I saw them arranged on the walls of the show like jewels or like tiny windows that lead to other worlds (fantasy). These picture worlds were simplified, stripped back to their own very few internal laws: the diver always falls; architecture is a bridge to something taller and more grand and more ancient than the building itself; soft light-plays over a city in the evening spell respite. The diver always falls. A sleek body like a bullet painted without any trace of striving in reds and pinks against an intense blue sky that envelops it; that stages and facilitates its falling. There are sixteen canvases in the show and they are arranged evenly in series. Four of the diver, eight of these spidery aspirational structures built from scrap timber and fastened loosely with bolts and wire, four abstract pieces that could be landscapes that merge together with sheets of fire or some other firmament, layered on with impressionistic figures set to trace a set of postures that sit just beyond the margin of clean legibility. These figures are dancing or curled over or reaching - the landscapes that they inhabit (only provisionally) form a rough stage for whatever this drama is; rough and unformed but clearly epic in scope. It is obviously a human drama but beyond that difficult to really say.
The masters stroke in the room is a piece of comedy. Fastened to the frames of the diver paintings are four small reading lamps painted gold to ape the gilt rococo frames that work overtime organising the space in the room. The fluorescent lights have been switched off and the room is lit naturally via a set of big Victorian windows with heavy sills painted the same white as the walls - the light makes the space soft and unhurried and each of the lamps flowers a soft gold halo over the painting that it attends. The deep colours catch fire under the lamps - they are so intense they almost vibrate. Installed in a row they discipline the rest of the pictures in the neoclassical room like a row of gaudy drillmasters. Comedy, because the movement of the body of the diver is caught and fixed in light but moves unnaturally, not like a body at all; it moves under the conditions of its flatness, an icon given flight by the apparatus of its display. Such proud images. Proud little bodies, proud of their separateness, which is beyond argument (even beyond compassion).
It is always amazing to me that inside of this weary space there is still somehow enough room for the chimeric movement of the diver’s four bodies, and also room for your own movement, as strange and unaccountable to any metered regime of time; movement that feels like falling but that you realise eventually is also a type of vibration.
I realise suddenly that I am alone in the gallery. The woman that I arrived with has gone on ahead into the other rooms, maybe to the second story; is there more work here? Another show to see? In this moment I cannot imagine that the rest of the building is anything but empty and silent, stripped of furniture and electrics and fixtures and bared open to the outside - all windows thrown open, maybe removed from frames, to let the wild, massive wind fill these rooms. This abandonment would form the next crucial layer in the whole apparatus that supports the show, the diver and surrounds hooked umbilically to this vision of ruined domesticity. This would be their properly Modern labour; afforded only under auspices of total collapse and restaged among the ruins of their own gestation (birth of Alien pushing ribcage apart). The painter is far smarter than this masc feeling of mine. In this show comedy is played straight as against human pain and not this slick performance of Euro-abjection. Shame blooms up in me. How far has she gone and which way should I turn to begin to try to find her? Other visitors have entered the space and are crowding around the frames talking and laughing softly. One grumpy kid with a face red from some previous tantrum slumps into the corner between wall and polished floor in a posture of utter defeat.
I move back out past the front desk where the black-clad attendant sits reading a slim book with a bright blue cover. I read from the signage that there are many shows open (but the gallery will close soon I think; the light of the afternoon that comes in from the street through plate glass doors is beginning to lose its colour) across the building’s six installation spaces. I read over the titles and try to imagine which one would match most nearly to her taste, which I know from long experience is volatile, quixotic, contrarian, betraying, etc. She told me soon after we first met that calling someone’s taste without first setting up some possibility for contradiction is exactly how genuine, collaborative relationships begin to devolve into habit and frustration. That besides intimidation and physical violence this was the worst thing that could happen between friends who had learned to trust one another. Nonetheless I think, after reading the titles I know exactly which of the spaces she will be in and if I’m honest I struggle to truly feel the violence or repression in this.
The other shows are: a dark room with two projectors playing onto large gauze screens that in the gloaming seem to float in the air (their surfaces ripple, the video tracks that play from invisible projector units are twin sets of tortured digital forms that twist and flop around and that appear to respond in their way to the movement of the spectators through the space); a set of plaster bas reliefs carved out in negative in doggedly amateur style (they show various cartoonish transformations of bodies, into monsters, into prisoners, into skeletons, into strange angular abstractions) and each violently spot lit; a heap of thick and transparent plastic sheeting pushed into a corner in an attempt to cover up two small blood red paintings sprayed onto the gallery walls directly like graffiti (I cannot clearly make them out but they appear to address one another with two little speech bubbles - call and response I think, or set-up and punchline); two large wooden stages installed facing one another, one tiered like an amphitheatre but built at larger than human scale (complete with trompe l’oeil where the top giants step is cut off early so that it appears to extend into the space of the ceiling - I am reminded of the Kabakovs and their ongoing gigantism bit), and the other low, plain and functional. There are curtains installed on the walls, square cut and regular, where you would normally find the 2d work, some classically patterned and some printed with low resolution digital images blown up so large that they lose coherence. These are installed on a brushed steel railing that I see wraps around and encloses the whole room about 2.5 metres up from the floor. The room is growing dark rapidly and these details are difficult to make out even against the whiteness of the walls which are now beginning to glow in the dimness.
I find her and we leave the space and move off into the city. I realise that not one of the shows had been lit using the gallery lights and wonder who the curator was and whether or not there was some piece of copy in there that I missed that might have provided some framework for organising all of this disparate content into something coherent.
We eat where she likes to eat, somewhere cheap where the seating is tucked well back and away from the street. Music and lighting are soft. She seems tired but as we talk she tells me about her life as it is right now (no reminiscing). She works as a junior academic and also as a temp secretary at a design company with offices in the city. She has been lonely since her last relationship ended. There is something ruthless in the way that she speaks; no cruelty, nothing grandiose, just a grim dedication to cutting these images of her life from any decoration. I realise that she is unhappy, very unhappy, and that this night and this mode of conversation are a type of necessary penance, and wonder how this could have been hidden to me until now. She tells me about her younger brother who has just moved into his first apartment. How he seems happier and how she wishes she could see him more often now that he lives in Sydney. I sit back and eat and drink and listen to her speak, and allow my vision to vibrate in and out of clarity. The light in the restaurant facilitates this. I am suddenly drunk.
My own grandiosity swells up silently in me like a sack of bilge. As she speaks I begin to arrange her using nothing but eyes drilling hard over limbs and sheafs of cotton twill (she wears a loose cut black cotton jumpsuit with Japanese ties at wrists, waist and ankles - I think of a middle-class New York caricature scene set in art gallery). I place her at head of a procession of her peers, I change things, change spine into steel rod, change face for icon painted without striving in reds, pinks, blues and gold. I put a halo easily round the face, around fists or chest as required by each new labour. But I do not know anything about her labour, just a suite of bald facts about her emotional and financial situation as it is right now. It startles me (I am returning to the room) how utterly devoid of historicity her stories are. She could be a golem speaking from scripture, or a camera offboarding data from its visual field. She is telling me how much she enjoyed the show, especially the room with the reading lamps and the series of paintings with the gilt frames. I am drunk and she is drunk. We finish our meals and say goodbye and goodnight and hug out front in the open street. It has been raining and the hot night smells of rain. I can smell her too, her sweat and scent, and can take all of it in in deep breaths through the nose. My whole body relaxes smelling her this way. I can feel the hard muscles in her arms and chest slide under the fabric of her outfit, feel the way her own breathing swells inside her. I want to ask her if I can push my nose up into her armpit and spend the night that way but I am sometimes overcome by a feeling of ridiculousness, as though I or my body were somehow vestigial just hanging out in open space ripe for cutting away and so I ask her nothing and she says goodnight and leaves underground to catch her train. She lives well outside the cbd in a studio apartment with freight lines on one side and an arterial truck road on the other. I take a minute or two and then decide to walk home through Melbourne’s suburbs since the night is so hot and so nice smelling.
When a flat visual field is abstracted into a basically Romantic chaos the movement is into epic time and epic space - field of mist, seas, lights, skies lit on fire, a flatness that pushes depth back through a static volume of empty, charged space. If you decide to populate this field with any expressive form it will begin to associate with archetypes. The further from specificity the cleaner and more powerful the mythic association. I knew a woman once (we worked for a few weeks together in a data entry job) who told me that god for her came in a blue the she recognised from the ceiling of the church where he first spoke to her, that when he needed to tell her things he would manifest blue-ly in her visual cortex, would overlay his physical trace not onto the matter or stuff before her but directly into the sense circuitry of her experience. She told me that she spent years holding her severed head under her arm when he told her once that like Saint Denis she should be martyred by decapitation. I started to tell her about the head game played between Gawain and the Green Knight; how Gawain’s strength was in his courage and honesty and how even Lancelot, who was never beaten in combat, was afraid to face him, but under this relation she became sly and suspicious and refused to entertain further conversation about god or anything. I think that god could not be traced in the figuration at front of field nor in the churning of the abstract field itself. I think of demons instead, each with their limbs arranged in their significant order. Or of stock characters - fools and magicians and villains with costumes and visible tools to divide one from the other, and then of that Modern body so thoroughly disciplined by it’s technologies; scraped through two world wars and the insanity of brinksmanship; BECKETT postures and BECKETT gestures this marxist taxonomy of post-war state violence and all the failing bodies that attend it. These correlate only poorly to the figures from the show, and not at all to the diver who I have pinned above them as ordering sigil. The caught, vibrating movement is like a spell that scrambles the postures that attend it. The architectures in the scene are just a trick to keep gaze moving backwards and forward between the figures (that move freely) and the fixed image of Utopia (perfect city free from ideology or historicity). As though these could be kept in view and held without contradiction. But then I think why make this joke? Why these judgements and this sudden cruelty?
First performed as part of Gog and Magog, Goldsmiths College, 2018