1992 Through a Corridor Sideways

Exhibition with Rebecca Turrell, The Performance Space, Sydney.

This was a two-person exhibition at The Performance Space, consisting of a corridor painted by Rebecca Turrell, and my drawing installations in the rooms on either side. The exhibition was partly motivated by issues arising out of group exhibitions of site-specific work. (See the discussion in relation to PURL in 1993) It was a small experiment with the idea that, if participating artists share interests to start with, and develop work with an awareness of each other's developing ideas, then there was a possibility that unforeseen relationships would appear in the work - a type of curatorial collaboration by participating artists.

In the inside and outside of the corridor on the long room side, and in the entrance area to the gallery, Rebecca used strong colours in house paint to alter the feel of the space. The corridor became an intense and internal space in comparison with the more open areas on either side. We intended our work to be independent while at the same time acknowledging each other. My drawings on either side of the corridor were an extension and alteration of the existing pattern of the room. The lines which appear diagonal from the set-up points were emphasised at the expense of the horizontal and vertical lines, the reverse of the case in the W.I.N.D.O.W. drawings. I used almost colourless materials - white titanium powder over the existing paint, and warm-coloured fire-ash over freshly painted white walls.

The set-up points for the white drawing in the long room were two spots located against the corridor wall, each half way between the ceiling and floor, and half way between one side wall and the centre of the room. From each of these two spots, the pattern directly in front of the viewer was the mirror image of the pattern which could be seen from the other spot. From each spot you could also see the other half of the shape although from a different angle. In retrospect, I can see that this presaged the work later made in the Leichhardt Tramsheds (see Virtual Verandah 1993-4). It was impossible to see the whole pattern simultaneously because that would have required eyes several metres apart, as the two set-up points jointly made the viewing spot for the whole work. Thus 'getting it' whole required the viewer to be omnipresent, or to work it out deliberately as well as look. The catalogue included the plan, reproduced as Figure 5.1, so that people could see how the work was made, and also that the work was not only its concept - that the process of translating it into real space had potentially produced something else.

The primary motivation for the two set-up points was to get more of the pattern in, and to emphasise the repetition of patterning. I wanted the implication that this piece of pattern visible in The Performance Space could be one segment of a larger one, and thus to imply infinity or continuity between the contents of your field of vision when standing in the room, and what you knew to exist outside it but which you couldn't actually see at the same time. I wanted to imply a continuity between what was in your field of vision, and what you knew, or surmised, was hidden by it. This continuity may parallel the inter-relationship between what you see and what you work out. This process of looking and working out is how we comprehend flat pictures generally. However, in the Performance Space drawings, it was no longer a flat drawing with one fixed viewpoint because the viewer was in the drawing rather than outside it. The obvious fact of one's physical presence in this work shows how fixed viewpoints are connected to such things as cameras and flat imagery, even though this fixed point imagery is everywhere part of our lives. It is as if the drawing was set up by a camera but looked at by real people who move around in the drawing and reinterpret the mixture of the drawing and three-dimensional space. This reinterpretation doesn't even need any deliberate working out.

While the fixed viewpoint merely enabled the work to be conceived, it was still present in the finished work, and the viewer's brief experience of the abstract pattern was not entirely irrelevant to it. As with many of these room drawings, when you see the pattern flat you see something abstract very close to your nose, and this fleeting experience always reminds me of Gertrude Stein's writing. She writes as if she has her face up against the plane of direct experience, as if so immersed in day-to-day life that there is no capacity for detached analysis or understanding. Her characters are presented as if fused with their immediate environments. They have their noses to the ground with no distance from which to see any broader picture either of their own lives or of the events in which they are participating. Gertrude also presents herself in this way when she is chronicling her experiences. She is a witness to battles that were later to be famous, but reports them as a curious plane noise over the hill, or the surprise of seeing traumatised men in the village. "Stein's long, repetitive sentences convey a sense of process and duration, and of the time it takes to know a person or understand an idea." In much of her work, she writes histories or stories as a participant experiences it, from a particular viewpoint, and not as historians or novelists conventionally do in attempting to find a relatively omniscient position and presenting more of the whole picture.

Her writing has been described as presenting "the fleeting, fragmentary nature of perception before consolidation by memory into a conceptual whole". What Dubnick calls 'fragmentary', I would call continuity. I am seeing it from the point of view of the fusion of the subjects with the world in which they live, whereas Dubnick is speaking from the point of view of the individual subject's 'wholeness', a wholeness which she sees as achievable through memory and conceptual processes. It is exactly these processes that Gertrude's 'characters' lack. They have a continuity with their direct experience and immediate environment to the extent that any sense of wholeness as a separate individual seems impossible and even a violation. She is presenting the archetypal feminine processes of merging described by feminist object relations theory, where the growing daughter is typically unable to separate from the mother with whom she shares a continuity while an infant. The son on the other hand, typically, separates completely - too much, it can be argued - even to the extent that he is never able to form sympathetic relations with others because the initial separation was so complete.

Gertrude's adult characters never seem to have emerged - it is as if they have transferred their infantile symbiosis with the mother to a symbiosis with whatever part of the immediate world they find themselves in. They are like Jean Rhys' female characters who have no desire to take any control over their lives and who, as adults, constantly seek to merge with male lovers in an unquestioning commitment to the archetypes or conventions of romance and love.

Lacan argues the Phallus must intrude on the infantile merging with our source, so that a distinct adult can emerge. It has also been argued that the Phallus enables boys to leave the symbiotic ocean of one-ness with the mother because it offers them recognition as separate individual human beings somewhere else. For girls on the other hand, there is no such offer. While the Phallus intrudes into the relationship between mother and daughter, the only alternative it offers is to transfer that symbiotic relationship to the father or another male. Typically, there is no offer of recognition as an individual in her own right. Those few women who develop an individual self, do so despite their conditioning process, not because of it, social structures not being completely uniform or immune to all resistance. In this context the characters of Gertrude Stein and Jean Rhys can be seen to represent the archetypal feminine in Western culture, forever merged and unable to develop a separate self or concept of an Other.

There also seems to be an important difference between these characters however. Jean Rhys' characters seem hopelessly lost in a desire to live through their romantic connections, forever being violated and rejected by the inadequate men to whom they have given over their lives in complete trust. Their commitment to the innocent dream of romantic union with a man survives against all odds. In Gertrude Stein's writing, however, the innocence seems contrived - it is as if she is presenting us with what it is like to be immersed in experience because it is a new thing to write about at her point in history. While she is clearly writing as a woman, she is arguably writing with great awareness of her position in history, an awareness which is archetypally male, within the context I have laid out above. Gertrude Stein's involvement with autobiography, such as in Everybody's Autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas and Wars I have Seen, is more self conscious than Jean Rhys', whose novels and stories appear more conventionally autobiographical. Gertrude Stein seems to be saying that there are other ways of experiencing life than the conventional one of writing with the benefit of hindsight. The conventional position of writing from where you can see everyone else with their noses to the ground, may be one thing, but to write as if your own nose is to the ground is quite another. She gives the impression of loving to write in this way, not because she thinks that is the best position for everyone to be in, but because from that position she can present another view of life to that normally presented within literary conventions of the time. It is as if it is a very ordinary position that has not been noticed before. And if that position can be seen as archetypally feminine, as I have suggested above, then it has not been noticed for that very reason. To be not noticed is the essence of femininity. Even though you are constantly being looked at, what is being seen is not you but the viewer's Other, and unless you escaped your feminine training there will be no 'you' for them to see anyway. And that may also have been Gertrude Stein's purpose in presenting it - at least when seen with the benefit of hindsight later on in the century from the time she was writing - to show what the world looks like to those embedded in its ground.

Seeing the flat shapes imposed over the three-dimensional room is a little like Gertrude's favourite viewpoint - everything suddenly comes up very close and fills your field of vision. You are innocently, passively and uncritically part of it. The distant wall is suddenly just in front of your nose. Up close, things look abstract. If you can't get enough information about something, you can't work out what it is and you can't work out where you stand in relation to it. It is a paralysing and a pleasurable experience at one and the same time. If you are sufficiently lost in the confusion of what is all around you, you lose - or have never had—the sense of a single viewpoint. You are freed into a type of delirium with no relationship to the ground, in the sense that you have no notion of who you are or even that you are someone. Life can be a constant struggle to work out how you are supposed to dress, whom you should talk to, what you should think, where you want to go, etc. Finding a position on the ground can be a revelation and a liberation. Once you find that position, then moving around and looking takes on another dimension.

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