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1994 Ipso Photo

Group exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne

The drawing installation in Ipso Photo was derived from drawings made in the Leichhardt studio (Virtual Veranda) and in an abandoned building near the bus depot in Leichhardt (the Tramsheds).

Virtual Verandah, the Tramsheds and Ipso Photo , 1993-4.

Virtual Veranda is a drawing of three shapes making up a corner (a red, a green and a yellow shape). These shapes are drawn over a real, three-dimensional corner of the same size, so that the two 'corners' are in reverse to each other. From the set-up point they can be seen together as a sort of cube, half real and half drawn. Each half seems equally strong in character - one has the strength of actual three-dimensionality, while the other has the strength which the simple pattern, colour, powdery nature and the human hand-marks give to the drawing. Real three-dimensional space has an inherent strength by virtue of its realness. We believe in it, it has the same type of reality as does our physical existence - it is the basis of commonsense. Illusion is a type of nonsense or unreality, even though we might all agree that the shape looks like a cube from one spot and a verandah from others. There is a difference between something being something and something looking like something, and it is a judgement we make instantaneously, because we know it immediately. Our minds have been trained. When we cannot make that judgement, there is either a disruption in our perceptual ability (which is a problem), or there is a type of art or game (which is not a problem).

Oliver Sacks told the story of a musician who suffered a brain disorder and found it increasingly difficult to interpret shapes, although he could still describe them in abstract geometric language: " he saw nothing as familiar. Visually he was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions. Indeed he did not have a real visual world, as he did not have a real visual self. He could speak about things but did not see them face to face. A judgement is intuitive, personal, comprehensive and concrete - we 'see' how things stand in relation to one another and to oneself. It was precisely this seeing, this relating, that Dr P. lacked." Sacks observed a degree of similarity between this musician's inability to interpret and see relationships, and Sacks' own discipline within medicine: "By a sort of comic and awful analogy our current cognitive neurology and psychology resembles nothing so much as poor Dr P.! We need the concrete and the real as he did; and we fail to see this, as he failed to see it. Our cognitive sciences are themselves suffering from an agnosia essentially similar to Dr P.'s. Dr P. may therefore serve as a warning and a parable - of what happens to a science which eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational."

Sacks' observations have some relevance to what I am dealing with in these room drawings. Part of the game I am playing is to speculate that we can actually exist in abstraction or lose our sense of scale and orientation in three-dimensional space - but without having to develop brain disorders, elaborate technology or other ways of deleting concrete existence in the process. It is partly an exercise in cognitive dissonance between viewers' conscious will and their commonsense, where the challenge comes from finding a balance between seeing things abstractly and recognising them as familiar and real - in being able to acknowledge one without negating the other. One of my underlying concerns is that an art-way of seeing be acknowledged as part of real life, rather than being hived off as a mysterious, otherworldly activity, or coming to dominate in the extreme forms of detachment that Sacks describes. The drawings can be seen as tools for viewers to exercise or play with their perceptual abilities. The game poses the question of where the concrete world is most likely to be found - in the abstract patterns in our fields of vision, or in the walls and floors under our hands and feet.

The verandah drawing was later taken a step further in the abandoned Tramsheds in Leichhardt . I repeated the red section of the drawing several times over a wall and floor in an semi-open space. This repetition meant that the same shape could be seen from several different angles from any one position, like another form of cubism. I was thinking of it as a perverse kind of film - if the viewers stood still and moved their eyes quickly down the row of shapes, it appeared as though a single shape was moving along the wall. Alternatively, if viewers ran fast enough along the front of the row of shapes and only opened their eyes when at the optimum viewing position, they might be able to see the shape stand still while they moved, because they would repeatedly see the same shape while being in different positions themselves. This was a type of dada-single point perspective work and was repeated in Ipso Photo, a group show at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, although the viewers' running was hampered there because the last shape sat right up against one wall.

The drawings in the Tramsheds and Ipso Photo were essentially the same, to the extent of being roughly the same measurements. However the different locations made them into different works. The Tramsheds site was a de facto public park - in the day time people occasionally wandered through to practice their music or walk their dogs, weeds grew vigorously and at night people probably slept there. The red shapes were drawn over the graffiti and within a few weeks, the wind and birds had begun to leave their marks on the drawings. Thus the drawings felt as though they had a place in the ongoing changes in the site - perhaps they were comparable with the large squares of concrete outside, for example, which were the remains of sheds which had been bulldozed and were now being taken over by weeds and self-sown young trees. The red shapes were architectural, but also acted like both the graffitiests and the elements in altering and wearing down the purpose and regularity of the structures.

In contrast, the work in Ipso Photo was in an art gallery renovated so that its past was virtually obliterated. As with most shows, the shapes magically appeared on opening night and disappeared after the show closed, living on only in the memory of viewers. They existed to show themselves to you but left no evidence of any other life. They had no relationship to what went before or after in this space, except in being yet another bit of art. This transience has the speed of film in comparison with the transience of nature, where the processes are familiar, even though at least as mysterious. At the same time, the drawing had a strength in itself - the matt absorbant powder of the oxide shapes appeared to separate from the waxed cement floor and the rich material and architectural shape easily held a presence in the room - but this was not followed through in its siting. A show-place for art is practical and administratively convenient - like a book is a convenient way to distribute stories. However unless a site has its own connection with the familiar world, it tends to take the heart out of work which lives partly by incorporating the site into itself.

from: Margaret Roberts
Drawing on Rooms, Project Report for Master of Fine Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of NSW, 1996.