TROUBLE SET ME FREE (Review)

Strangely, it is the yearning of a cat for its too-soon separated mother that transpires as the singularly most traumatic image in the exhibition, ‘Trouble Set Me Free’. Kathy High’s cat plays a pivotal role in her video piece, Everyday Problems of the Living, as she enacts guileless performances of her fear of an encroaching death (which did not happen) and the impact her demise would have upon her animals. Her cat, having been denied the opportunity to suckle as a kitten, must now be content with suckling its owner’s pillow which carries a known and loved scent.

In Trouble Set Me Free Catherine Bell has curated an exhibition that energises and transforms the often spectral works, allowing the most intimate of encounters to occur in a quiet seductive manner in an show that flirts with the notions of death and trauma. We are able to navigate the ready juxtaposition of the glare of red blood dripping from a crocheted axe in Ax by Patricia Waller and Bronia Iwanczak’s black and white video piece, Many Fish Sacrifices, depicting a chef methodically slicing and gutting shiny, limp fish, without losing sight of the implicit intensity of the work of these artists. It is testimony to Bell’s curatorial engagement with the process of display.

Anxiety-raising devices that seduce, unnerve and amuse, strangely connect us in the recognition of a commonality of being that ends in death. However, there is no exuberant Freudian celebration of survival, no angels singing in exultation at another soul being set free. Here we tread upon the mournful reflection of what might have been, what had been and what is yet to come.

In the Phaedo Socrates pondered the best way to give oneself death and it is this gift of death, as Jacques Derrida further pondered, that we seek to construct. High’s work contracts into a series of strange anxieties when confronted with the real-life survival of Mark McDean. Following a fall which split McDean’s cranium, the paraphernalia of the trauma that form his work provide the clues for the re-enactment of this trauma. We are mesmerised by these objects and are provoked by a desire to twirl the flower plumped into the helmet that held together the artist’s head for three months. This is particularly salutary as an object of transition and is indicative of McDean’s academic interest in D.W. Winnicott’s exploration of the relevance of the transitional objects one employs to negotiate life changes.

Unnervingly placed almost at ground level, almost out of sight and out of parental view, is the softly crocheted child’s hand that innocently reaches for the last time into the electric socket in Patricia Waller’s Dangers in the Household 1. It is too late for a dramatic and sensational intervention, life has changed. The Goofy-like protruding fingers (which appear strangely unaffected by the loss of the manicured thumbs) in Konrad is violence at its silky smooth best. As Ross Moore states in his eloquent catalogue essay, ‘she debars access, in true tabloid style, to the full denouement of violence’.

In amongst this carnage are Bell’s photographs of forlorn, discarded, phallic spirals that previously adorned a gallery wall. The work, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, originally exhibited at Sutton Gallery in 1996, was unceremoniously dumped on a garden lawn during the renovation of a friend’s shed where the work had been stored. Photographs of the pristine environment of the displayed works and the later tangled mess of the phallic contrivances that once represented those lucky boys convey Bell’s continual reflection upon her life and her choices. She mines her desires and traumas without compromise or ease of satisfaction for the viewer. Yet here Bell laughs just a little—what else is there to do?

The implication in many of these works of a communal fear of a life less lived is subverted in the perplexing and subdued darkness of Stephen Garrett’s interrogation of the apparatus of suicide. His doll-house sized maquettes of playground equipment and purposeful stairs, which lead nowhere, resonate as memento mori for a sequence of suicide events encountered by Garrett. They are made all the more evocative by the adjacent solid dark wooden stairs of the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. This is trauma in its most innocent and pervasive of forms.

The authority of the ritual of death is final and while some cheat its advances for now, Iwanczak’s emotional entreaty to us mines that liminal space that is sooner or later to be occupied. The journey within this exhibition is well worth taking.

JULIE COTTER

First Published in EYELINE 72, 2010