“To Say The Least”: Ruth Buchanan, Ash Kilmartin, Sarah Rose, D. M. Satele, Holly Willson, Tamsen Hopkinson
15 October - 31 October 2009
Getting to Newcall on a cold and rainy Wednesday night turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. The traffic was bad and the rain was bad, and my 1986 Mitsubishi started to overheat so I sat at lights, staring at the end of the bonnet, waiting anxiously for the first waft of steam. Then I got there and I thought the other doors would be open, but they weren’t, and I drove around and around. The meter would only take $3 minimum, and I had a dollar and ten. And then I found a free park. These everyday occurrences are both banal, and potentially movie-worthy. As I struggled through the rain I could see how, with a little spicing up, it could form the beginning of a film. And of course Newcall itself is somewhat stage-set-like. Perhaps not out the front, but if you have ever been out through the back room, down that hallway and into the bathroom with a code on the door, you will know the Hitchcock-like potential of the space, the hallway set just waiting for a suspense sequence set in the 70s.
The reason behind recounting my small feat of arriving, is that the night was balanced between the everyday and the theatrical. When I arrived, I was greeted by yells and possibly, or was it my imagination, catcalls and whoops. This atypical art-opening behavior signaled the beginning of a performance by DM Satele, The police I fuck & never fuck where I fuck & never fuck the police. Performed by the artist and another, each read from a transcript of Wanda Syke’s comedy series ‘Tongue Untied’. Unfamiliar with Sykes (yes, where HAVE I been) I initially thought it was a play the artist had written, one called “Tongues United”. This error turned out to be serendipitously appropriate given performance’s format. Each man read, at the same time but rarely in unison, from the text. Meaning filtered through, but was obscured by the two competing voices. And what started out to my ear as a joint reading, moved into a theatrical competition. One man, on the left, playing the woman, (or was the other performer playing a woman too?) elicited laughs from the audience and the performance took a turn in which the higher, more outrageous voice, obscured the deeper monotone of the other performer. He finally moved into the audience, interacting with a few of the audience members, and then, finishing on a note about something about a tree house, the performance, he declared, ‘was over’. Later, on my return from the bathroom I ran into one of the pair, who, mollified when I explained I had not actually missed the performance asked me if I ‘loved it’. I said yes and he said that he loved ME.
Relaxing into hearing voice as noise rather than as meaning is difficult. Like a foreign language, when the meaning of spoken language is not straightforward, it is intriguing, but can also be frustrating. There is a certain expectancy that language will be transparent – there for us to use and to enjoy, no strings attached. Yet at the same time, this belief in the straightforward nature of language is of course naïve. Derrida for example proposed that our reliance on the systems of language meant that we could never really come to grips with the reality of things, and that this led to a fragmented self. Meaning in language is really always shifting, dependant on what precedes and succeeds it. The exhibition’s focus on the potential of language, or of sound, to evoke so much more than is ostensibly there, may be why the show appeared to me somewhat filmic or theatrical. Not theatrical as in phony or even showy, but evocative - almost wistful, and involving. By employing the essence of something, or even a silence, the works left a space for the viewer.
Holly Willson’s audios were poignant. Although it was difficult to hear them in among people talking, intermittent strains did drift through. I discovered later that this intermittency was part of both works, not due to the art opening noise factor. The irregularity made the pauses between the sound, full. It also meant that sound was present before you fully realised it. It was there on the edge of consciousness, and was haunting. White Shroud, also by Holly, was pinned in a twist from ceiling to floor. It looked like a waterfall of light as it descended from the overhead fluro. It is melodramatic to say that it came from the heavens, but there was something like a shaft of light about it, and an other-worldly component in the title. Holly’s third piece, an audio like the first, was titled Blonde/Blonde. This consisted of two speakers facing each other, emitting an intermittent crackling and the beat of deep sound every now and then. Like a heartbeat I strained to hear it, I waited to hear it. The anticipation - the gaps, were, like the work’s original title, like holding breaths. Blonde on Blonde is the title of Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 album. Holly’s work is a recording of the gaps between the songs, recorded from record onto a tape. We catch the edges of notes, and the stop start of the record. The speakers facing each other create a little space between them, enclosing, bracketing the sound, enclosing the viewer, speaking to each other.
Sarah Rose’s works were similarly evocative. The first work to greet the viewer was (Should you think it breathes). This work consists of three groupings of A4 paper, with small clusters of words floating about the page. The groups of words, nouns from several of Emily Dickinson’s poems, seemed to drift into the mind and gather there, sitting in the same visual constellation as they occupied on the page. I felt myself reaching for meaning, which wasn’t exactly there, though could be felt. The nouns, though ostensibly more abstract both in sound and form than the ‘full’ poem, were also active agents, striking out on their own. Sarah Rose’s second piece, Memory's Photogenic, included a piece of paper stuck on the outside window which fluttered in the wind and read: ‘as long as a rainbow lasts’, and footage playing on a small television on a small table of gymnast Nadia Comenici at the 1976 Olympics. Comenici was the first gymnast to achieve perfect tens. The almost alien quality of gymnastics is something I always find captivating – the poise and the performance, but this moment in gymnastics in particular is imbued with a singular significance. Playing on the old tv, there is strong sense of nostalgia in the old footage. There is also a fleeting quality, a brief moment of mysticism in the beauty of perfection.
Other works in the show looked at language and structures or building. Ash Kilmartin’s work for example consisted of a stack of paper on the floor with ‘self supporting structures’ written on each piece in pencil in diminishing size. Tamsen Hopkinson’s writing is familiar as the pitch of a large furniture corporation which advocates that we ‘LEND A HAND by driving your own purchases home and ASSEMBLING them yourself’. The almost evangelical tone of the piece is disturbing out of context - somehow an advertisement extends to a mantra on how to live life.
Ruth Buchanon’s audio, Build a wall or be a Room was accessed through headphones on a mirror shelf. Entering in the middle of a looped monologue, it takes a while to become attuned to what is being said. Buchanon’s serious voice sounds as though it is reading from an architectural manual, with a focus on the relationship between people and their environment. There is an increasingly anthropomorphic and metaphorical quality in the descriptions on the architecture. I really liked for example, the idea of the house as a protector for people from the elements, the idea that the human exterior and the architectural exterior are not dissimilar, but the house can apparently withstand outside forces better – the person can hide inside the house. In the Chatham Islands we hear that the architecture has been designed to work with the elements, rather than designed to withstand forces - joins are built to move with the wind – and the inhabitants find this movement soothing.
The Newcall exhibition is titled ‘to say the least’. This explained by the artists as: ‘a phrase which stands in for something larger - it is used to describe an under exaggeration, or something which is glossed over and not fully explained’. First recorded in 1809, common usage of the phrase, as found on the net, includes examples such as: ‘when the ring turned up in the lost and found, she was delighted, to say the least’ (as in exaggeration) or to show that something is worse or more serious than you are actually saying: ‘teaching methods were strange, to say the least’. The works in the exhibition weren’t fully explained, yet they spoke quite loudly. In using the smallest amount to imply to a whole lot more, one could say that an essence was employed, which is of course, much stronger than something diluted.