I was invited to speak at an event at M16 Artspace in Griffith last weekend, where I’m currently doing a residency. It was called ‘a thousand words’, and involved me embarrassing myself in front of an audience and in the company of three other arts writers- David Broker, Ann McMahon and Helen Musa. When Julie Bradley invited me to be part of it, she told me I could write ‘anything really, as long as there’s some connection to art’. Well I can’t seem to write anything that isn’t connected to art, so that suited me fine. I wanted to read a piece I started writing a couple of months ago, about the sculpture Contingent by Eva Hesse, which is deteriorating splendidly in the international section of the National Gallery.
I’m not sure about this one, still. I really like it, but I know not everyone will. When I finished reading it, Helen Musa looked a more than a little bit surprised, and she said that it was a very ‘exposing’ piece. Was it? In some ways it’s the most art-theoretical thing I’ve done in a while, because writing it allowed me to better understand the language of Eva Hesse’s minimalism, the notions of seriality and irrationality that collude in her sculpture. I guess it’s also about me. But writing about art is always writing about what you see, and hear and feel, isn’t it, how you respond to the thing in front of you? Otherwise what’s the point? Anyway- here it is.
There is a coolness inside the National Gallery that is more than a product of the air-conditioning. It is cool in there like the inside of a stone is cool, a deep coolness, but never quite cold. It is something like the coolness of systems undisrupted and observed, a perfect coolness that sniffs at temperature. I always have the sense in there of my body confronting the architecture, and this isn’t lessened by the cavernousness of most of the central building, the gaping honeycomb holes in the ceiling which is too high, the heavy old-fashioned glass turnstiles. As I walk down the corridor, the sound of each footstep taps not only against rock but also against temperature and what feels like time; perhaps it is this that makes the echo of each step just barely audible, swallowed up by reinforced concrete and those thin, lying tiles. The word ‘Brutalism’, though, comes thundering into my eardrums, and all of the force of the ‘b’ and the ‘r’ rumble together inside my bones and land right inside my shoes, creeping in underneath and between my toes.
I turn the corner, hoping to see it still on display. A group of primary school students wander past me, black folding chairs clattering, and above their soft-haired heads I see the sculpture hanging there, eight consecutive sheets of different lengths hanging perpendicular to the wall, lined up like the dynastic lineage to some ancient but insubstantial throne. Fibreglass glistens in sticky waves at the top and the bottom of each panel, and I taste as I always do when I look at this work, something like an old lint-covered Werther’s Original that might have been hanging around the back seat of my car, and beeswax and hairspray.
In the middle section of each hanging panel, binding the two fibreglass parts, there is a rough-hewn cross-hatching of cheesecloth, darkened now and browning with age. The cloth extends like pantyhose being pulled, but there is no sense that it will be able to spring back: it is hardened and made brittle by a latex coating. It is tempting to read the weave of the fabric as a grid, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. There are too many thick threads wavering and warped, so that every square either collapses or is stretched, like muscle fibres or wet hair. I cannot see this as geometry, but I can feel in it some sense of my own geometry, something about left and right, back and front, succession, the hinging of bones and as I look I feel the sculpture ordering my own body. I splay my fingers out against the sides of my chest, pressing them into the spaces between my ribs. I like the way each bone curves inside another, the regularity of their repetition even as the bones get smaller and taper down near my waist. Then the way the whole cage expands as I breathe. I walk the length of the sculpture, I feel its own breathing and bending as it responds to my movements, the way my body disrupts the institutional ice-breath of this building. A curator once told me that this work has been ruined. It hasn’t been stored properly, she said, and soon age will swallow the latex and the fibreglass will disintegrate. Like everything, it is dying.
Like most people, the most powerful memories of my childhood are those which involve being made to do things which troubled the agency of my body. I think of choking school ties and shirts pinning back shoulders, of the itchy acrylic jumpers I never wanted to wear, of gradually learning that most of the world places inordinate importance on ironing. I once babysat for a toddler who loved nothing more than to throw off all of her clothes and run around in public, smiling this sunny, unaffected smile, and I really understood where she was coming from, but also I was old enough then to need the structure of clothes, the skin of something between me and the world.
Growing up as a young asthmatic, nothing was more important to bring into order than my own breathing. I remember being taken to classes in the Buteyko method on Saturday mornings, which was a treatment for asthma. I don’t think we ever went more than a few times, but the memory of it still has a sort of interminable ritual quality. Along with a herd of other wheezing children, I remember sitting in a sunny room with my dad, or, sometimes, my mum. The lady running the course was shaped like an octopus and wore billowing black clothes, and there was always air trapped in them. One by one, we were instructed to walk up and down the length of the room, holding our breath. A wide cloth tape was applied to our mouths to keep us from using them to breathe. The idea was to encourage us, if we had to, to instead to use our noses, equipped as they are with hair to trap dust and clean the air that would flow into our lungs. As we walked our parents would count the laps, and everyone had a different way of counting. One mother would call out her son’s laps in cruel scores of ten, but my dad counted on his fingers, getting muddled when we got up to double digits. My pace quickened as I walked up and back, up and back, keeping one eye on his hands and waiting for the moment I could sit back down on my wooden folding chair and rip the tape away, filling up my lungs with my mouth wide open and my molars exposed- real, uneven breath, lungs heaving. I know that there is some truth to the anatomical efficiency of breathing through your nostrils, but there is also a synergy between the mouth and the lungs that feels so wrong to have removed. Gulping in air to me still feels the same as screaming, something like that.
I look at the sculpture again and I see the fronds of lungs opening out like ferns, stretching away from the wall. These panels are surfaces, so it is not really a sculpture at all, but they are also objects, so it is not a painting either. At the first exhibition of this work, Eva Hesse wrote:
I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
From a total other reference point, is it possible?
I want to know if it’s possible to find this other reference point. I can’t take the whole work in at once, and I’m forced to walk again along its length, making laps just beside the invisible line of the bleeping laser beam protecting it from me. But the sculpture isn’t solid, it travels away from me, the wind of my movements invading its sails. The wholeness of each panel evades my eyes, my body. For a moment I think that there is something I can hear in it, as though the work breathes like some sleeping animal, but then I realise this breath is not its own but mine. I have the sensation of being inside out, of seeing in reverse, of hearing in reverse. I don’t really know what I mean by that, but I can feel it, this inversion of perspective, this other reference point that is not about being fixed, but about the liquid feeling of construction, and hanging, and being put together, of parts missing. I remember that this work is called Contingent. I am suddenly aware of my heart beating out a pattern like the regular spacing of the panels, of my breath quietly whistling inside my chest. I understand myself as a collection of parts, of contingencies.
Contingent was the last work that Eva Hesse made. She began it in November of 1968, and then she collapsed in April 1969. A tumour had been growing inside her brain, fed by the toxic fumes of fibreglass. She continued working on the sculpture until she collapsed again in October, after which her students worked to help her finish the piece. The boys, she said, rubberized the pieces of cheesecloth that the girls had sewn together, and in December it was exhibited. She was happy with the work, but still she questioned it. Her practice was always, as Elizabeth Frank writes, ‘a self-imposed apprenticeship in lostness and groping’. But it was also a refusal to find answers, to believe in the wholeness of systems, in the definitiveness of agency. She wrote, ‘can it be different each time? why not?…
it’s not the new, it is what is yet not known,
thought, seen, touched but really what is not.
and that is’. She died in May the following year.
I walk the length of these eight panels again, and I feel contingency flood my body like water, which is something like 70% of what I am, and I want to open my mouth wide and take a gulp of clean, cleansing air, to begin again. That’s what I feel in these panels- the endlessness of beginning, endless breathing, ragged and desperate. Endless breathing.