling counterpoint to Jackson Pollock, lies beneath the canvas. There she circles air with a candle faster and then slower, then faster again sending smoke signals, gestures, sounds of wish, desire, hope and no doubt regret.
To return to the lingering questions: what links these exhibitions? What is it that makes them so haunting? The artists have talked about play being vital to their artmaking, as well as the thrill of the accident and the accidental, because it is more open to doubt and ‘because you can’t go back’. All the works involve repeated acts that slide the known and predictable into the unknown and strange. Giles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition refers to a power peculiar to repetition. We find this peculiar power in these works. Arising out of this is the sense of the uncanny. We have experienced these scenarios somewhere before. They are, in an abstract way, shared experiences. Juliana Engberg notes that the sense of the uncanny can be gained from objects and matter that feel familiar when they are encountered but are ‘disengaged from their ordinary circumstances. When repressed ideas are given substance through the doubling effect, when absences occur as a consequence of partial things being revealed’.3 We get a sense of knowing, but not quite—or not quite all of it. There is an absence built in. We only partially know. Or, we think we know.
Perhaps it is this partial knowing that haunts and links the works of these exhibitions. They revolve around personal rituals that translate experiences of life to art giving us glimpses of our own paradoxes and contradictions.
1. Juliana Engberg ‘A History of Happiness’, Visual Arts Festival Program 2002, Melbourne Festival, p.42.
3. Juliana Engberg ‘The Heimlich Unheimlich’, Visual Arts Festival Program 2002, Melbourne Festival, p.28.