TO HEAT, TO FREEZE, TO PRICK
Collections of interesting objects in glass cabinets viewed by the European elites of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were called Wunderschranke or Wunkerkabinette. Inviting viewers to make sense of their fascinating contents, these cabinets were for the concentration, conjoining and metamorphosis of “the universe’s unruly singularities”. These “unruly singularities” structure the contemporary work displayed in the streetside setting of the Melbourne Street window boxes which housed ‘To Heat, To Freeze, To Prick’. However, where the Wunderkabinette’s purpose was the display of artefacts and ‘historical mementoes’ (p.11), what animated these works was precisely the opposite urge: the desire to explore the impermanent, the mutable, the fragile and the transient.
Evoking a world of dreams, reveries and magic, Madeleine Kelly manipulated the most fundamental material of the universe – light – in a delicate installation that conjured illusions dancing in the space between the mimetic, and the hypnotic. In this spell-binding visual display, Kelly refracted, through the use of simple materials including foam and cardboard, our primal and enduring fascination with the “little ghosts” of light and shadow.
Elizabeth Willing’s work with edible substances reference the commensality of food as social experience, as well as the Food Art movement of the 1980s, celebrity gourmet culture of the 2000s and 2010s, and the role of food in aspirational lifestylism, upward mobility and – of course – conspicuous consumption. Bringing the impermanent architectronics of food to the fore, the sculptural expression of her (decomposition process of the substance used – expand - common experience of preparation for consumption) emphasised how both eating and performance are often methodically prepared and quickly consumed, sharing the common currency of ephemerality.
Megan Cope’s slowly melting sculpture, combining ice and sand from the Western Australian Tanami Desert, is also constituted by the brevity of its period of existence. As Haynes has noted, the desert remained the area most inimical to Europeans, and so was readily ceded to its original owners – ‘until it began to acquire commercial and strategic value for mining and nuclear testing’, when its ‘defamation’ came to ‘parallel’ that of indigenous Australians. The stately pace of decomposition of Cope’s assemblage elements – water-shaped earth from the most northerly desert of the world’s driest continent slowly crumbling to a soft mound – drew a stark contrast with the rapid and often ugly rate of transformation of the Australian landscape, while the visual attention the less valued commodity of silica underlined our continuing dependence on – and the power of – those with the interests, capacity and political power to extract the more profitable minerals.
The exploration of these artists into the essential transience of all things offers two distinctly opposed readings. The profundity of the various personal realisations generated by the concepts of transitory beauty and inevitable decay lead some down the path of reflexive nihilism, or cause the sense that everything, including being, is not only transient, but meaningless. Overcoming this somewhat pathological logic requires the awareness, as Freud writes in his short essay On Transience, that transience enhances rather than invalidates or disables aesthetic experience. As he advised the young poet of this story – who was “disturbed by the idea that all this beauty was bound to fade” – rather than constituting unbearable psychic torture, the very same circumstance is also a key opportunity to affirm life, beauty and desire. Indeed, since impermanence confers value, the multiple forms of transience create and enhance pleasures of all kinds (such as anticipation). All that is required is our attention to the wonderful, the expiring but “fresh charms” in their evanescence (and not our own masochistic identifications).
The viewer attending to these works can thus appreciate the inherent fragility and contingency of the works all the more in the realisation that their presence is thus required to complete the cycle of preparation, presentation and decomposition; the viewer as co-creator. As Heidegger argues, the work of art is not finished when its structural composition is complete; rather, its existence is a process, a constantly unfolding creation that necessitates a viewer ‘making present the being of a thing’ to draw out its truth. The same can be argued for the ‘world in a box’ works in these cabinets – they are innately processual, experiential, rather than objects of value or trade. The viewer, ironically for a show about the ephemeral, thus acts as what Heidegger calls a preserver – one who brings a work of art alive with “the creative preserving of truth in the work” through their contemplative energies. We, the preservers, are thus a group whom these work first constitutes – but then also those who constitute the work, and enable it to accomplish its work. Since the preservation of the world meaning revealed by these three works explicitly depends not on their materiality or enduring temporal permanence, what is ultimately created is an enhanced awareness of the viewer-preservers whose actions keep this world, its immaterial ghosts, earthly apparitions and consumed illusions, open.
by Danni Zuvela
1 See Stafford, Barbara Maria 2005, ‘Revealing Technologies/Magical Domains’, in Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, B. Stafford and Frances Terpak (eds), Getty Research Institute, p.6ff
2 Mannoni, Laurent 2000, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, translated and edited by Richard Crangle, University of Exeter Press, Exeter.
3 See Gratza, Agnieszka 2010, ‘Spiritual Nourishment: Food and Ritual in Performance Art’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 32, No. 1, Issue 94, pp. 67-75
4 Haynes, Roslynn D., Seeking the Centre: the Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 33, p. 34
5 See Freud, On Transience, translated by James Strachey, available from: http://
6 von Unswerth (2005) argues that while Freud’s walk probably did take place with the poet Rilke, other aspects of the account appear drawn from Freud’s own imagination. See Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk, Continuum, esp. pp.11-13. 7 Heidegger, Martin 1993 (1937/1960), ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper & Row, New York, especially pp.67-68. 8 Ibid; see also p.39, pp. 71-72
From Independent Press