parenthesis of eight spaces
Hold Everything Dear is a call. A call sounding at variable volume, tone and modulation; anything from an injunctive invocation cried out loud to to something more like a muttering to oneself. This is the setting for the varied works in this exhibition. Eight artists present works that veer between the direct and politicised to the intimate and nuanced. These artists have responded generally to the call to hold everything dear and more specifically, to the eponymous book of essays by Berger (2008).* There is a sense of pause too – of restrained urgency and reflection, as while the Berger writings are lucid they are also overwhelmingly anguished and were published well over a decade ago. In many ways this exhibition is an opportunity for crafting a wealth of visual responses to the despair of contemporary terrorism, occupation, war and ethics of global power in the intervening time. Facing the enormity of such issues, in an era of increasingly fragmented and globalized humanity, the art made simply reflects the human range.
As a country was invaded, and with no peace in sight, an artist wrote to John Berger, The world today is hard to look at, let alone think of**. And yet, this is what artists do. What is it to Hold Everything Dear?
There are certain moments of looking at a familiar mountain which are unrepeatable. A question of a particular light, an exact temperature, the wind, the season. You could live seven lives and never see the mountain quite like that again; its face is as specific as a momentary glance across a table at breakfast.
While mountains are massive, immovable (perhaps even immortal) there is this overwhelmingly tender observation - that which is valuable, precious, held dear, the Everything – is not only faceted but is nearby, in daily lives and histories. This is also a feature of the Berger book; where we are led to face a mountain of pain, to ask how to continue without any plausible vision of the future? A stark question, placed beside lines of achingly lovely poetry (by Gareth Evans) for gentle answer;
the jug of this life, as it fills with the days / as it sinks to become what it loves***
Murray’s Study for the Miner’s Hut fixes the gaze on the mountain as a heap of coal - a dark, loaded and heavy history of coal dependency. By tying titles to hashtags and contested mine sites, the work directly references contemporary sites of contest and activism around coal mining. While the hard-edged geometric forms, the warning colours of black and red signal the language of protest and of clear-cut positions on the issue (#keepitintheground), these are ameliorated by materials and context. RAM Board is a temporary flooring product, produced from recycled elements, the paint is a gloss Weathershield and the miner’s hut itself is no longer in use, but a historical museum display in Sydney’s Blue Mountain, elements which suggests the future is fraught and intertwined with a myriad of other environmental issues.
A number of the artists have utilised recycled and found materials or objects to allude to the passing of time, the prevalence of memory and to evoke a sense of loss and nostalgia for place and people. This repurposing is a way of reseeing the mountain. Materials such as paper, textiles, leather, timber and glass are versatile for their ability to hold time within; marks of wear becoming a part of its structure. Through processes that are tactile and draw on craft traditions, they offer a chance to leave traces of the hand, as touch.
Belgiorno’s work Vessels is an installation of seedpod or cocoon-like objects, hollow and torn open, suspended from branches. As dried and hollowed husks these organic forms seem to reference a past time of fertility or fruiting while their present barrenness suggest vulnerability and perhaps, function also as metaphors for the uncertain present. Washi paper, itself handmade, was sourced from drawings, dampened and torn to transform into remade forms. In this way the torn drawings (of valued objects) are a condensed material archive of the past but also, contain the observation that mere things are ephemeral and transient. The forms deliberately mirror and repeat familiar natural ones, the rounded surfaces, earthy palette and uneven textures so descriptive of life cycles, reproduction, renewal and healing.
The innate tactility of textiles and their ability to describe the comfort of touch is also present in Burgess’ Fit our vision to the dark, an installation about home. Using the malleability of fabric and the scale of the louvre windows in the artist’s own home, the work forms an impression of architecture-as-memory. The window, a structure for looking outward, from a safe place into an uncertain one is echoed, but in tulle and distorted timber. Working from a deeply personal context, of a home about to be vacated, Burgess conjures that which is dear when physical spaces are left - the warmth of of domesticity, of humans filling architecture, of our need for shelter deepened by the joy of familial rhythms, peace, connection and the growth of children into adults. Foreshadowing loss and its attendant anxiety, the window is the setting for seeing that dark mountain; the sheer quality of tulle and the misshapen grid making the view beyond hazy and indistinct.
The Contemplation of Loss by Fernando takes the form of delicate new life – green shoots sprout freely from a clay cooking pot that was used in the artist’s father’s restaurant. The death of a parent and the inevitable legal and other formalities that followed, led to a series of artworks that literally grow from loss as seeds are sown on to paper pulped from shredded copies of the artist’s father’s last Will and Testament. As the seeds are watered, plants grow from the document. Grief, private and public, emblematically return the text to soil while the fecundity of growth reveals the continuance of life, renewal and hope. This contemplation imbues the personally felt loss with the empathy of shared celebration.
Hold everything, Dear / Discard something inexpensive / Keep something special / Forsake nothing precious / Hold, everything dear! In Burdett’s own words, the cadence and emphasis shifts – it is all a question of nuance and intonation. Describing the array of materials presented in the work as originating from the fragmented diaspora of the artist’s own existence: the collected objects, images, bones, hides, rural fragments, artefacts, slogan-like snippets of text, textures and crafted textiles are displayed in considered arrangements. This, and the uniform palette of antique patina lends the work the quality of a diorama or movie set, and the narrative proceeds outwards from the autobiographical to the communal, from a life to lives, from the personal to the political and from the symbolic to the real. Wearing the marks of age, there is a chair for sitting and looking, and bizarrely, a Mexican puppet that looks back (for the artist, a personal symbol of the voyeur).
Running through Berger’s essays are deeply felt personal stories: the devastation of loss mingled with the warmth of family comforts and transformative art and poetry. Other artists in the exhibition seek to access and portray the human condition by depicting and engaging with familiar human narratives, essentially stories of people.
Meisner’s work consists of small-scaled human figures, photographic prints enlivened by brightly coloured layers of collaged fabric in Perspex. Standing on plinths, these figures move us back and forth between considering the individual and the crowd. Somehow, they are at once anonymous and recognisable, collective and differentiated, achieving an oscillation of form and concept. Driven by a strong sense of empathy and concern for the global phenomena of displaced populations, Meisner works inwards from these broad themes to consider the impact of forced relocation, migration or simply movement, on the individuals photographed. Humans and humanity are depicted in a permanent state of contemplative transit.
Connolly’s figurative paintings and sculptures are influenced by an ongoing interest in folk, tribal, primitive and outsider traditions of figuration. These human and quasi-human figures are depicted in an active chaos of bright colour and texture, displaying energetic mark making and a variety of materials. Paint, collage, wire and ceramic elements are meshed, woven and joined together. Most of the figures feature an open mouth and it is interesting to imagine them giving full voice to the exhibition title, Hold Everything Dear, in full throated chorus.
Lees will be making an interactive work, engaging with visitors to the exhibition, here and now. Building on a recent participatory project in a hospital environment, Lees intends to make a wall of written notes; A Little Good for this gallery within a school. The invitation (also issued over social media) is for people to share the good by contributing a sentence describing a particular moment that has brought joy. These will be displayed and transcribed as the exhibition progresses. Lees sees her work as a balm to the prevailing stream of negativity in the media. The pause, to be created by the work, will be time - time to sit, reflect and write, enabling not just the artist’s hand, but a host of other hands, to be visible in the final work.
This exhibition can be seen to function as a Greek chorus. They look at the mountain. They cannot affect the outcome of what is being shown. They do not interpret. They question, listen, observe and then give voice to what the viewer may, more or less inarticulately, be feeling.****
8 voices; female voices, singing hold everything dear.
* Berger, John, Hold Everything Dear - Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, 2007: Vintage Books
(2008), New York, USA
** Ibid. 55
*** Extract from Gareth Evans, Hold Everything Dear for John Berger (2005), Ibid. viii - ix
**** Berger, Ibid. 87