FROM CELLAR TO GARRET

From cellar to garret she’s swept all clean, and now from the window she’s peeping, I ween.
— The Brothers Grimm: Fitcher’s Bird

The exhibition Room brings together artworks by seven artists from five states across australia. each artwork engages directly with the space in which it is encountered and together the artworks depict a room. situating artworks together in a context that derives from the ‘sum of their parts’ can bring new insights to the artworks exhibited, enabling fresh interpretation. as well as describing a physical, architectural space, the exhibition aims to evoke the private, psychological, interior space of subjectivity that is the site of our imagination and our dreams.

A winding stairwell, a closed window blind, a glowing globe... the room is bare except for bits of stuff that have been picked up off the floor and a broom by the wall that would keep it that way. it is empty except for swallows and angels.

To imagine, to make-believe and to be lost in thought are states of consciousness that we may readily slip into when in familiar surroundings. But what about when the familiar is not as expected? each artwork seems in some way enchanted, and symbolic of a conduit or portal: a common theme is that of passing from one space to another, a movement or shift into, through to, onto, and across to another space - a physical space, a subjective space, or even passing from one dimension to another, as if by magic. Room depicts a familiar domestic setting made strange, dreamlike and uncanny. in a familiar domestic space of material reality, the imagined - animism, shadows, sorcery – can be either unnerving or, as a child’s belief in the fantastic world of its own creation, desirous.

Simon Horsburgh’s recovered, burnt-out globe is reilluminated by light passing into it from an external source, its ‘ghostly incandescence’ lighting the space around it. like a fortune teller’s crystal ball it is a sphere to gaze at and into. it tells of a journey. Can it predict the future?

Installation art uses a wide variety of media and operates across the boundaries
of various disciplines. Certain installation artworks are site-specific, where the relationship to location and context is a crucial focus. Others are recreated in different situations. arranged towards the viewer’s presence - so linked to the idea of ‘theatrical space’ - and inviting interaction, installation art is geared towards subjective, first-hand, personal experience. Activated spectatorship and decentring the viewer are key concepts. Critical appraisal of installation art looks to the discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, informed by theories of art pertaining to the viewer’s physical, perceptual and psychological experience of the work.

In the way Catriona Stanton’s delicate stairwell climbs and then floats across the space, it evokes the freedom of imagination - ‘a conduit into my creative reservoir’. it’s small scale is evocative of a child’s presence.

Immediate precursors of installation art were the ‘environments’ and ‘happenings’
of the late 1950s and 1960s when artists developed the idea of an artwork as an environment that could be inhabited. the exhibition Room is a conscious nod to an artwork of this period, Room by lucas samaras; a reconstruction of the artist’s bedroom at Green Gallery new york in 1964. discussed in Installation Art by Claire Bishop: “For samaras, Room was authentically ‘real in that it has real things and you can walk in, poke around, sit down and make love’... psychoanalysts Jean laplanche and Jean-Bertrand pontalis have explained that in the dream (or daydream) ‘the scenario is basically in the first person... the subject lives out his reverie’: this would be analogous to installation art of the type presented by samaras, in which the viewer is protagonist”. [2]

Defining a boundary by its presence, Kylie stillman’s hand-laced Venetian blind is pulled closed to shut out the light. But light passes through perforations describing the exterior space of a park through the absent form of a tree. to open the blind would dispel the work.

Room, 2007, is physically immersive; the architectural space of the gallery - the door you enter through, the floor, walls and ceiling - is implicated in the overall assemblage. the process of encountering this has an emphasis on sensorial experience organised around a phenomenological model of the viewing subject. lighting in this context is not just to illuminate work, but is a theatrical device to entice the viewer to move around the space. Viewers share the space with each other as well as with the artworks, and a dialogue between the public space of the gallery and our private ‘headspace’ makes connections between the cultural and the individual.

Not quite leaning against the wall, Katrina simmons’s broom is motionless but charged with the potential of animation. the room’s sole occupant, as if a sentinel, it may sweep into action should anything fall to rest on the floor, ensuring it remains bare. ‘A pathway to fantasy’, the broom may even fly, sweeping the artist and the viewer away.

The exhibition is psychologically absorptive, analogous to dreaming; the associative characteristic of dreams corresponds with those characteristics of ‘found objects’, which are used in most of the artworks. such associations may evoke memories in viewers, drawing connections between the past and the present. the experience is of the sum of the works in situ and the dialogues between individual artworks, together with the materiality of the space and the viewer’s engaged presence. Formal, spatial and narrative relationships emerge between the artworks and across the space in which they’re encountered as an overall sequence, and the particular sensibility of each work is filtered through the exhibition as a whole.

Projecting from the flat surface of the wall and forming ‘a semi-chaotic swirl’, Kathryn Faludi Ball’s flock of swallows soar like the imagination. Or have they been petrified whilst taking flight? If the spell were lifted they would surely swoop around the space, around our heads, and then out through the window to their nest in the tree in the park.

The type of architectural space that is depicted in Room is a domestic one, complete with Venetian blinds and decorative, wall-mounted flying swallows cast from an original made by english ceramic studio Beswick, popular in the 1950s. in her artist’s statement, Catriona stanton mentions her interest in The poetics of space by Gaston Bachelard. in this, Bachelard considers the intimate spaces we live in and live with as being where the half-dreaming human consciousness he calls reverie resides: cellars, corners, nests, forests. he discusses the ‘oneiric house’ with its vertical polarity of cellar and attic; spaces that are conducive to daydreaming and to the dynamism

Of the creative imagination, spaces to which we return in dreams. in relation to architecture, ‘a house that has been experienced is not an inert box. inhabited space transcends geometrical space’.3 as we inhabit spaces, and notions inhabit the mind, old childhood memories inhabit cellars and attics.

The work by stephen Garrett explores an interrelationship between science and poetry; questions of objective forensic evidence and of potential personal experience. someone was here before and the residue of their presence remains. to view the work, you must walk the length of its ‘expanse of possibilities’.

Bachelard’s ideas - that the familiarity of one’s own domestic space is conducive to reverie, to flights of fancy - apply to the exhibition. It could be a room in his ‘oneiric house’, each artwork in its own way addressing subjectivity; the poetics of the imagination, memory, psychic phenomena, belief, and creative thought and how it comes into being. But to enter Room is not to find a familiar domestic setting. What we expect to be familiar is not, it is made strange, uncanny. the artworks in Room are the type that provokes doubt and curiosity, raising questions relating to expectation, perception and how we understand the world. the uncanniness of the artworks and the immediacy of the immersive, speculative experience instil a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings.

Is it that the viewer, on entering a domestic mise en scène, a theatrical space inviting creative engagement, is able to assume the role of protagonist and become lost in reverie - an abstracted state of absorption, a condition of being unaware of one’s surroundings? Or is it that the viewer, on entering and exploring this unnerving yet desirous space, recognises it as analogous to the private, psychological, interior space of subjectivity that is the site of our imagination and our dreams?

Audible in a corner, flitting from wall to wall, Matt Warren’s angels have come from elsewhere. did they arrive through the window blind, or via the stairwell? Where are they from? are there more of them? and have they come for us? We must be imagining it.

In his 1919 paper The Uncanny, sigmund Freud explained the uncanny as certain things relative to that which induces fear. ‘...the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’.4 he gives as an example the doubt whether an apparently animate being is alive or whether an inanimate object might actually have come to life. he also relates the uncanny to the theme of the ‘sand-Man’; ‘a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. they sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with’. [5] Freud also discusses the German word heimlich, which means belonging to the house, familiar, friendly, intimate, not strange, etc. it is also used to describe a place free from ghostly influences. Its opposite is unheimlich. ‘everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’. [6]

Is this a room in Bachelard’s ‘oneiric house’? is this the cellar? Or is this the attic? Or, is this the forbidden room in Fitcher’s house?

In Fitcher’s Bird by the Brothers Grimm, the evil wizard Fitcher is seeking a young bride. One after the other he captures three sisters, takes them to his house and puts them to a test: do not enter the forbidden room! The first two fail this test and get chopped up. the third and brightest of the three outwits Fitcher and saves the day; her sisters are made whole again. Both the sand-Man and Fitcher scare listening children in their rooms at story time. in children’s vivid imaginations, reality and the fantastical blur to become magical. they love it. it’s unheimlich.

Derek Hart, Hobart 2007

[download original exhibition catalogue here]

[1] The Brothers Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird, http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter46.html

[2] Claire Bishop, Installation Art, tate publishing, 2005, pp. 27-28.

[3]  Gaston Bachelard, The poetics of space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places, translated    by Maria Jolas, Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon press, 1994, p. 47.

[4]  sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Ibid.