Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat: Some thoughts about sculpture, from Canberra, by Claire Capel-Stanley

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Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat: Some thoughts about sculpture, from Canberra

Claire Capel-Stanley won an ANCA Writing Prize 2015 for this essay in the category ‘An essay (published or unpublished) written on a theme of relevance to contemporary art by a writer resident in the Canberra region in 2015’.

My best friend does not like sculpture. At all, in any form. She’s been quite clear about this. It’s not to do with abstraction, or minimalism, or any –ism, or even any artist. As a blanket rule, she finds sculpture difficult to engage with, but also, crucially, quite easy to ignore. For her, it’s equally easy to walk past, as it is to stand there and look at it. She can’t really say why. There’s just something about something that is just some thing.

How has she been able to come to such an indefensible conclusion? One answer is that she is a philistine (I love her, but even I admit that’s not unlikely), or at the very least, someone prone to hasty generalisations. For a moment, though, I want to think about her claim, in relation to several examples of sculptural practice in Canberra. Because she is right. There is just something about something that is just some thing. But it’s the second ‘just’ in that sentence that warrants closer scrutiny.

It’s well known that Canberra practically luxuriates in publicly-commissioned  sculpture. The amount of poured concrete, glass and Cor-Ten steel in the public domain equates to at least several tonnes per person. Bronze figures in the CBD have at times outnumbered actual humans. In Canberra, contemporary sculpture is hardly rarefied, but something we encounter on an almost daily basis. ‘Encounter’ is probably the wrong word to use. In truth, we walk past all the time.

Still, our landscape is changed by public sculpture: practically, aesthetically and often profoundly.[ii] Public sculptures always have a functional purpose, in addition to an aesthetic one. They are landmarks, meeting points, pick-up and drop-off points. It’s as if the abundance of public sculpture is a direct legacy of the Sunday ACTION bus timetable.

Hey Dad, I missed the 2 and the 4 doesn’t come for an hour. Can you pick me up? I’ll be waiting near the cube. Do you even know where the cube is now?[iii]

I issued this directive dozens of times as a teenager, standing alone on the hard, cold pavement just at the end of Ainslie Avenue, frowning, outside that section of the Canberra Centre we later called ‘the old new bit’?[iv] These great big things let us know where we are, and remind us of where we are not, sometimes painfully so.

A sculpture is often (but not always) a mute object. At the same time, its meanings can be many and multiple, crashing in on each other like soundwaves from too many radio stations, becoming still inside a single form. In functional objects, these static waves are tenfold, laden with history and feeling. Think of a bed sheet, the worn tip of a pencil, a Canberra Red brick. The more thing-like a sculpture becomes, the more associations we are liable to bring to it. Sometimes, a work becomes more obtuse just as it becomes more transparent, as the lines between art and function are blurred, swapped over and back again. The more a sculpture recedes into just one particular thing, the more it becomes just another landmark to walk past, or to pick up and use somehow. Perhaps objects are only properly apprehended when they are needed.

Several Canberra-based artists whose works walk that thin line between transparent meaning and obtuse function spring immediately to mind: the late Neil Roberts, Jacqueline Bradley, and emerging artist Sabrina Baker. Each of these artists work in some form with assemblage, but more than this, they work with ideas as things. Materiality is paramount, while at the same time, each artist’s work is about intellectual, emotional or broadly metaphysical concepts. Things that are difficult to contain by their nature. These three artists work with a sense of almost-but-definitelynot- magic: things both more, and less, than they really are.

This is a little of what I know about Neil Roberts. Trained in glass, Roberts moved to Queanbeyan in 1983 to teach at the Australian National University School of Art. Roberts’ impact on the Canberra arts scene as a whole was immeasurable. With eX de Medici, he established Galerie Constantinople in their home, a periodic gallery space now relegated to the fond memories of those who were there, and wistful legend for those who weren’t. Showcasing an apparently haphazard round of exhibitions, performances and events, Constantinople was a testing ground for ideas. This part of Roberts’ life gives context to the generosity of his approach to sculpture. His multi-media practice was elegant and refined, ideas expressed in neon, assemblage, glass, installation, and what people sometimes call ‘found’ objects. Roberts’ work remains intensely lyrical. It is full of feeling. For the beloved House Proud, one of his major public commissions, Roberts made a string of words looping breathlessly around the top of The Playhouse Theatre in blue and white neon.[v] It talks literally about the space of the house (and the theatre) as a place of infinite and everyday possibility, sweeping about the thing itself.

… my house, eye house, here house, there house… huff house, puff house, bringthe house down house…

I used to read these words over and over again from the backseat of our old Mazda as we climbed Capital Hill. It was a pale blue bullet of a car that looked like it had been scrubbed with steel wool on the outside, and like it should be scrubbed with steel wool on the inside. I used to think the words changed daily, there were so many of them. Most workdays, I still snatch bits of House Proud from the driver’s seat of my own dark blue 121, cresting over that same swell of bitumen. 

I encountered Roberts’ Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat (2000) at the National Gallery of Australia in 2013.[vi] A stained, canvas punching bag wrapped in a lace of glass and metal like a Tiffany lamp, it hung (a bit too-still) from the ceiling of the Australian galleries. It is not an impotent object, but perhaps a spent one- something which once wanted to be punched- but no longer. The glass literally shields the embodied meaning of the punching bag- freezing stiff the deeply embedded emotions battered into it, its swing paralysed. Roberts’ question in making that work was, ‘can substances record and transmit anything of their history through their materiality alone?’[vii] Like many of Roberts’ works, this piece is about trace- that enormous gap connecting the thing and what it means.

Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat gives physical evidence to emotion, violence, hatred, and gendered readings are not only inevitable, but chased. They are slipped in with the very fabric of the work, its materiality, its structure. Just like the world. The equation is in the title, ‘half ether, half dew mixed with sweat’. Half nothing that is something, half something that is nothing.[viii]

This division into halves: half meta, half physical, also rings true in the work of Canberra sculptor Jacqueline Bradley. Where Roberts chases the clash of the metaphysical and the material, Bradley’s work falls so far into that gulf that it involves an altogether different order of feeling. Concepts of function and use are crucial in this equation. Bradley, along with Roberts, is an artist I am often stopped by, stunned by. Like my best friend, I don’t always have the words to explain why, but unlike her, I know that something major has occurred within me. Bradley’s work Softly softly (2014) is perfect example. It is a pair of shoes with a set of felt piano hammers attached to the sole. The work is at once completely functional and absolutely useless. And yet, you can hear a wave of soles tapping, someone running quickly perhaps, or waiting- tapping. The tension of being there not tapping, not moving, is almost unbearable. Where Half ether, half dew is the indelible thwack of a fist against canvas, Softly softly is the sound of footsteps, quick, soft, incessant, beckoning.

Bradley’s work is also very funny. Her sense of incongruity is never total, but always edges toward utility. She switches, but does not totally relinquish the functions of all of her objects. She never invents new uses, but she does slot them in where you weren’t expecting. Her earlier works are apt examples: a dress which is also a lifeboat. A kite that is also a jacket. If the object doesn’t work in the way it is supposed to, the fault is entirely our own. If only we were light enough to become airborne. If only our footsteps were silent. If only we had a sense enough of the whole brilliant, wide universe to notice the golden rims of crystalline perfection orbiting our breakfast table.[ix]

Both Bradley and Roberts are very good at getting to the point swiftly and economically. It’s just that the point is quite difficult to articulate as economically with words. Sabrina Baker is particularly concerned with words, and where they fit, in her first solo exhibition, Pack and Unpack. Using wool, rope, woollen blankets and big, simple stitching, Baker’s exhibition is a series of documents visualising her conversations over a period of about one year.

This work is not so much about what was said, but about the time of talk. Strung wide across one wall, a group of white ropes dotted across with woven coloured threads- one colour for each person Baker has conversed with. Each woven thread extends for a little period of time, and many colours repeat across the work. The total sensation is not one of randomness and chaos, but some sort of internal order. The frequent dark blue representing Baker’s partner perhaps sets a pulse across the work. But it’s also the white spaces- the talk-less times- that set the pace. There’s a sense of the artist’s internal rhythm dictating the pace of the chatter, the clatter of colour that streaks along and comes into play daily. The work not only registers talking, but not talking- thinking or not thinking- being alone.

So many of our conversations today happen online. They are already contained in data sets, documented and even determined by algorithms (the online call to ‘wish this person a happy birthday!’ is a maddeningly frequent example). But Baker’s is a personal algorithm. It claims conversation and ideas as physical exchange and reflection. We do not know the content of her conversations- though she does, of course- only that they occurred. Looking at her works I’m struck by the solidifying of the ether: I feel like a government official surveying metadata. This is already and increasingly much more than just a thing. It is a thing that we pinpoint as singular- forgettable, dismissable- at our peril.

There are many Canberra artists whose works dip and sway into and beyond the literal, slipping in and out of fixed meanings with a bizarre and breathtaking clarity.

The fault line I’m drawing on here is sculpture, and particularly assemblage. To my list now comprising Roberts, Bradley and Baker may be added Rosalie Gascoigne, Peter Vandermark, Alex Asch, Andy Townsend and Vivienne Binns among many others.[x] But more fundamentally, perhaps the point is that sculpture itself teeters so close to the edge of real life, that it is already exactly in the middle of everything- art, space, poetry, feeling, thinking, being, doing. It’s much easier to see clearly if you look toward the periphery.

 

Claire Capel-Stanley, 2015

 

The numbers may have evened out slightly with the much-publicised 2014 theft of the top little man in Keld Moseholm’s On the Staircase, formerly situated in Petrie Plaza. The remaining medium and larger men now safely reside at Gorman Arts Centre.

[ii] Public art has provided a rich contemporary forum for genuine engagement and experimentation. One local example is Canberra Contemporary Artspace’s 2001 site-specific exhibition Art + Public, which featured commissioned works by Neil Roberts, Daniel Maginnity and Mathieu Gallois placed in public spaces.

[iii] Kerry Simpson’s Illumicube, given to Canberra in 1988 in commemoration of 25 years of electricity supply, and colloquially known as ‘the cube’. This was formerly situated near Bailey’s Arcade, but was refurbished and moved in 2008. Its sound component has been mercifully de-activated.

[iv] ‘The new new bit’ was to follow and is formally known as the North Quarter.

[v] House Proud was commissioned in 1997 and funded by the ACT Government for the opening of the new Playhouse.

[vi] Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat was acquired by the National Gallery in 2002, just prior to Roberts’ tragic death.

[vii] Neil Roberts, artist statement in Anna Gray (ed.), Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002.

[viii] This title is taken from a poem by Raymond Pettibon.

[ix] Universal breakfast, 2013, exhibited recently at Canberra Contemporary Art Space’s Innerspace, curated by David Broker.

[x] This survey has been made in the perceptive and extensive Something in the Air: Collage and assemblage in Canberra region art, curated by Deborah Clark and Mark Van Veen, at Canberra Museum and Gallery in 2010, which drew a connection between the use of assemblage techniques and place. Further examples include Cut Paste at ANCA Gallery and Reinventions at the National Gallery of Australia, both in 2009.

 

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Sabrina Baker, tête-à-tête, 2015, rope and wool