About endings and Electric Shadows

Everyone who cares knows by now that Electric Shadows Bookshop is closing down. The bookshop’s history is familiar to most people in Canberra. It used to be attached to the old Electric Shadows cinema, which used to be located kind of near Casino Canberra in a spot that has a proper name that I can’t remember right now, but then when the cinema closed down, the bookshop moved to Braddon. Now, Braddon is cool and expensive and while Lonsdale St is the site of many languorous Saturday morning coffee sessions, Mort St is for the most part reserved for utility visits, like parking illegally in Officeworks.

Since the closure was announced, people have been calling Electric Shadows a Canberra institution, and they are right to do so. Electric Shadows was Canberra’s only arts specialist bookshop and everything they sold and rented was there because Anne and Kat thought it was interesting, sometimes excellent, or at the very least worth a section of brain space. To my knowledge, they never stocked Fifty Shades of Grey. There was an integrity to the place, and it’s still there. I went in the other day, and even though the shelves are almost clear, and Anne’s rental collection has been all but obliterated, I browsed till they closed because there was still good shit to look at.

I worked at Electric Shadows throughout my undergrad degree, and sometimes people still remember me from the bookshop. I used to work Friday evening, then turn up again on Saturday morning, hungover and ready to hawk world cinema. It was the best job I ever had. When I left for the public service, momentarily seduced by lanyards and salaries, I missed it enormously. I missed it because even though it was just a shop it felt really good in there, like there were lots of possibilities in life. It was a constant reminder of how many stories there are in the world, how many disciplines and genres, how many ways there are to think. And everything was very accessible. You could just browse for hours.

In the end, I suppose, browsing, and not buying, is what killed it. Of this, I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I spent more at the Lifeline bookfair than I did all last year at ESB. One memorable purchase though, was a collection of films by Larisa Shepitko, of which I noticed another copy remains, now discounted in the closing-down sale, ready for some other browser to finally drop some cash on, probably along with a fistful of ex-rentals. Is this as close to looting as Canberra gets?

I understand why the shop is closing. I understand if the owners are just a bit annoyed by the sudden dismay of the browsing public. I understand that it’s ending. I feel guilty as well as sad, because what I liked about browsing was the bit where you don’t buy the book at all, but you just get to think about something new, then move on. I liked the indecisiveness of it. Anne used to tell me I was indecisive because I was a Libra. Maybe it’s the internet, or re-development, or maybe we’ve just got a high population of September/October babies in this city.

One thing that working in a bookshop made me realise is that nothing is monumental. Everything has a cost price, a new design, an old design, editions, pages, a delivery schedule. There are people who genuinely like David Foster Wallace and people who don’t care. Then there are people (like me) who like him only because he’s on the remainder table. Sometimes the sound doesn’t work on a Fellini film. Sometimes documentaries that no one will watch are actually very funny or make you cry, sometimes films cost millions to produce and there are still continuity errors or typos on the poster. But in the end, it’s just so pointless to quibble. So many good things go unacknowledged, so many terrible things make money. Anne and Kat, who own the bookshop, I think, probably got this sense too.

We always notice things are good when they’re over. Like a sunny day just before winter, I wish good things went on for longer, and I wish I had more time to appreciate them. But in life you never get that perfect foreknowledge, even though it should be obvious, and that’s why I think I don’t read a lot of fiction anymore. It’s the structure. Susan Sontag wrote this about Elizabeth Hardwick’s groundbreaking novel Sleepless Nights: ‘It has no shape as the weather has no shape. Like the weather, it arrives and departs, rather than, in the usual way, begins and ends’. I hope that the closure of the bookshop is just a departure, and that there is some other incarnation for it on the horizon. I mean bookshop in the general sense, as well as Electric Shadows in particular. Some kind of new structure, but not. I don’t have any concrete suggestions. Without a doubt the answer is in a book somewhere.

A thousand words

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.


When we were little, my sister and I used to swap names. Well, I always wanted to swap names, but she wasn’t into it. I just thought ‘Jane’ was such a cool name, much better than ‘Claire’ which is boring, and I would later learn, care of John Hughes, is ‘a fat girl’s name’. Mine has all these stupid girly letters from the first half of the alphabet, whereas ‘Jane’ feels very much south of the ‘L’, the wrong side of the tracks. Actually now that I’m looking at it I realise that’s not the case at all. I still think ‘Claire’ is so dull, sometimes I even forget it altogether. Which is weird because ‘Jane’ is meant to be the ultimate all-purpose moniker: Jane Doe, plain Jane. Maybe it’s just The Breakfast Club, but I think they’re both pretty classic ’80s American-type names, all big lace collars, shoulder pads and doing your homework. But to me ‘Jane’ is more grungy and angry. I think it’s the ‘n’.

It’s Jane’s birthday today. She’s 22 and she mostly looks it. She’s little, still, and sometimes she looks like she’s about five, especially when she’s sleeping or when she’s trying to cook something and looking at vegetables with her brow furrowed wondering what you have to ‘do to them’. But she’s also almost taller than me (she usually looks a lot taller because she wears huge shoes in an effort to lie to the world), and she is so beautiful that when she walks past flowers turn to look at her and then they just shrivel up and die because they can’t compete. She has a similar effect on most humans. But most people don’t know how intelligent she is, that she used to read Voltaire and really depressing 19th century novels with her big eyes widened and her miniature hands turning the pages.

We went to see Courtney Love on the weekend, and despite all predictions to the contrary, she was pretty amazing, and she definitely lived up to the tattered, torn poster of her on Jane’s bedroom wall. Sure, her eyes looked a little bit like they were going in different directions, as though her face was a barely-set, heroin-infused pannacotta, but she still had that gravelly, grouchy, growling voice as she sang Malibu and Celebrity Skin and asked ‘is anyone here is a fuckin chiropractor? I need my neck cracked. No? Fuck you, assholes’. What a highlight. She also did my favourite song ever, ‘Rock Star’, which goes ‘I went to school/ in Olympia/ and everyone’s the same/ we look the same/ we talk the same/ we even fuck the same’. That song really got me through year 12 at an all girls school.

Jane and I often get accused of being twins. I say accused, because it kind of offends me, and not just because I’m three years older than her. It’s because we’re not the same, like girls at Olympia. Not that genuine twins are exactly the same either, but I just mean we’re not just superficially linked. I remember when Jane was born, but not the first time I saw her, because I can’t remember what it felt like not to have a sister. It feels like I’ve always known her face. I can picture it when she was a baby, when she was in kindergarten and used to do this annoying closed-mouth psychopath smile, when she started doing these big wide grins that broke her perfect bone structure up, when she chipped her front teeth on the side of a trampoline, when she realized she could fit her tiny fist all the way inside her big letterbox mouth. I do see her a lot, but it feels like a deeper imprint just behind my eyes, underneath my skin. It’s like being asthmatic or dyslexic, it’s just the way my body operates, it knows somehow that I have a double who is nevertheless completely different to me. I don’t know everything about her at all, and I don’t want to. I don’t want us to be clones. Usually I have no idea what she’s thinking, but I really want to keep finding out.

40,000 years and 26 minutes

It’s taken me about 26 minutes of messing about on the computer, sending emails that don’t really need to be sent, scrolling backward through my own facebook timeline to my last birthday (why? I don’t know), to finally click the ‘new post’ button on the wordpress banner, and now to begin typing a long and quite boring sentence in which each letter flickers into existence in some irritating serif blog font.

I think this is what’s called ‘a waste of time’.

I feel a sensitivity to time that is intense and I’m sure not unusual. I’m actually terrified of wasting it, and yet I feel its fundamental elasticity. I genuinely feel I can control it sometimes, and I can. If I walk somewhere, it slows, but I can travel the same distance in a fraction of the time if I drive. Like now, I’m actually sitting on a bus, inserting this sentence here a good two hours after I first typed this post up, and no-one’s any the wiser that it really represents a giant, gaping slash in the paragraph, or a dense mining of one moment around which the others cluster, in a text which appears otherwise metered and measured, progressing. I’m not sure this is earth-shattering information. It seems obvious.

Still, I’m perplexed by the arbitrariness of this completely external system of measurement that seems so inescapable, that seems to affect me more than anything else, more than sleep or the weather. I have never been comfortable with numbers, but I guess numbers are just a symbol that stands for regularity, pattern, repetition. But time isn’t regular, or linear, it’s clumped and sticky, like a raft of birthday messages from a year ago written in by an expensive social media code that appears as I pull my fingertips down a mouse pad. Even the tiny half-sized dates are grey, as though that doesn’t really matter. What matters, I guess, is that it was my birthday, and I got a little bit older, by some incremental amount. Somehow these units of code connect to the wrinkles that my housemate told me this morning I don’t have, and the fact that this year I learned how to make salt and pepper tofu, that only trucks etc. are allowed to park in loading zones, that the British Museum still holds the remains of Aboriginal people in its collection.

The reason I’m thinking about this is because I saw Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang last night. Based on the notebooks of the colonial timekeeper William Dawes, time is written everywhere in this production, and becomes its signature, and along with language, another way of coding and measuring and anchoring, its material. The dance is named for the young Eora woman who taught Dawes her language, and introduced him to her culture. The story is about first contact, but it traces the exchange of two cultures, the looping connection of their bodies before and after the trauma of frontier conflict. Dawes’ notebooks are a uniquely intimate record of language, and his relationship with Patyegarang places female knowledge and agency at the centre of the story. Produced for Bangarra’s 25th year anniversary, Patyegarang is about the marks and marking of time.

I heard the artistic director Stephen Page speak before the show. He was asked a question about how he viewed the traditional and the contemporary, whether there was a difference in the way he approached his work. He looked at the questioner kind of blankly and then flatly refused to delineate some kind of marker between the modern and contemporary, a distinction historians in the Western tradition (including myself) have been obsessed with. ‘No’, he said, ‘I mean, our culture is 40,000 years old… so Bangarra is 40,000 years and 25 years old’. And then he said something like ‘most of the problems in this country can be put down to the perception of time’. The friend I was with was totally bemused by Page’s diagnosis, and I can see why. ‘The perception of time’ is not likely to rise to the top of the national agenda, at least, (and this perhaps speaks to the problem) not any time soon. There’s no ‘Time Perception United’ party, or if it exists, I imagine its members could be found constructing tin-foil hats and dressing as steampunks in a living room somewhere hot and flat and boring. And yet the perception of time is, clearly, hugely relevant. It is at the crux of the continuing dispossession of Aboriginal culture, and counts as dependents the myths of progress underlying the odious word ‘assimilation’. The inability of our politicians to concede the incongruousness of ‘founding’ dates like Australia Day when compared with the ancient time of our landscape, never mind its inexcusable offensiveness. And yet the myth of linearity belies the truth- that the crowded, bloodied slice of time since 1788 is not all there is. We are only now beginning to discover the history of Aboriginal science and technology, ways of ordering and understanding and managing our world that make us come unstuck from Euro-centric norms.

For me, time was the skeleton of Patyegarang, like a graph against which it charted its own movement and meaning. This was the second Bangarra performance I’ve seen, and again, even against the breathless, swimming solos, the sections that struck me the most were the ones where the company moved in unison. Because really, the dancers weren’t in unison at all. The time signature was not the ordering principle: it was evident only as though submerged within or swallowed by each dancer. Each moving body appeared wrapped as though swaddled in some internal sense-making, which somehow coincided with the group. In these sections, the phrasing did not appear metered and regular, but worked to induce some kind of deeper affinity, precisely because each dancer retained some sense of bodily integrity or autonomy. I felt the time pull and bend, but it was expressed and experienced and perceived, as it always is, somewhere in the individual body. It had a specificity as well as an expansiveness and self-awareness. Which is how I feel, typing this final sentence, three days after I saw Patyegarang, at 1.30 in the morning, when counting minutes makes less sense than the crystallising of time, and code, and language, and feeling, here .



I have a scar on my left thumb, a tiny white one like a trickle of milk, like a splinter under the skin. I got it, like most of the burns and marks on my hands which have faded now, when I used to work at a bakery as a teenager, pulling hot trays out of the oven for $14 an hour. Scars gradually obliterate the specifics of pain, covering skin cells burned and slashed in a waxy film, like white-out over the wrong word. It occurs to me now that scars are themselves words swallowed, held in solution. How many times are the words ‘ouch!’ and ‘ahhh!’ etched into my hands, how many ‘fuck!’s, how many gasps of air pulled in sharply through clenched teeth?


Like scars, Mariana del Castillo’s sculptures are interruptions in the fabric of the body. Her exhibition Scars of a Ritual Past at Canberra Contemporary Art Space at Gorman House displays a palpable sense of physical and psychic energy, but it appears everywhere as tension constricted, like a scream caught in the throat, or a fist clenched in readiness to punch. This sense hits so much inside the architecture of the body, just beyond the clarity of words that I’m finding it difficult to describe what I mean. But it’s this halting ambiguity between the conceptual and the visceral that is her material. She engages the senses only to deny them, to push them back into the flesh of the body.


On entering the space, I’m struck first by the noise of neon tubes buzzing incessantly, spelling out words but speaking a kind of generalised hum. In one sculpture, the word ‘unquiet’ rests on the iron frame of a bed, and beneath it an old sewing machine, polished black. The rhythmic zapping in and out of the neon word replaces the mechanics of the sewing machine, whose forbidden roar is nevertheless embedded in its image. Un-quiet. Not quiet. I’m reminded that silence exists only when the expectation of hearing is denied. In this work, the threat of noise is deafening.


Several of the sculptures are made from metal beds, their functionality changed and challenged with alterations to their scale and orientation. One, upended, becomes a large altarpiece adorned with white neon, which reads ‘the tongue has no bone’. Others are miniaturized, but still I imagine bodies pressed between the metal posts, fingers gripping with pain or pleasure, and skin then released with a sticky metallic twang.


She Waits


The human form is implied everywhere in this exhibition, but especially in the two spectral figures adorned with glowing red neon letters- ‘she waits’, and ‘she visits’. Long, bone-white arms of a mannequin hang either side of a tall wardrobe, giving the impression of someone inside, not so much trapped as transfigured. A stack of cut-out patterns for a tailored suit are nailed to the face of the wardrobe, the limits of the figure measured in thin brown paper. There is an association with the work of Doris Salcedo, in the anthropomorphism of skin and scars, the sense of bones buckling. Another work, an embroidered punching bag, hangs from the ceiling in one corner, embellished with a tapestry of flowers, red droplets of blood glistening at the edges of their petals. Surrounding the centre is a circle of tiny plastic dolls, painted a dark grey-blue. One is upside down and on seeing it I gasp a little. The punching bag begs for a blow, a hard fist to the heart.




But del Castillo’s bodies are not mute, and the voice is the undercurrent of this exhibition. In the centre of the room is placed another small cast-iron bed, its mattress clad in grey-flecked felt. Underneath the bed, more of those gleaming black Singer sewing machines, clustered like a heard of horses in shelter, or like the monsters lurking. On top of the mattress is a video cast in an oval-shaped wooden frame. The video shows lips moving quickly and urgently, teeth accidentally biting into pink lips in the rush of speech. I try to work out some pattern of words, but it’s impossible with no sound. This is a babble unheard, but unquiet.


Babble. The word repeats itself as I continue to look at these sculptures, listening to the buzz of neon, seeing the bright blur of words flicker in and out. Babble takes me to Babel, the tower of languages. Another sculpture is made of a tall iron bed, so tall that black hair drips down beneath its mattress, like dreams leaking. Above the bed is another neon sign in blue that reads ‘te perdono’. Later, I put this straight into Google translate, and it tells me ‘you lose’ in Italian. I wonder if this is the artist joking with me. The babble of Babel.

Dance, dance, dance


Lately I’ve been obsessed with Yvonne Rainer, a dancer and filmmaker whose poetic, rhythmic movements make me want to slow her down and watch her again and again, stoppered like a reel of film, frozen.

Rainer’s Trio A is a classic of modern dance and performance art. But it wasn’t always this way; apparently when it was first performed the piece was considered ‘artless’ and ‘repetitive’ (which was the whole point). Artlessness and repetition is the core of movement, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the way we move our bodies, roughly, inelegantly, that contributes to the sense of grace we feel in flight, skipping across a road or a puddle, when breath seems to buoy up in our lungs and lift us, weightless.

Pay attention to the weight of movement in Trio A. It’s as if Rainer’s body is operated by a system of invisible pulleys and weights, swaying and dipping, turning and spinning. Heavy and artless, weighted and weightless, equally.

Sorry that this has nothing to do with Canberra, except that after I watched this video I went to ballet class at Canberra Dance Theatre on Monday and I felt good about my rough moves, my feet turned in and my weight shifting awkwardly around the frame of my body. It was exhilarating to move and stretch. But the best bit was walking home in the dark, the simple action of placing one foot in front of the other, the joy of repetition, the relinquishing of stasis and the tremor of travel.

Safe Passage

Though this post will probably arrive too late to be effectual, there’s an exhibition that has stuck in my mind for the past week.

Safe Passage at ANCA Gallery in Dickson is a group exhibition showing performance works by Amelia Zaraftis and Hanna Hoyne, as well as sculptures by Jacqueline Bradley and wool-clad headwear by Karen Cromwell. While the show presents a variety of media, the works are drawn together by their insistence on safety, on protection and passage. It’s the containment of these works that has made it difficult for me to write about them. They seem so wrapped in their own brittle worlds that they are resistant to the incursion of words, as though dissection might rattle and destroy them. I want to leave them alone.


Take Zaraftis and Hoyne’s work. A pile of calico tea-towels sit folded on a low shelf, emblazoned with the words ‘DO NOT CRUSH’, sewn in red letters across their hems. A photograph shows the tea-towels pegged to a clothes-line, billowing in the breeze. It’s an instruction, but also a plea, as we all know fabric is so easily crushed. It lives in piles in laundry baskets. We crush it to clean it again, to make it new. I want to have the same message emblazoned on me, in scarlet letters, but I know it wouldn’t make a difference. It’s an instruction that exists to be ignored. In another performance, the artists created a calico echidna costume, its quills made from ordinary domestic pegs, lined up in rows, bending like a field of reeds in the breeze. In photographic documents of the work, Hoyne wears the costume, ducking and growling in a suburban backyard. Domesticity becomes a stage of wild longing, a psychological drama unfolding in a space that is claustrophobic and contained, yet open to the wordless infinite sky. Protection from the self is one of our deepest needs.


In Bradley’s work, the battle between safety and mobility is played out through her manipulation of ordinary shoes. Bradley chooses vintage shoes of battered leather, suggestive of previous use and life. In Travelling Shoes, a pair of well-worn leather brogues is rendered immobile by the attachment of a leather suitcase handle. These shoes mirror the way I feel- ready for some new adventure, but stuck somehow by that very readiness, unable to take steps. I want to leap, I want to arrive immediately. I don’t want to hear the sound of each footstep on the ground. The playful disjunction between the step and its sound is demonstrated by another of Bradley’s works, Softly, softly, in which she has attached the mechanism of a piano key to the base of a pair of heels. Instead of the shoe making a sound by tapping on the ground, the mechanism for sound-making becomes internal to the object. How many steps could this shoe take, without even moving anywhere? The only difficulty is that the sole of the shoe, covered in felt, muffles all sound. These are footsteps not only without movement, but without the sound itself- a silent flight. It’s this sense of being confounded, yet also released from conventional signification that typifies Bradley’s work, and makes her sculpture so imaginatively engaging.


Safety crystallises in the body and its experience. It is our bodies which represent protection and containment, our skin that enacts a barrier against the world. In Cromwell’s work, the artist looks toward the appearances of nature to affect a sense of protection. She constructs the grey fronds of a cockatoo’s plumage, protruding from the skull in woolen arcs. Elsewhere, brightly coloured and intricately worked fish scales suggest purposeful ostentation, another indication- like Zaraftis and Hoyne’s ‘DO NOT CRUSH’- that safety implies being seen. I think of high-vis cycling wear, and the bristling hairs on the backs of animals preparing to fight. If we demand safety, we also need our bodies to be seen, recognised, respected. Yet as much as these works represent protection, there is an internal fragility to their construction that suggests playacting, and masks a sense of inner unease.

The works in this exhibition are plagued by danger and threat. But it is not fear that pervades, rather a sense of the necessity to proceed,  confronting everything frightening and seeking safety even in the face of anxiety, doubt and immobility. 

Safe Passage closes on the 16th of March.

Floating Worlds


I have been feeling strangely mute lately, so much so that when I wrote this blog post and accidentally deleted it, I wasn’t even surprised. So here I am again, trying to remember what felt so pressing that I had to write about it in the first place. I think it was a question of voice. What is it like to have one, and where does it come from? And also, where has mine gone?

It started with the exhibition Present History, currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition displays photographs from New Zealand, dealing with the slippery notions of nationhood and identity. Hans Neleman’s large photographic portraits present subjects marked literally with history and culture, their faces covered in curvilinear Maori tattoos. Blue eyes stare from inside the frame, clear and challenging. They wear costumes of feather boas and spare military uniforms. Who am I? they seem to ask, who are you?

Something bothered me about this exhibition, and I think it was Wayne Barrar’s small, silvery photograph of New Lake in Marlborough. The photograph shows a concrete ramp rising beneath the glassy surface of still water, its edge bisecting the image and forcing a pile of pebbles into submission on its right side. There is something awful about the perfect symmetry of the work, the imposition of left and right over an ancient landscape. It is not the lake and the mountain that we see in this image, but the eyes that render it landscape, the false dominion of human time. Identity is always produced in opposition to something.

It was my birthday on the weekend, so I went to Sydney to see John Romeril’s play The Floating World. First performed in 1974, the play pulls us deep into the psyche of Les Harding, a survivor of the Burma-Thailand Railway, as he embarks on a holiday cruise to Japan, his everyday xenophobia degenerating into acute post-traumatic stress disorder. Romeril’s play takes its name from Edo period Japan, in which the floating world referred to a pleasure-seeking society, depicted in sleek woodcut prints of kabuki actors, cherry blossums and tea houses. In Les’ world, the horrors of war are repressed in the name of social protocol, his identity fed by a battle that continues inside his mind. With no enemies left, Les crumbles. In the final scene of the play, as Les is wrapped in a straitjacket, begging for water, I noticed the way in which his folded arms mimicked my own, and so many of the other members of the audience. I finally realised that an identity crisis, like the quinoa and papaya muffin I enjoyed while looking at a real-life pig at the trendy Grounds of Alexandria, is something of a macabre luxury. This is my floating world.



I have a confession to make. After I watched the election coverage the other night, I had a panic attack. I could blame Tony Abbott, or Julie Bishop, or the attractive guy I was talking to at the time. But actually, it wasn’t their fault. It was because, in these politically devastating times, I have completely and totally lost the ability to sense the difference between my left side and my right. I remember going to a lecture earlier this year by the art historian Michael Fried, who argued that the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings are always anchored through their left and right, as they search landscapes for some sense of meaning. As I watched the election coverage with my friends, I had the feeling that I was not the only one for whom this essential self-knowledge has become muddled. I know I was not the only person barely able to direct a taxi-driver the quickest way home.

Last week I went to see Shortfall, an exhibition of new works by Annika Harding, with a fellow art historian. We learned it was the artist’s first exhibition, and an impressive one at that. We drank in landscape works on oil panel boards, the rough texture of the wood breathing underneath thin, shimmering veils of pigment and bright silver. These are the familiar landscapes of Mount Ainslie, rough and barren in places, beaten by the sun with tufted grasses sticking up like the wiry, sharp bristles of a short beard or an expensive hairbrush. Harding’s works are the landscapes of my childhood, reminders of those pre-teen adventures into the bush, listening to B*witched on my walkman and feeling like an adult despite my tiny body which always felt bigger than it really was.

Harding celebrates and explores the romantic figure in the bush, delving into the landscape like a Shaman. Harding references a generation of artists we have almost (unfortunately) banished to the recesses of our collective unconscious. They are the Heidelberg painters, also known as the Australian Impressionists. The group took to the Australian bush like a group of teenagers smoking bongs in the grounds of a pre-school on a deep, dank Sunday night. By this, I mean they saw freedom in the landscape. Reproduced on tea towels and calendars, we have almost placed these painters into the same category of slightly conceited nostalgia that still plagues Australian tourism, from Lara Bingle’s ‘Where the Bloody Hell are Ya?’ to the carol singers trucked across the world by Qantas, bleating about the place they still call home. As much as we have loved these works, we are only just beginning to understand them. Tom Roberts, along with Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton were hard-core romantics, lovers of sheep shearing and the practical magic of the bush. I have always felt anxious in front of their paintings. The trauma of colonisation exists just behind these breathy, blue and gold vistas. Australia still denies the extent to which our landscape hides in its wooden knots an indelible history of violence, bloodshed and pain.

Harding’s homage to these painters conveys a search for belonging in a strange but familiar world. Like the Heidelberg painters, Harding’s figures are mysterious and strange. They search the landscape, wandering beside silver fences, lost in thought. A lone woman sticks to the path, even as the path is ever so slightly disturbing and strange. In Harding’s major piece, Ruckenfigur (so close yet so far), the viewer takes on the role of the painted figure in front of a rolling landscape of Canberra, suspended on two large white sheets of canvas. Isn’t landscape always internal? Isn’t landscape always the way we tell our left from our right, the way we drop anchor, the way we learn better ways be alive?