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susan grant; anne ferran; codex
Tasmania, the small sometimes forgotten isle, is a place haunted by its historical sites. In contrast to the formative precociousness of places or capitals like Brisbane, where continual construction and reinvention are the norm, this preoccupation with the past seems novel. But in reference to the modern Austrian architect Adolf Loos, when we stumble upon ‘a mound in the forest, six feet long and three feet wide, formed into a pyramid shape by a shovel, we become serious and something within us says, “Someone lies buried here.” This is architecture’.1 This is substance. And for three contemporary exhibitions in Hobart, the unearthed provokes substantive subjective experiences.
Scottish-born artist Susan Grant states, ‘I am from a nation of thrifters, of filers, of conquerors (of rapists), of industrialists, of learners and authors, of philosophers and religious puritans’. In her reverent exhibition ‘cellular silence absolute’, Grant presented a series of suspended pin-prick marks on paper, each backlit with a single exposed hanging light-bulb that illuminated the texts; or if the bulb caught a light breeze, swayed the outline of a tall ship. With titles such as, The Ellipsis: The Journey in Time: The Success Transportation Vessel and The Semi-Colon: The Bridge between: The Penitentiary, Port Arthur, she retraced the subjugated immigration, 145 degrees west to east from Edinburgh to the tiny Port Arthur enclave. She indulged her instincts to order and file, while giving silence a voice.
Through punctuation, or punctuated silence, Grant deciphered a journey that ultimately ends (and in a sense starts) at a graveyard of 1100 mostly unmarked graves. A community defined by architecture and landscape. Interested in how communities operate, specifically how power is dispersed or relinquished and how these processes of control shape identity, for Grant the architecture of Port Arthur, particularly its orderly British-ness, is eerily familiar. In searching the archive, in the lack of communication from convicts to the Victorian ear, their silence is palpable. Grant’s pious contemplation of the research material is evident, for her: ‘every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle’.2 The works internalise regret, the untold subjective story, not so much by supplanting, but through re-imagining and mapping this quiet journey.
Similarly, Anne Ferran’s ‘the ground, the air’ was promoted as drawing ‘upon Tasmanian sites and archives to explore how the past haunts the present’. Aside from being distracted by a minder’s anticlimactic warning that the exhibition contained disturbing imagery, the primary installation 1-38 was relatively straightforward: an angled room within the gallery exhibiting three tables covered with cream felt, a series of green felt-covered books carefully placed on each, and the obligatory white gloves. The images contained within these books depict a series of anonymous female torsos roughly dressed in coarse fabrics, and they often capture anguished hand gestures. These gestures were rendered more distressing by being repetitively detached from the faces.
Re-using the found photographic archive of female patients from a Sydney psychiatric hospital in 1948, the aesthetically controlled images are re-presented in subdued hazy grey tomes, cropped and bound. Their original context is only intimated by the irregular blurry presence or shadow of nurses in the background of the hospital grounds. Despite the intermittent contorted hand or the firm grip of a nurse, the majority of images show no apparent marks of agitation or suffering. Rather, the repeated image after image together accumulates and attains a sense of melancholy or despondency and frailty.
The project reveals these images in proximity to other archival objects. Without data, names or dates, Ferran constructs a kind of temple or monument on behalf of the subjects. In recalling and binding oppressed communities, the formlessness of the original archive is inscribed with a new speculative context. Through repetition and proximity that facilitates a subjective experience and infers meanings, she subverts the original institutional gaze. Until the final table and book, each subject’s face is only imaginable. Given our early 21st century health care, airbrushed media obsessions and a swiftly fading economic boom, the countenances revealed are largely unfamiliar. The austere faces wear hard lives. They appear to be battered, post-Great Depression working-class toughs, knowing, down, but not quite out, there is another fight in them yet.
Brigita Ozolins’ exhibition CODEX also presented a constructed room: an enormous room, which sat tightly within a larger gallery that was inaccessible. The dim, weighty, black painted room displayed 765 convex mirrors, each of a ten-centimeter diameter, which from floor to ceiling formed letters that read across the room, into corners, and as a palindrome. The presence or breath of a body also accompanied the letters: a soundtrack scratching, scrawling or writing continuously. Each convex mirror reflected a viewer dwarfed in the room.
Principally working with installation, Ozolins explores the links between writing, subjective experiences and untold histories. Like Grant and Ferran, she is also interested in the taxonomy of bureaucracy. All three artists and exhibitions explore the dispersal of power, especially that which has been relinquished or taken, and each bring into existence personal and collective histories that have been dislocated by migration, exile and/or incarceration. They add deeply personal layers to facilitate a revised perception, and further multiply connected psychological and physical landscapes. But for Ozolins, the body as an internal subjective interpreter and external agent is both integral and present within the work.
Things that are buried, concealed and unspoken are given a voice. However, as history is always being shaped, adjusted and resettled, to square away the past is impossible. The body writes and performs with intense purpose and without an end, albeit, distant and obscure. Like Grant, Ozolins’ CODEX dwells in an imaginary, self-imposed solitary confinement that layers and translates texts onto the walls of this cell or container. Obsessed with language and the secreted, the installation, in an act that deciphers hidden texts and meanings, brings the impalpable to the surface and into existence.
1. Adolf Loos, essay Architecture, 1910.
2. Susan Grant quoting Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry, Vintage, New York, 1989.