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Absence / Minimal Presence

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Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (Triangle with Broken Leg) 1988, acrylic yarn. Courtesy of the Fred Sandback Estate, Jensen Gallery, Sydney and Fox/Jensen, Auckland. In the exhibition Inhabiting Space. Photo: Shaun Waugh. Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (Triangle with Broken Leg) 1988, acrylic yarn. Courtesy of the Fred Sandback Estate, Jensen Gallery, Sydney and Fox/Jensen, Auckland. In the exhibition Inhabiting Space. Photo: Shaun Waugh. Installation view of Julian Dashper, Untitled (Black: for Fred Sandback, 2001–08) 2016, Editions #2/10, black coloured pencil on wall, and Untitled (Blue: for Fred Sandback, 2001–08) 2016, Editions #2/10, blue coloured pencil on wall. Photo: Shaun Waugh Video still, Sriwhana Spong, The Fourth Notebook, 2015, HD video, 8 mins, 36 secs. Courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland. Dancer: Benjamin Ord. Commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo: Shaun Waugh Installation view of Juliet Carpenter & Evangeline Riddiford Graham, Luma Turf, 2013, HD video, 7 mins, 27 secs, courtesy of the artists. Photo: Shaun Waugh Video still, Juliet Carpenter & Evangeline Riddiford Graham, Luma Turf, 2013, HD video, 7 mins, 27 secs, courtesy of the artists. Photo: Shaun Waugh Video still, Juliet Carpenter, Summer of Supine, 2015, single channel video projection, coloured lighting, courtesy of the artist. Photo: Shaun Waugh Installation view, Mike Parr, Facts about the Room, 1970/2016, vinyl lettering on wall, collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Photo: Shaun Waugh Video still, Campbell Patterson, Untitled (Sing), 2014, two-channel HD video, 59 mins, 58 secs, courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland. Photo: Shaun Waugh

The components in this exhibition also connect to a sense of absence: the cutting short of Sandback's life; the articulated grief surfacing through Dashper's contribution; the disappearance of Dashper himself; the erasure of mental health of or effective communication from Nijinsky; the indefinable sense of evanescence in a consumer-driven, individualistic society in Carpenter's works; and the vanishing of breath in Patterson's video.

Wellington

 

Juliet Carpenter/ Evangeline Riddiford Graham, Julian Dashper, Mike Parr, Campbell Patterson, Fred Sandback, Sriwhana Spong
Inhabiting Space
Curated by Stephen Cleland


14 May - 17 July 2016

When walking into Inhabiting Space, you are presented with the blank black rubber floor edged by stark white, seemingly empty walls. The immediate question - Where is the art?

The Adam at first appears empty - but it’s actually just sparsely hung. The minimalist element of this exhibition is unavoidably the first thing you encounter, the void of the gallery itself. The longer you spend in it though, other themes appear, like the presence and placement of objects, how you respond to the works, and your own presence, ‘Inhabiting [the] Space’.

In the upper foyer, a series of Julian Dashper works are installed - there’s no fear vaccui here, and it is only after a close scrutiny of the space that the work reveals itself. The works consist of 18 fine, horizontal coloured pencil lines above eye level, segmented into one metre lengths of alternating blue and black, broken by a gap above the exit sign. Dashper’s work is disarmingly simple; physically that’s all it is. But the spindly fragility of it bears down on you while enhancing your experience of the space.

These works, Untitled (Black: for Fred Sandback), 2001-08 Edition #2/10, and Untitled (Blue: for Fred Sandback), 2001-8 Edition #2/10, are intended by Dashper as a reverential gift to Fred Sandback. Dashper first met the American artist in 2001, and titles this conceptual drawing from the moment of their meeting. Sandback’s post-minimalist art career influenced Dashper’s notions of the boundaries and extremities of what is considered art, and this homage to Sandback delineates Dashper’s own explorations of the smallest spatial alterations and the effect it can have on one’s perceptions.

Fred Sandback’s Untitled (Triangle with Broken Leg) is the key work of the exhibition and spreads over the three floors of the Adam: four lengths of acrylic wool, taut in the outline of a scalene triangle. Looking from the Upper Chartwell balcony the white lines disappear into the wall behind, while the coloured line - though broken into light green and brown - stands out. When viewed from below, at different times of the day, the light clearly articulates each linear thread, leaving stems of shadows zigzagging from the end corners. The apex of the work touches the ceiling, 12.5 metres high, and the two corners, as well as one side, rest on the floor of the Lower Chartwell.

The work responds directly to the space it occupies - the formula for the proportions of the work remaining the same - yet the size of the piece relies on where it is installed. Inhabiting the 12.5 metres height of the gallery, this is the largest Sandback to be installed in the Southern Hemisphere. And although it only exists physically as a linear perimeter, it implies an imagined flat plane within the woollen lengths, creating an inner, unseen and virtual triangle.

Fred Sandback took his own life in 2003, and Julian Dashper passed away in 2009 after suffering from cancer, so Cleland installed their projects after discussions with the respective estates. As both artists’ works are conceptual, prior to exhibiting the works existed in latent, absent forms, having potentiality and occupying mental rather than physical space. Dashper’s contribution was installed in accordance with his arrangements that the work be executed in coloured pencil - emphasising the archival nature of graphite as a medium (if installed in the correct conditions, the work could exist indefinitely). The two metre gap between the two lines above the Exit sign references the presence of the earlier first works in the two series, currently installed above the Exit sign at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga. This absence refers to its presence elsewhere, but also symbolically resonates with the closing, or the ‘Exit’ of Sandback’s life.

These minimalist works seem intent on occupying as little space as possible, yet they alter our whole gallery experience - what we expect to see, what we are looking for, and how we position ourselves within the space. If we can spot these narrow alterations in the gallery, what other details, incongruences, or idiosyncrasies can we spot? What else is there to be discovered in the architecture? Prompting an eye-spy approach to the Adam, the Ian Athfield aesthetic becomes clearer as one moves through the space and areas open up; the emphasis on the open windows of the gallery, the intersections of shadows from natural and artificial light, the see-through metal grilles which barely dissect the floors, the open cavern of the stairwell. The linear works by Dashper and Sandback together activate the surrounding gallery space and your attention.

Mike Parr’s self-reflexive text work, Facts about the Room, is installed as individual stickers of letters on the wall of the Adam itself- the architecture is both the surface inscribed upon, and seen through the letters. 100 sentences concerned with the space of a room are listed here, and although initially charting Parr’s specific experience about a particular room, many of the lines are easily translated into a consideration of the space of the Adam. Most can be roughly grouped into three different types of observations: sentences on the physicality of the room or windows itself, ‘The interior of the room is dark’; sentences on the intersectionality of room and Parr’s bodily experience of it, ‘Only this morning I saw sun shining through the windows’, and more conceptual musings about the functionality of the room itself, ‘It is no good saying that the windows are a state of mind’. The framing architectural pillars act as mediating aperatures, linking the space with reading through windows, and as the font size becomes smaller with each instalment, the viewer is forced into an artificial perspective. The horizontal lines cut across the walls and create an almost virtual plan of a room, even though the floor falls away on the mezzanine level.

On the ground floor two T.V. screens show Campbell Patterson’s work Untitled (Sing). Playing in a one hour loop on each monitor for the most part the screens remain black, only broken by shots a few seconds long of Patterson’s face, close up, as it is pressed against the floor. Patterson exhales a single breath in each cut, forcing air through his diaphragm into a sound. In some instances, it is an anti-climactic squeak, in most, it is a deep groan. The different pitches and tones create different moods - sometimes soft and playful (who really takes the time to film themselves breathing?) - but sometimes the exhalations come out as more sombre deep groans or wails. Patterson situates himself physically on the ground, using the floor to amplify the sound. Set at a higher volume than the other video works, his exhalations resound through the gallery, carrying noise through the gaps of grills and balconies. This groan reminds us of our own, living, present, presence. At times, the slow and irregular exhalations sound like death groans, and we are left waiting to hear his next breath.

Entering through to the Kirk gallery seems an otherworldly or funereal ritual that we are involved in, as our passage is marked by dense black curtains which block out the natural light. The brief corridor to Juliet Carpenter’s works is fluorescently lit in blue tones, similar to the blue-toned lights of the tanning bed which the actress in Summer of Supine occupies. This video work plays projected on a large screen, alternating with Luma Turf, a collaboration with Evangaline Riddiford Graham. In Summer of Supine the actress Greta Gregory lies on a plane of light from the sunbed, often on her stomach like Paterson’s work - but while he is diminished in size and at ankle height, here, blown-up, this sunbed effigy easily outsizes any viewers.

Moving through a variety of poses, the woman seems to be practicing sentences, and her prose takes on quotations by different writers; yet although the words display heightened emotion, her expression and voice remain placid and unaffected. She is described by Cleland as ‘elegiac’ in the exhibition catalogue due to the ‘coffin-like enclosure’ of the sunbed. Adjusting her close fitting clothes, her movements are sped up post-production, distorting our sense of time. The film also layers distancing devices of post-internet screens, windows and a computer generated daisy. The woman is intended to encompass the concept of the ‘Young Girl’ as outlined in Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl, by Tiqqun. This young girl is vulnerable to the influence of society, conditioned to lead a highly superficial life, detached from her own experience of emotions yet constantly involved in a performance of self.

The Young Girl seems to be rehearsing a script, readying herself for a situation where she will act out her emotions, while also reflecting on a highly artificial world devoid of contact with nature: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the earth became covered in ice and the street lights would only stay to say, “Isn’t it nice to stay inside all day?”’. The space she occupies seems cut off from our reality, and the blue glow transforms her, celestial or heavenly, while also rendering her stretched out body cadaverous.

Opposite this is Luma Turf on another screen, a series of panning shots of the interior of ECC lighting company in Auckland. Chairs and objects are lit by chandeliers, pendant lights, and spotlights, all surfaces glittering and new. The script for this work was written by Riddiford Graham, and although written for a female character, the voice actor is male, and embellishes and relishes the play on gender. The audio track, repeating the script four times with different vocal stresses plays over this background - imbuing the highly artificial environment with emotional weight.

Luma Turf marks a divergence from all the other works in Inhabiting Space, as it visually represents the world we live in. Every other work is either an abstract installation or a text-based work, and the other filmworks either omit backgrounds altogether, or limit them to immediate surfaces (sunbed, walls, floor, set curtains). Nature or outdoors features only in the form of computer generated daisies, or features second-hand in what we read (Parr) or hear (the Young Girl) - represented but never revealed. Nature is restricted to the body alone. Here it is the only segment of our ‘real world’ that is shown, while rejecting inhabitation or usage. Instead it is an over decorated and decadent showroom, onto which customers’ desires, and the narrator’s thoughts are projected. The body here makes a limited visual appearance in the light-speckled silhouette of the Young Girl, but the narration exists around her body, and the erotic possibilities it poses to her listener: ‘I was indelible … inaudible … inedible … and everything else. Wouldn’t you like to take me apart? Wouldn’t you like to turn me around?’

Upstairs, the windowed front section of the gallery has been completely blacked out to host the video work of Sriwhana Spong. Spong herself has a preoccupation with dance and choreography since doing dance as a child, and her video work is layered to an audio track of the ballet dancer Nijinsky’s writings. In the 1920s, Nijinsky was the most famous dancer and choreographer in the world. However, he was experiencing what appears to have been chronic schizophrenia, and he slipped into obscurity, using his notebooks and letters to document his experience. These written records, deemed almost untranslatable in terms of written meaning, operate more on a metaphorical or imagined level.

The French translator of these notebooks posited the idea that the words may be concerned with rhyme and rhythm, perhaps an attempt at translating his experience of movement and dance into words, existing in the space between bodily expression and language. Spong worked with the French translation as a poetic text, working with dancer Benjamin Ord. The jolting, repetitive, and relayed junctures of movement and camera work create an abrupt overall impression similar to a music video. Here, the body of the dancer is caught in continuous movements which repeat with each word, but the movements are rarely fully completed. Each phrase or word slowly forms a pattern aligned with a single balletic movement or gesture and camera work - “Je suis” is a movement caught by an angled, close up shot, while “homme” is a wider shot, situating the body as a whole, kneeling and isolated.

The movements are cut, and seem in frustrated repetition to betray a sense of dislocation and dislodgement between self and meaning. Yet while doing so, the video work reveals something essentially lovely, intimate, and contemplative in the self-caressing gestures of the arms, which regularly encircle and embrace the head and face. Likewise, the evenly stressed French words are mellifluous, and relish in a buttery assonance, despite Nijinsky’s potential distress: ‘hommes, hommes, hommes/ Je suis homme est un homme’. Perhaps the disjointedness between word, meaning, and movement intend to rearticulate some of Nijinsky’s experience as a dancer, undergoing mental illness, where his perceived experience was tangential to the effect of reality at times. The gestures, caught up in words divorced of meaning, seem to showcase the limited capacity of language to capture any experience or emotion. 

Altogether, the components in this exhibition emphasise presence, of the works, of the individuals within them, and of us interacting with the various items. However, they also connect with a sense of absence, and of loss which exists alongside this presence: the cutting short of Sandback’s life; the articulated grief surfacing through Dashper’s contribution; the disappearance of Dashper himself; the erasure of mental health of or effective communication from Nijinsky; the indefinable sense of evanescence in a consumer-driven, individualistic society in Carpenter’s works; and the vanishing of breath in Patterson’s video. However, the show wasn’t sweepingly nihilistic, and the works by Parr, Sandback and Dashper were well-matched with a generation of younger artists. Altogether, the atmosphere allowed for a closely engaged, contemplative and introspective interaction.

Eleanor Lee-Duncan

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