Coral Reliquary with Puffer Fish
This exhibition opened at the Stanley Street Gallery during the week. Attending the opening, I had hoped to hear the artist speak about her work. Instead I was fortunate to have quite long conversations first with Merilyn Bailey, one of the Gallery directors, and then with Sally Simpson herself. We talked about the work and what it could mean, and Sally also gave me some insights on her work processes.
A room of upright humanoid figures, some masks on the wall. Most of the figures were 70 – 120 cm high, on plinths so often taller than the viewer. Labels were placed low, prompting visitors to stoop before the figures. It took me some time to understand the “reliquary” of the titles – the figures each held encased objects in their navels, a core that was difficult to discern.
Cephalopoda Reliquary with Stingray Bones
As well as this sense of the sacred – looking up, bowing before, holy relics, mysteries – there was the positioning in an unknown future, a museum. How will we be remembered? Sally is careful to open the question without giving her own answers. The use in the work of found materials, a mix of discarded ropes and lines, of animal bones and driftwood, the relics, raises questions of how we treat the planet and what we value.
I was very conscious of an ethnographic vibe, representing our culture to future study. This led to an interesting article on ethnographic museums today (Thomas, 2016) and ideas beyond appropriation to cultural diversity, history, creativity. Sally Simpson’s works seen as communication, encounter, dialogue with present and future feels more hopeful than judgments of our failures as custodians.
The figures incorporate found fish, bird and animal bones as well as driftwood, which as well as giving an atavistic feel provided detail and visual complexity. Collected rope had been transformed using a wide array of techniques – unravelling, coiling, binding, stitching… – and is closely and smoothly integrated with the found objects. At first the human form seemed broadly suggested, but I started finding details – the curve of a muscled calf, defined knees ready to spring upwards, the indented line of a spine. There was energy but not movement, perhaps poised to leap upwards rather than forwards.
Sally explained that she worked for a year or more, playing with her collected materials, sampling, grouping key objects. It took time to find the techniques and forms that were successful, then work went more quickly. Apparently having recent visitors to her studio made Sally aware of the “mess” that had accumulated, and it seems the process of clearing up and revisiting early samples both revealed the development done and suggested more possibilities. For example the works exhibited were neutral, blue and turquoise, in keeping with an ocean-side theme (I thought I could smell the sea still on some pieces). In the studio is a bag of warm colours, waiting for future possibilities.
The moment in between (detail)
At one end of the gallery space three kneeling figures were displayed – The moment in-between
. Supplicants or worshipers? The kneeling form has been seen in earlier work, Precipice
, but those seem bound in bandages while these seem naked, perhaps vulnerable, in wax. But not vulnerable, not supplicants. Their strong boney features and upright stance seemed more challenging and self-possessed. I try to find narrative – figures of the future both revering and judging their history – but don’t feel satisfied with this.
As a student and given this is my learning log, I need to think critically about what I have learnt, what I can use from this experience.
The value of going to an opening. Arrive early and there’s the chance to see the works before the room gets too crowded. It’s interesting to watch how others respond to the the exhibition, perhaps catch some snippets of conversations. A talk or opening address. Then if I’m lucky there’s the opportunities for being part of conversations, learning more about the works and also trying to learn to make some sensible or relevant remarks myself.
The value of networking in all sorts of ways. I found out about Sally Simpson and her work through the learning log/blog another OCA student, https://thecuriosityoflottiecontinues.com/. How lucky to hear about an opportunity a week before the show opens, rather than a week after it closes 🙂 . It also made a great story to start a conversation.
Reminders of the value of sketchbook work (see Sally’s website), of working in series, of sampling, exploration and experimentation.
This work is very much in that watershed or liminal space that interests me, where a textile sensibility can speak in a fine arts world (the press release quotes Sally’s comments on the “labour-intensive, devotional process” of her grandmother’s dress-making, “that the domestic and the devotional could exist in the same space, in the same process”).
I need to learn and think a lot more about scale, the display height of the objects, works seen from all angles and works seen in the context of other works.
Taking the time to play with materials, sampling, moving on. Questing.
Disparate materials combined. Found materials transformed. The common scale and complexity of mark of the materials as well as careful combinations and joining methods made coherent wholes, not a jumble.
Artist’s website: http://www.sallysimpson.com.au/
Gallery and exhibition: http://stanleystreetgallery.com.au/exhibition/sally-simpsonrelics-and-reliquaries7th-september-1st-october-2016/
Media release: http://stanleystreetgallery.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/PRESS-RELEASE-Sally-Simpson_ObjectsForAnUnknownFutureMuseum2016.pdf
Nicholas Thomas (2016) “We need ethnographic museums today – whatever you think of their history” In Apollo: the international art magazine [online] http://www.apollo-magazine.com/we-need-ethnographic-museums-today-whatever-you-think-of-their-past/