THE ACTIVE THING

BRIDGET CURRIE'S OBJECTS

Unsymbolic 1

Bridget Currie calls her practice sculpture. The things she makes reveal a curiosity about how the forces of life and death act to make the world. In the last ten years she has been building a lexicon of forms, actions, and forces with de-natured materials and their qualities. It strikes me that Currie takes objects and things replete with symbolism (the tree, the bell, the hand) then makes them act in ways unsymbolic. Her work makes clear what is already here but not immediately apparent; not by using symbols—things that refer to other things—but rather by juxtaposing quite ordinary, even taken-for-granted, things in out of the ordinary ways. This strangeness of proximity and distance side-by-side makes a thought-image, a kind of unease in the body that says ‘yes and’—it is more than a mimetic representation of ideas or concepts, and more than Greenberg’s ‘law of the medium’ with its conversant privileging of opticality. There is something alive and other to semantic signification operating here that generates an ecology inclusive of the system of art and the wider world of things.

On the matter of plants

Made during a residency at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan Portable ends (things under pressure) featured pickled vegetables—preserved with salt and vinegar—as the ground matter or soil for a plywood plane that stretched from wall to wall in the gallery space. Each pickle-vessel was the receptacle for crude cement rods that applied downward force to the rotting-preserving vegetables, while acting as foundation rods for the plywood plane above. Gallery walls were bought into service as further tension was applied—at least visually—to the pressing process by strips of plywood curved from the walls to the surface of the horizontal plane. The whole thing together is a crude and weirdly beautiful vegetable press; not quite a machine (with its associations of mass factory production), it is nevertheless a technology of ancient domestic use bought eloquently into the register of art production and display along with the pungent aroma of decay and preservation for the future.

Regulators consisted of a tree and four purpose-designed fragrances. The wild olive was chosen from the sprawling grounds of Carrick Hill. Due to be culled to give the native ecosystem a better chance of regeneration, the olive tree was felled by the groundsmen, then dragged by tractor from its perch on the side of the hill to the gully where Currie stripped most of its leaves and pruned it slightly before it was transported, awkwardly, to the gallery: how do you transport a recently cut tree whose shape needs to be preserved? That the tree was ‘rescued’ from a burning cull is not so much incidental but just another twist in the field of associations—I was shocked at how brutal the process felt. Brilliantly lit, ‘Tree’ (it’s easy to assign sentience to the solitary thing), was propped with crude plywood strips in the Experimental Art Foundation’s modernist white box. The image for the invitation was an avocado sprout with seed in a jar of water.

Against gravity (2010) is a found tree trunk (torso) mutilated (pruned) into years of service as yielder of fruit. Riddled with lines of twisted bark the dehydrated wood has grown light as cork. Touched lightly by the artist, the interior has been hollowed, a couple of protuberances removed, the bark smoothed here and there. Turned upside down with its roots to the sky the inverted top-now-bottom is plugged with a convex lump of cement so that it can be rocked on its base. The reference here is to the Japanese Daruma doll.

Things: a philosophical detour

Relationships between the Thing and sentience have a Greco-Western philosophical history that has variously articulated thingness as object, matter, substance, the world, reality, and appearance. In Kant’s reading the thing is either inert materiality, a representational tool resulting in thing-for-us (assuming a universality that acts by exclusion), or as the noumenal thing-in-itself (assuming a beyondness premised on a human-centric notion of being). Simply put thing-for-us takes a technical and analytic trajectory, whilst thing-in-itself takes a path through Freud and Lacan, where the thing is ultimately the maternal excess that cannot be subsumed in language—the symbolic order—and instead acts as hole or rupture to that order (thus ghosts, spirits, deities). Since cybernetics, the splitting of the atom, quantum physics and nano-tech, thingness in art and aesthetics moves between a malevolent reality that symbolises human intervention in nature’s forces at micro and macro levels, or, more romantically/theologically perhaps, as something standing in for that which we cannot know. Other to Greco-Western epistemological or ontological understandings, Eastern philosophy (by Eastern I mean the mix of Buddhist, animist and Confucian traditions) has a take that moves more connectively, generating fields of associations that exceed the merely technical or theistic. The Japanese term mono, for instance, indicates a reality embedded within the deepest level of mind—a being-with that is more in tune with current neuroscience than with Kantian understandings of aesthetics. ‘The Japanese equivalent of “thing”, mono suggests both thing and matter; it involves not only the teleologically identified object, but also the dynamism of event’.1 Event denotes activities that generate space and time suggestive of the unsignifiable; the edge conditions of thingness expand awareness and create potential.

UnSymbolic 2

Take for instance Heavy shit: knock knock, a work that unabashedly addresses the institution of art; the specificity of its processes of entrance, approval, reception, efficacy and opportunity.2 Composed of two pieces cast in aluminium, the first, a bell, is behind the gallery, a repurposed bluestone domestic residence. It is a bell of churches, schools and Town Halls. ‘Gothic’, I first thought. The bell lies on the ground—its long rope is flung loosely over the branch of a large elm, somewhat forlorn, unable to peal or strike a call without the elevation necessary for its tune to ring out. In any case its clapper is a black bowling ball complete with finger holes, way too large to be effectual. The second piece is a door knocker, a cast of the artist’s hand holding what appears to be a ball—its grip on the bell’s errant clapper is both precise and weirdly delicate, given the weight of the material. The knocker’s position is oddly misplaced; though close to the service entrance (no front door entry for this piece) it has been bolted instead to the red brick wall, doomed once again to make a dull thud rather than a clear knock. Compelled to hold the knocker I’m surprised at how creepy the weight of the cold metal feels. I’m holding the hand that holds the clapper of the bell—there’s an urgency that won’t be heard. It’s not that the thing—in this case the knocker or the bell—somehow references that which can only remain unsaid, rather it is offered up here for the viewer to be a participant in the making of stories and events that resist rational persuasion. It makes me think of Vito Acconci’s brief super-8 film Adaptation Study (Blindfolded Catching) (1970) where it is the sheer exhaustion of trying to guess the trajectory of a thrown ball that triggers the blindfolded artist’s adaptive reply to dodge it altogether. In Heavy shit: knock knock the ball is in your hand, you make the picture. The choice of aluminium as a casting material for the knocker refers unmistakably to the monumentality of art objects. There is a poignancy to the work overall which is effectively a kind of passive/active resistance on the part of the artist. I’m unsure whether the artist’s observation here is a koan or a paradox, either reading is worth embracing unless one believes there is something inherently rational and essential to materiality.

‘Joining the earth and the sky’

I watched as Currie chose the tree she wanted for Regulators—a wild olive—and then as someone cut it down with a chain saw, someone else tied a rope around it, and another person used a tractor to drag it into the clearing where the artist began to prune and shape the dying–dead tree. Is it at all significant that the tree has been saved from the bonfire? Does it matter where the tree came from, or where it might have gone, in thinking about where it is now? In the clean white gallery it became a thing, object tree. As a thought-image the tree suggests forces that are intangible but no less present: energy, pressure, and intensity. It also suggests yield, as both produce (fruit, honey, oil, wood, paper), and as giving way to resistance. Crucial to Regulators was the presence of four distinct fragrances in the gallery space. The artist writes

Joining the earth and the sky is the brief I gave JH Lever [Fragrance Design Studio]. Decaying on the ground, the warm smell of leaf mould and floral honey in the tips of the tree. It is a mix of three ‘bases’, an earthy mouldy base, a woody base and a green, floral, sweet base. The regulating system of above and below. A cycle of death, decay and life, regulating the ongoing order of things. At the base of my thinking at the moment is the quality of strength…expressed through resilience OR yielding to pressure. Either making pressure a positive thing (as in Portable ends) or in resisting pressure. This work was inspired initially by seeing trees on crutches in Japanese gardens—the man-made holding up the natural, the need for help in all things, and the dead holding up the living.(Artist notes)

Regulation and deregulation are terms heard often lately, in relation to the most recent financial crisis and make clear the abstract nature of money and power. Whilst civil and civic systems have a regulatory order—political, social, familial, personal, professional, etcetera—regulation per se is a set of forces in play across spheres of the political and ecological, ensuring bio-connectivities, the ongoing life and death of things.

Olfaction is considered the most animal of the five senses, and the least necessary for survival and quality of life. For Jim Drobnick ‘odour is a key constituent (and marker) of encountering difference, a sensory factor often remarked upon in tourism promotions and travel literature’.3 In Currie’s Regulators the viewer is faced with a denuded tree and the pungent aroma of something familiar, but not quite, marked by a title through which the work brings an entirely different perspective to the financial crisis of the leisure world (it’s all entertainment right?), rendering the catastrophe a consequence of slow forces implicated across ecologies and times.

Grace, of plants and air

Bridget Currie is always alert to the shape of trees and their condition ‘amongst people’, their mutating forms often the results of arbitrary decisions. A found ‘lump’ of aged and long-dead wood triggered Currie’s recent work Against Gravity. Mostly trunk, the many branch stumps suggest it could have been some kind of fruit tree pruned purposely to increase yield. The gnarled stump was so dehydrated it was simply rocked out of the ground.

During a recent visit to the artist’s studio to see Against Gravity in production, I noticed a plastic bird poised on the tip of its beak. Fascinated by the toy’s relationship to the balance Currie seeks in her disparate conjunction of things I sent her the following 19th century quote from an ornithologist (the source of which I cannot remember),

Why are birds said to be ‘poised’ in the air? Because the centre of gravity of their bodies is always below the insertion of their wings, to prevent them falling on their backs, but near the point on which their body is, during flight, as it were, suspended. The positions assumed by the head and feet are frequently calculated to accomplish these ends, and give to the wings every assistance in continuing the progressive motion. The tail also is of great use, in regulating the rise and fall of birds, even their lateral movements. (Fleming)

In other words, despite the appearance of balance as a graceful moment in space and time, balance is in fact achieved by the various forces of resistance.

Upended in the studio its roots to the sky—the gnarly old tree exudes gravitas and grace. With the Daruma doll in mind, Currie has transformed the tree into a symbol of luck and perseverance, its rounded form and weighted bottom assures that, like a Japanese Daruma doll, it will always return to an upright position if knocked over.

So though a thing may be poised on a moment of balance, it is not to say that that particular location is the centre of its power. The beak of the bird does not, in reality, act alone at all as a centre of balance (the bird poised on its beak in her studio). What one has in this toy is a frozen moment, a moment before action or post action, poised. ‘The centre cannot hold’: WB Yeats wrote this line in ‘The Second Coming’ long before physicists noticed the same thing when they split the atom and experienced both terror and excitement at what they had done. The point at which things could fall apart, and transform is simultaneously the ‘sweet spot’, the best view, the one with the most give and, paradoxically, the least room to move. The equivalent of the visual ‘sweet spot’ in spatial terms is an ‘inflection’, the point that represents a ‘totality of possibilities, as well as an openness, a receptiveness, or an anticipation’—the moment of equilibrium peculiar to any object is used by Currie as a way to approach her questions of resistance and gravity.4

I am … also thinking about resistance not in a leftist sense really but as a personal philosophy and as a physical thing, for instance, electrical currents and resistance training (weights). How everything has resistance—stubbornness of will or of matter. (Artist notes) 

The more usual asynchronous balance found by natural things is a condition often sought and exploited in Currie’s pieces, and was the primary play of force in Natural Units (GrantPirrie window, 2010). She writes, ‘Natural Units is a physics term for units of measurement “native” to what they are measuring, for instance, freezing water = 0 degrees. They are also a way to compare disparate things.' (Artist notes)

In this work, disparate materials where brought into relationship with each other and made to act as true to form as possible. A small branch (or stick as deterritorialised branch) balanced on the pointed tip of a small brass cone placed on a narrow shelf. Made of galvanised metal the shelf was more truthfully a shelf bracket pushed into service as the thing it was intended to support. The asymmetry of the balanced organic form was contrasted with the symmetrical formality of the brass cone in relation to the perpendicular ‘shelf’. The deliberate attention to detail of the work enticed one to look closer and to touch the surfaces of these things—impossible due to the window box. The material condition of the juxtaposed materials remained as is: cracks in the branch/stick were sometimes filled with putty; a cut end may have been smoothed and subtly polished with oil. In one of the three works a black string bag holding avocados was bolted onto a slim branch, itself held in place by a door hinge. Installed in the airless vacuum of the window box the question of the stability of the arrangements could not be tested—how would the balance be effected by the movement of bodies and air—just how tenacious could this alliance of forces balancing disparate materials be in a gallery space, or a larger public space? They look trapped.

Weight!

There is a video work I showed at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia [A list of heavy things, 2009] for ‘Road Movies’ where I walk down a street carrying many root vegetables in string bags. Sweet potato, ginger, potato, carrots, swedes, beetroot, etcetera, 25 kilos. (Artist notes)

The relationship between the yield of the earth and sky toward the production of plant matter that feeds life is made apparent again and again. The burden and challenge of carrying the weight of that yield is distributed across human endeavours—including the making and distribution of art, food and string bags.

Norbert Wiener, inventor of cybernetics, developed feedback mechanisms that lent to the relationship between humans and machines a certain kind of sentience—most particularly between weapons and the operator. He was also aware that these relationships, whilst exploiting intuitive responses in the human body, were also inherently a simplification and reduction of the relationships between human and thing.

We are so used to feedback phenomena in our daily life that we often forget the feedback nature of the simplest processes. When we stand erect, it is not in the manner in which a statue stands erect… Human beings stand erect, however, because they are continually resisting the tendency to fall down, either forward or backward and manage to offset either tendency by a contraction of muscles pulling them in the opposite direction. The equilibrium of the human body, like most equilibria which we find in life processes, is not static but results from a continuous interplay of processes which resist in an active way any tendency for them to lead to a breakdown. Our standing and our walking are thus a continual jujitsu against gravity, as life is a perpetual wrestling match with death.5

Pageantry was the focus of Currie’s Masters degree, a focus she now thinks of as a diversion as she returns to earlier materials and concerns, including ‘why and how people build up relationships with things—relationships that are often quite profound’. (Artist notes) I have in my possession an early work of Currie’s. It is a small burnt orange hand towel, a bit grubby, certainly once-loved, at least by the artist, who has very subtly carved the trace of a pattern of unconnected meandering lines into the surface. These are so barely there you would miss them unless you knew, or were to contemplate for long enough to work out why the artist has designated this unremarkable object as art. Just visible above the dri-glo tag is the artist’s family name felt-tip-penned in uppercase. The three characters following the name suggest a class number. Perhaps then, this is a towel replete with memories from high school PE change rooms. The very personalised bodily remainders of the user’s cellular structure are embedded here in the absorption qualities of the looped and woven threads that make the material an object of use and now, also of contemplation—the viewer’s embodied reaction.

Currie’s work is a considered poetry of things and their inter-relationships with all sentient life—the place where the edges between sentience and inertness become blurred and active. Force, grace and resistance are brought to bear alongside what appear to be quite formal aesthetic references. Her influences are broad, ranging from Barbara Hepworth’s Two Forms (1936) and Discs in Echelon (1935) for Heavy shit: knock, knock, to artists working now, some operating in small galleries like Maccarone in New York.6 For Currie the focus on a practice with its roots in the Italian Arte Povera is also a ‘spiritual home’. Her careful consideration of all facets of the potentiality of her chosen things is somewhat unique, though the actual materiality and attention to ‘as is’—akin to the Japanese wabi-sabi—rather than perfection of form brings to mind Eva Hesse, and more locally Louise Haselton.

Early in 2010, in a departure from exhibited gallery objects, Currie collaborated with her sister Alison, a dancer, in Three ways to hold, a strangely touching and distancing series of performances. The costumes were unlikeable, or rather perhaps it is that they resist ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. Both loose and form-fit with padded lapels, knee and elbow cuffs and puffy top-of-arm bits, Bridget in musk pink, Alison in mint green, custom made by Gemma Stocks—the figures stood apart together. For me they had a telly-tubby feel—but that is too dismissive, and not enough. Those costumes are nothing if not something apart, and there they were together. Painter’s drop sheets and a few angular styrofoam forms were the other key figures in the sisters’ action/performances. They were made active rather than prop-like by the clear focus on the work-like movement of the bodies. Amongst all the activity happening between them—the silent work of folding, pushing, placing, holding, carrying, shoving, supporting, laying—there was a familiarity that could only be born of shared DNA (skin, hair, teeth, build) and experience (each was able to pre-empt the move of the other between the push and pull of sameness and difference). The claiming of territory, theirs amongst the crowd, became apparent in the first of the events—something they had not envisaged but an area Bridget had visited in Skivias (2003), an installation at the Experimental Art Foundation. Skivias used the ubiquitous string of triangular flags that function variously as pennant, marker of territories, warning, and signal: of a sale, for instance, or a burst water main. String up some flags anywhere and watch as people are simultaneously drawn to and repelled from the area, and corralled by the warning.

Studio shot, Bridget Currie and toy bird, 2010. Photography Teri Hoskin.

Heavy shit: knock knock, 2009. CACSA Special Projects, Contemporary Art Centre South Australia. Photography Sam Roberts. Courtesy the artist.

Heavy shit: knock knock, 2009. CACSA Special Projects, Contemporary Art Centre South Australia. Photography Sam Roberts. Courtesy the artist.

Regulators, 2009. Olive tree, plywood, fragrance. Experimental Art Foundation. Photography Sam Roberts. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Arata Isozaki, and Akira Asada, ‘A Concise Genealogy of the Thing’, Anything, ed. Cynthia Davidson, The MIT Press, New York, 2001. p.152.

2. Heavy shit: knock knock (2009) is a commission for the grounds of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, CACSA Special Projects, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide.

3. Jim Drobnick, ‘Toposmia, art, scent, and interrogations of spatiality’, Angelaki, v.7, no.1, 2002, p.33.

4. Bernard Cache, Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories, translation Anne Boyman, ed. Michael Speaks, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995, p.12.

5. Norbert Wiener, I am a Mathematician, MIT Press, 1956, pp.268–269, reference sent by the artist.

6. See the group exhibition ‘Wood’ 2009 at www.maccarone.net/

A web video interview with the artist about Regulators was made by filmmaker Jess Wallace. It can be seen at http://aeaf.org.au/archive/aeafdocuments.html

The author thanks Bridget Currie for conversations in email and in person. 

Bridget Currie is an Adelaide-based artist. She is the recipient of a 2011 Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship.

Teri Hoskin is a writer and artist based in Adelaide. At the time of writing she was curator and designer at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation.