Catalogue Essays and Reviews

Catalogue Essays (and some reviews):

The Beginning of the End: Claire Marsh and Fiona Roberts

Review by Stephanie Lyall for Artlink, vol 33 no 1, 2013

Adelaide Central School of Art graduates Claire Marsh and Fiona Roberts finish an illustrious 2012 with the opening exhibition in the apocalyptic The End series at DIY art space Format. The Beginning Of The End considers human response to trauma, and Marsh and Roberts’ works of fragility, illusion, surrealism and the grotesque are both poignant and masterful.


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Fiona Robertson In Knots 2012, mixed media. Photo: Fiona Robertson.

Roberts’ curiously unsettling In Knots is a small sweep of brown hair, not unlike a woman’s ponytail, that emanates from an open mouth, frozen in movement, at its crown. The deeply human yet physically impossible hybrid creature that lies on the floor of the space evokes both wonder and unease, raising questions as to what can constitute humanity – at what point does a collection of disparate parts become a being? How much of a body can be lost or rearranged before becoming something ‘other’?

Similar questions are evident in Marsh’s Crux, which anchors the exhibition, much in the same way her piece Shelter helped anchor the 2012 Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize. Where Shelter’s patchworked fur formed a clam-like vessel big enough for a person to curl up inside, Crux is a closed form that lazes on the floor. Kangaroo fur is stitched and compiled to make a new, hefty beast whose only identifying features, aside from the faceted fur, is a grid of four breast-like forms at one end. It’s a curious thing – docile, maternal, difficult to connect with and yet inexplicably inviting. There’s an overwhelming urge to touch, stroke or embrace the form, perhaps to see if a connection with living energy will rouse it, or simply confirm its dormancy. A befitting companion piece is Cloven, a pair of high-heeled shoes adorned with a voluminous fur covering. At first glance the shoes appear to be carved from bone, with marrow and dirt remaining in cavities etched into the sole. Yet the floorsheet reveals the true material – they are regular shoes covered in beeswax, and are a testament to the craftsmanship of the artist.

In contrast to Crux, Roberts’ installation The End legitimately invites interaction. A large maroon leather-bound book and two white gloves sit atop a small wooden desk. The book is a weighty tome, perhaps a thousand pages or more, and its title is simply ‘The End’. It’s ominous and clean. Who dares to open it? Those that engage in the glove-donning ceremony are met with page after page of the same message: “This page intentionally left blank.” Here, free will and determinism collide within a piece that is at once both disappointing and relieving, although many will not be brave enough to engage with the work – not out of fear of learning their fate, but out of its position in an exhibition whose delicacy of both subject and object seems almost certainly off limits to wandering hands.

Particularly delicate is Roberts’ In Pieces: thirteen small white ceramic busts arranged on a shelf. Each has a head injury – removed, split, cracked, severed – with the now separate parts suspended by wire to reveal blood red flock at the site of their disconnection. Clinical in presentation, their disconnection from trauma is both physical and metaphorical. Nearby is Roberts’ second ceramic piece In Vain, where an arm emanates from a jug that is held by its own hand in a looped response to the finite. The circular piece builds on the finality and hopelessness of the thirteen broken forms and delivers a different kind of purgatory through an infinite quandary.

Finally, a video work projected the full width of a wall: Marsh’s Hive. A swarm of bees crawl through holes in a damaged deathmask. The dull, industrious buzz of the insects fills the gallery but does not intrude; their insistent drone is not unsettling until matched with their grotesque movement in and out of the nose and mouth, creeping, buzzing and commanding a being that once was. Control has been relinquished; pain and discomfort is now for others to contend with.

Under the curation of Adele Sliuzas, the seven works are a humble whole. The sum of the parts is only marginally greater than the profundity of the individual works, but there’s a confident stillness in the space that’s unusual. Often the upper floor of Format is full to capacity with colour and novelty, or is at times tenuously conceived and hastily executed resulting in a disappointing emptiness. Here, care, consideration and skill is high in artists and curator, and Sliuzas makes the small exhibition seem large in the structurally ramshackle space. Each work invites viewing, but with qualifiers, like the way one might invite a young child into the room of an ill grandparent: “Come quietly, but step lightly and breathe deeply. Remain wide-eyed while ours are averted. This is the beginning of the end.”

 

The Body and the Beautiful End (written for The Beginning of The End catalogue)

Essay by Adele Sliuzas

Heaped up

Groaning with babies and bayonets

Under cement skies

In an abstract landscape of blasted trees

Bent statues bats wings and beaks

Slippery giblets

Cadavers and carnivorous cocks

And all the final hollering monsters

Of the

‘imagination of disaster’

they are so bloody real

it is as if they still existed

and they do

only the landscape has changed[1]

 

Trudging through the grey, unknown landscape of the beginning of the end, there is a feeling that takes over the body. A force that envelops; an attitude, emotional and psychological, which weighs on the body. Responding to this pressure, the body reacts, forming other spaces, other flesh, an other corporeality. Eroded and emergent, the body is a marker. Flesh is a reminder, a mapping. The end, the ‘imagination of disaster’, presents a moment of anxiety in the relation of our bodies to each other and to the world. This exhibition offers a moment to consider how our bodies relate to disaster, decay, to breaking, mutating and becoming other. Reconfigurations can occur. Touch/touch, when your body touches another body/object, it touches you equally in return.

Marsh and Roberts are creators and destroyers. Their objects are moments in transition, dialectical objects that are never quite formed. They respond to the trauma of a world that leaves our bodies fragmented, but through these objects they open up to possibility of reconnection. Strange rejoining’s and re-couplings, particularly in Marsh’s work, create an odd, alien world, questioning the structure of our bodies. Roberts’ work is concerned with petrification and simultaneously destruction, using fragile materials such as ceramics and human hair. She describes her work as containing “destructive and discordant perceptions, which include: connotations of concealment, dislocation, emotional projection, fluctuating perceptions, fears, phobias and paranoia.”[2] Through ‘The Beginning of the End’, these two artists question the way that our human bodies respond to the idea of trauma. The body of the viewer is implicit in the process of coming to understand the trauma of the end. There is a felt response, an empathy for the flesh engendered in its own destruction and dehiscence.

There were no deaths in July. None in August either.[3]

Roberto Balaño in his apocalyptic novel 2666, recounts the present-apocolypse of a community of transitioners, drifters, opportunists and strangers. Balaño dedicates a book section to telling the individual stories of hundreds of murdered girls and women whose corpses were found in and around a small Mexican border town. His realism and tone render the deaths un-emotional, yet all the more real. They become a traumatic phenomena of the body rather than a hyperbolic, emotional story. Feeling isn’t explicitly described, instead it is subjectively experienced. He affects a felt response, a sense of inhabiting the traumatised body, rather than being effected by the tragic loss. Balaño, like Marsh and Roberts, request that the reader/viewer feel through their bodies. We become part of a corporeal resonance, inhabiting what has or soon will be destroyed. Touch/touch.

The beginning of the end is the approach of change, the latent anxiety and harmonic suspension of future destruction and transformation. Virilio describes transformations in contemporary society as a response to technology and the opening of the sky into space.

Everything is being turned on its head at this fin de siècle – not only geopolitical boundaries but those of perspective geometry.

Arse over heels! Appearances generally and those of art in particular are being deconstructed – but so is the sudden transparency of the world’s landscape.

Soon we will have to learn to fly, to swim in the ether. [4]

Worked into the idea of Fin de Siecle, is the opening of a new era and hope for a new beginning. Much adopted by the avant garde’s of Modernism, Fin De siècle takes on different properties within contemporary art. Bodies are in fragments and they jam together, there is no real new, and yet there is still some hope. Marsh describes this through her understanding of transformation, “between what was and will be, between self and other, human and beast. From this search emerge marginal beings; beings that experience these bodily transmutations as a state of existence and thus do not belong in one corporeality or the other.” [5] We learn to fly because our bodies no longer walk. But we don’t belong to the sky anymore than our bodies belong to water.

I will describe a scene from Lars Von Trier’s recent film Melancholia. Justine (Kirsten Dunst), feels the heaviness and lethargy of her own body. The sky is plastic, and it is coming closer and closer, and applying pressure to her. She is overwhelmed by her own transcendent hopelessness. She wishes to float away. She lies in the river, wearing her wedding dress, floating in the stream as Ophelia, with the darling buds and flowers surrounding her corpse. She see’s the end before the start and it weighs on her body before anything else. She is ready for the beautiful end.


[1] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, In Goya’s greatest scenes, in Penguin Modern Poets 5, Penguin, London, 1963

[2] Fiona Roberts, 2011,

[3] Roberto Bolaño, 2666, 2009, Picador, London, P375

[4] Paul Virilio, open sky, p3 2008, verso, london

[5] Claire Marsh, 2011,

Life Jelly and Death Jelly (written for The Beginning of The End catalogue)

Essay by Alex Tuffin

“The doctor reached out his abbreviated fibrous fingers in which surgical instruments caught neon and cut Johnny’s face into fragments of light.

 “Jelly,” the doctor said, liquid gurgles through his hardened purple gums. His tongue was split and the two sections curled over each other as he talked: “Life jelly. It sticks and grows on you like Johnny.”

 Little papules of tissue were embedded in the doctor’s hands. The doctor pulled a scalpel out of Johnny’s ear and trimmed the papules into an ash tray where they stirred slowly exuding a green juice.”[i]

Just before beginning this essay, I was reading William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine and found myself particularly drawn to this scene and it kept returning to me while I was considering this exhibition. Burroughs’ descriptive and explicit references to the trauma of flesh and the abject are disturbing but also captivating. For me, he creates imagery that is grotesque and surreal but also strangely connects to my personal experiences of the mental and physical trauma and horror. The works in this exhibition had a similar effect on me. The sculptures of Claire Marsh and Fiona Robert’s also reference the abject and distort the familiar as they consider the effects of trauma and anxieties of the end. Their works are full of untold, uneasy stories: stories of suffering, mutation, metamorphosis or decay. Stories about ‘improper’ bodies.

Kristeva believed as a society we tirelessly work to maintain ‘the self’s clean and proper body’[ii]. Kristeva explains her theory of abjection in Powers of Horror (1982). She claims that a prerequisite of being a ‘speaking subject’ is having an untainted and ‘proper body in the form of a bounded self’[iii]. That which is unseemly and dirty in the self must be rejected and ousted as necessary to subjectivity and status in the social order. Kristeva’s notion makes evident that anything which upsets the body boundary will induce horror:

 [R]efuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a human being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border[iv].

Abjection is a sort of illness, a revulsion at the body’s susceptibility to an obscuring of self. It is present at the borders of the body ‘threatening the constitution of self’[v]. As the abject is an essential component of the body’s existence, our urge to control it will never be successful; it can never be effectively destroyed, driven out or restrained. Therefore we are stuck in an insistent and ineffective process of striving to oust the abject with the intention not to recognize the fragile disposition of selfhood.

The corpse is the abject. It is the body degraded to a pitiable and filthy state. And it is the end. Throughout history and across cultures, the dead body has been a source of intrigue for those who are alive. While it often uncomfortably reminds us of our own end, it is also a fascinating symbol of the uncertainty of what, if anything, comes next. Consequently, trauma and mutation to living bodies can signal the beginning of this end or at least be a reminder of its eminent approach. The medical gaze has re-charted the corpse and directed it as an open area of exploration, as a thing to cut up, scrutinise, classify and catalogue. While the exhibition of the violated corpse has lost a lot of the past taboos previously related to it due to this, the dead body continues as a pivotal figure in the social voyeurism of death and still is this uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality and our fragile state.

Claire Marsh and Fiona Roberts explore this sphere of intrigue and unease. Their sculptures delve into our complex relationship with bodies. Their work exists in the spaces in between: alive/dead, human/animal, horror/beauty, science/terror. Marsh’s sculptures explore the revulsion of self through incorporating what she refers to as the ‘creaturely’. They are quiet and beguiling but simultaneously unsettle and induce a consideration of possible traumatic changes/mutations to bodies. Robert’s works looks at physical and mental transformations, corrosions and regenerations and the cyclical strength of nature. Marsh and Robert’s force us to confront our tenuous existence, the possibility of physical or mental change at any time and universal truth that the end always nearing.


[i] Burroughs, W. S. (1992) The Soft Machine, Grove Press, New York, P. 74.

[ii] Kristeva, J. 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, New York, p.71.

[iii] Cited in Mykitiuk, R. & Shildrick, M. 2005, Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges Basic Bioethics, Mass MIT, Cambridge, p.219.

[iv] Kristeva, J. 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, New York, p.3.

[v] Mykitiuk, R. & Shildrick, M. 2005, Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges Basic Bioethics, Mass MIT, Cambridge, p.220.

 

 

Swept Under: Claire Marsh

essay by Sera Waters

The Cracks

One day, in front of the house, cracks appeared in the dark bitumen. From these cracks water began welling and seeping, bubbling, then puddling, streaming out and away to elsewhere. And churned within the water, surging upward, was the revelation of what ordinarily lay hidden from sight; underground systems, watery ‘other’ worlds and any imaginable possibility. The water also revealed that the road had been feigning impenetrability; its stolid role as hard outer shell separating the world above from that below was breakable (in this case by truckloads of heavy earth). Perhaps art, like weighty trucks, can make cracks too. Affective art, like a good book, can fracture the facade between ‘here’ and ‘there’. To glimpse ‘there’ is to see streams of alternatives, of ‘other’ courses in which life can run. Cracks of all kinds though, are usually short-lived, and days later the trucks came again, this time to block the unintended waterways and fill in the cracks. The possibilities they washed to the surface still remain though.

The Infinite

Seeing into cracks requires a belief in the infinite. If the concept ‘infinity’ is pushed far enough, beyond earthly reality into the never-ending galaxy, there would exist innumerable versions of ‘here’, each with only slight variation. Imagine ‘other’ planet earths of far far away, where people resembling ourselves live lives much like our own, their only distinctness arising from differing collective histories, curious rituals, or unfamiliar orders of logic. We have brought such places into existence through the mind’s version of the infinite; the imagination. These vivid other worlds are sighted through imaginative cracks and shared through creations like the Game of Thrones series, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, or Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Claire Marsh’s installation Swept Under offers another such sighting (a crack to enter), of a homely room, familiar but not of this earthly reality, and marked by unlikely happenings.

The Room

Experiencing Claire Marsh’s room at Seedling is akin to stepping into a crack that has not yet been closed over. Entering this once-watery world offers a mirror to life as it is known here, a glimpse at the possibilities of the infinite.

The waters have been in this room. The worn rug has lifted, evolved over eons to take form as a gliding ocean dweller. The water must have been high; scattered papers remain stuck upon walls and the ceiling, evidence of the rising swell. Upon these flung papers, squid-ink traces of bodies appear; twin bodies, bodies of adjoined animals and humans, and bodies reduced to skeletal and feathery remains. Ominously, strands of dark flowing hair linger, entangled and weighed down by small gatherings of rocks. Yet under the now-extinct rug and huddled within the exo-skeleton, is a hiding place, a shelter against the cold openness of outside and a cavern for new life to form. Perhaps the twins, if spared by the water’s enveloping presence, dwelt here and left these drawings. Are these their observations of the flood’s altering effects, documents of new life that prospered from submersion? Or are they of a world now washed away? A world like ours but where being animal or human merges more closely? The answers remain hidden; this is a room of imaginable possibilities.

Sera Waters

Sera Waters is an Adelaide based artist and arts writer.

See photos of Swept Under installation  here

Spectres of a Broken Body

essay by Adele Sliuzas
Claire Marsh’s practice explores the body; its force, its thresholds and its relation to the self and other bodies. Through processes of visual and physical mutations, Marsh talks about what she calls “the silent, the creaturely and the horror of the self.”
Marsh’s drawings and sculptures discuss the body as a site of metamorphosis, a place of transformation between self and other. This transformation is a process, the body morphs into a creature, a transient being, half human, half other. The mixing of bodies is an abject act, a surreal and grotesque response – the self transforms to avoid its own being. Marsh describes her use of the form of animals as a metaphor for the broken body. She says “it is akin to being forced to live with a semi-domesticated animal; it is possible to live with it most of the time, sometimes you feel like you can control it, reason with it, even understand it, but at other times it will defy, hurt, hinder and embarrass you.” This statement brings to light Joseph Beuys’ 1974 experiment where he locked himself in a gallery with a wild coyote. The relation between the body and the animal instinctual yet volatile, we are the same, but different.
The grotesque and the gothic also play a role within Marsh’s practice. Hair springs forth from the silent, veiled by their own bodies, the plumes of Marsh’s own hair are lush yet monstrous. It is repulsive, but undeniably human, and so relatable to our own disgust with our bodies. Rendered with squid ink on velum, the series of drawings allude to the surface of the body. Skin is the flimsy physicality of the barrier between the inside of our bodies and the inside of other peoples bodies. The skins of the drawings are divided, they are not the body in full but are the body in pieces – split and doubled.
Marsh’s sculptural work Shelter follows the same lines of bodily incursion, exploring the skin as a container of the body. Shelter appears to be a safe place. It is furry, fleshy and warm looking. It is just big enough to fit through the opening and lie inside in foetal position, leg to chest. You can imagine that Shelter would have the movement of its own calm, deep breath, and that when you climb inside, filled with your body’s own anxiety, your breath would slow down to match the movement of the Shelters breath. Soon you would be calm, your anxiety would disappear and you would be safe inside this mutant body. The feeling is that Shelter is a humanoid being, living but not alive.
claire marsh, "Shelter"

Claire Marsh, “Shelter”, 2011, furs, beeswax, thread, fiberglass, 100 x 90 x 180 cm

One thought on “Catalogue Essays and Reviews

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