Fri, 07/06/2013 - 15:06 -- damien

The clunky amalgamation of fragments of research material, unfinished works and process documentation which were presented in heavy based vitrines in ‘The ground, the air’, a survey of Anne Ferran’s work, may have come as a surprise to those familiar with the artist’s restrained and graceful aesthetic. True to Ferran’s poetic sensibility, however, the museological feel of this ‘temporary archive’ made a knowing nod to the artist’s ongoing engagement with various institutional records and photographic collections. Curated by Craig Judd for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in late 2008, the exhibition highlighted Ferran’s sustained exploration of the gaps, blind spots and silences within the official archive. United by a specific concern with the institutional eye enacted on women and children since colonial settlement, the depth of works exhibited posit Ferran as one of Australia’s leading artists working in the historiographic mode.

Lost to worlds (2008), a suite of thirty photographs digitally printed onto aluminium, was commissioned specifically for the survey and has recently been exhibited in both Sydney and Melbourne. The series documents the humble terrain of a sheep paddock in Ross, which was once the locale of a 19th century prison for women convicts. Glimpses of a horizon line or snaking fence can be seen in the peripheries of a few of the photographs, in others slight indentations in the earth hint at structural foundations beneath the soil. Yet in most, the undulating landforms and grass are conspicuously devoid of any distinctive features, causing the image to flatten out into loose abstract patterns and forms.

Ferran began documenting the innocuous site in 1999 and has continued to rephotograph it over the last decade. Although the uniform format, limited tonal range and repetition of subject matter recalls the systematic approach of Conceptual photographers working in the serial mode, Lost to worlds is more concerned with the revelatory effects of time than the precise repetition of a mechanical process. The resulting archive of photographs represents both the extended presence of the artist at the site and, through her documentation of it at different times, in different seasons, at different angles, an attempt to capture its every physical variation. Reflecting on this Ferran says, ‘When I work on a subject that’s removed in time I notice that the amount of time I spend, and the quality of attention, are more productive than anything I actually do’.1 At a subsequent exhibition at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, the works themselves appeared to embody this concern with the temporal, as the gallery’s skylights allowed shifting natural light to move across their metallic surfaces, subtly altering the character of the works throughout the day.

Ferran’s photographs of the ground at Ross tap into an ‘archaeological imaginary’ as she grapples to unearth the immaterial dimensions of the site’s history.2 The utilisation of the indexical authority of photography in this speculative project is striking. Ferran is conscious of contradictions at play in this process, stating, ‘I keep on photographing as if the ground might yield its secret but it never does. Gradually, though, the images do add up to something, though I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what that is’.3 Yet these photographs are not strictly documentary; distortions produced by an extremely wide-angle lens, light streaks and haze resulting from light leaks in the camera and the reflective quality of the aluminium’s surface, imbue these works with a haunted quality. This ghostly aesthetic suggests that the artist is not so much interested in restoring a displaced history but in creating a realm in which viewers can imagine the lives lived and lost on the site. The works read as channels between the past and present, with the residue from the light leaks in the monochrome images evoking 19th century photography, whilst the pristine metal panels clearly speak of the now.

On the groundin the air, (2006-2008), another key work exhibited at TMAG, established a similar conduit through the histories of Ross and the site of a second ‘female factory’ south of Hobart. The three part installation focused on the approximately 1200 infants who died before their second birthday and were buried in unmarked graves around the two locales during the thirty years the prisons were in operation. Ferran transformed the meagre details of these babies’ lives, salvaged from the State archive, into powerful reproaches of the institutional neglect they suffered in both life and death. In one section, eleven miniature blankets, woven from stiff wool which alludes to standard issue convict uniforms, were strung up along a wall. The first two letters of the most common causes of death, pneumonia, dysentery and bronchitis, etcetera, were cut into the outer layer of nine of the blankets. The two remaining panels, one light, one dark, denoted the ground and air through which these diseases were carried. Limited to a sombre range of greys and browns, the width of the upper band of these two-tone textiles signified the proportion of babies who died of the particular affliction. Conspicuously small and coarse, the inadequate blankets mirror the administration’s inability to provide their young charges with the protection or care they so desperately required.

An accompanying two channel video was projected at either end of a darkened gallery space, each displaying the names of the deceased infants. Their names emerged to the right of the screen and glided steadily above a backdrop of the ground at Ross, stopping and fading at seemingly random intervals: thousands of lives emerging and then dissolving back into the landscape. Employing the symbolic and experiential dimensions of time, Ferran linked the duration that the child’s name appeared on screen directly to the length of their life. This simple device gave the viewer time to meditate on the tragic loss the a priori evidence of the archive has obscured. The videos have no sound track and viewers were encouraged to read each name aloud in a constructed act of remembering.

Ferran’s innate understanding of how time and context frame any interpretation of historical material is epitomized in Insula (2003), the final major work presented in The ground, the airThe work revolves around thirty-eight photographs of female psychiatric patients, once incarcerated at Gladesville Hospital in Sydney, that the artist came to work with through a 1999 New South Wales Women and Arts Fellowship. Dated 1948, the photographs have been severed from any details of their original function. One intuits, however, that the archives’ objective was aligned with the 19th century project, pursued by figures such as French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, to create an empirical catalogue of mental illness.

The participation of viewers in this work was highly orchestrated and controlled. Ferran constructed a purpose built room for the presentation of Insula at TMAG, which could only be entered through a manned door. Jacques Derrida notes that there is no archive ‘without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside’.4 The act of crossing this threshold then may imply a bridging of the distance in time and space the archive is predicated upon. Only three visitors were allowed into the viewing room at once, where they found four books presented on three evenly spaced tables. Those admitted were invited to sit at the succession of desks and look through the images presented in each tome. The austerity of the interior, replete with blank white walls, rigid furniture and low hanging fluorescent lights, suggested an institutionalised zone.

The tactile surfaces of the felt bound books were the only reprieve from this clinical atmosphere, as if the artist had wrapped them in a protective, humanising layer. Each volume contained a compilation of the original archival images, cropped by Ferran to focus on a particular section of the subject’s bodies. The first portrayed the women’s mid-sections, drawing attention to their crumpled and worn clothes. The second and third isolated the hands of both patients and the nurses accompanying them in many of the photographs, whilst the fourth explored the intimate details of the patient’s faces. This framing worked to draw the viewer to the only available markers of these women’s individuality.

The elaborate procedure undertaken by anyone who wished to view the Insula works reintroduced a sense of significance to the photographs that had once been lost in the dusty depths of the official archive.5 Participants who scrutinised the photographs in the hope of garnering insights into the individual represented were ultimately frustrated as the dislocated images were incapable of revealing anything beyond surface level. What was made comprehensible through this process, however, was the weight of the indifference of medical and historical gazes on these subjects. Although Ferran is unable to fully restore the unique characteristics to these ghostly figures, she is able to create a space in which a contemporary audience can come to empathise with their circumstance. It is this ability to forge a material and emotional resonance between the past and present that defines the artist’s work with historical archives more broadly.

Anne Ferran, The ground, the air, 2008-2009. Installation view, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Photography Simon Cuthbert. Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.

Anne Ferran, Insula, 2003. Exterior. Installation view, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

Anne Ferran, Insula, 2003. Interior. Installation view, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

Anne Ferran, Lost to worlds, 2008. Installation detail, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

  1. Anne Ferran, email correspondence with the author, 3 December 2009.
  2. Dieter Roelstraete discusses the use of the 'archeological imaginary' by a range of contemporary artists in 'The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art', e-flux, Journal #4, issue 03, 2009. Print Article.
  3. Anne Ferran, email correspondence with the author, 3 December 2009.
  4. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, p.11. Italics are in the original text.
  5. Copies of the photographs are held in the Government Printing Office Archive in the State Library of New South Wales.

Anne Ferran is represented by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney. 

Shelley McSpedden is an independent writer and curator based in Melbourne.