Review by Annee Lawrence
Alison Clouston and Boyd
Articulate Project Space, Sydney 10–19 June 2011
A curtain of rusted corrugated iron hangs from the ceiling. Like a wave it curls inward in a gesture that invites entry and, looking back, you can see spots of light shining through where nails have been. Trailing through the entire ground floor of Articulate Project Space, the rusted, warped, contorted and blackened remains of a fire are illuminated by warm white surfaces.
Alison Clouston, a visual artist, and Boyd, a composer, have worked collaboratively for more than a decade to create sound and sculpture installations that explore environmental themes. Dust, a sound and sculpture installation, consists of fire damaged material and willow and includes three compositions – the Prelude ‘Breath’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Chorale’ – which were composed and performed by Boyd, with The Monday Club which had Tony Gorman on alto clarinet, Stephen Morley on horn, Mary Rapp on cello.
In December 2010, the artists’ studio burned to the ground, destroying their tools, art materials and a lifetime collection of artworks from previous exhibitions such as Bonetown (2004), Nestling Nestling (2004) and BIRD CRY (2008). The studio, which was in isolated bushland in the Burragorang Valley, southwest of Sydney, was constructed from building materials scavenged in Sydney back lanes during the 1980s. An onscreen photo reveals a small corrugated iron house with peaked roof and wooden dormer windows. There is a pond in the foreground and a jutting majestic rocky escarpment across the horizon. The scene is peaceful, a rural romance inhabited by wombats, kangaroos and other native species whose found remains – skulls, bones, nests – have been collected and incorporated into the artists’ previous exhibitions.
In the main gallery space, the installation objects are spread out on two sides, leaving a track down the middle. On one side there is an assemblage of blackened, rusted and incinerated tools – hammer heads, clamps, pliers, saws; a misshapen sewing machine; a tin box, its lid still attached and opened, containing corroded drill bits and the charred blob of the drill. At my first visit, the tools were placed like classified groups of museum artefacts. At my second, they had been reassembled in the centre of the floor, like an extinguished campfire site, where they provided the focal point for the Friday 17 June performance of the artwork, with Alison as performance artist and Boyd improvising on contrabass clarinet in The Monday Club.
‘Breath’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Chorale’ make up the soundtrack to the installation. ‘Breath’ begins playing when you enter the gallery. At first the sounds are subtle, unexpected, seem imagined. But then, as you slowly become more aware and the volume increases, the sounds draw you into focusing on the ravaged and constructed objects around you. Featuring the pitched breath of air on contrabass clarinet, ‘Breath’ invokes the breath of life, the first breaths of a baby, the last breaths of the dying.
The awesome force of the fire, its frightening destructiveness as well as its ability to transform and create a certain beauty, is what engages our senses and emotions in this installation. Sheets of rusted corrugated iron, lying in clumps, are marked with mottled streaks and blobs of rust, weathered greys, charcoal blacks, ashen whites. Aquarine tinged fragments of melted glass. A cast iron stove, Metters Sydney, chimney intact but its heavy iron top has been violently buckled. Of all the fire’s effects, I found the damage to the fuel stove particularly unsettling, perhaps because of its practical and symbolic functions of taming and containing fire for domestic survival (warmth, cooking etc). And the tools, despite an uncanny resemblance to their former selves, have been made useless for, as Clouston found out when she attempted to ‘resurrect’ them, they no longer possessed any strength and simply gave way when any pressure was applied.
Still green with life, are several large bundles of thin straight willow reeds. These were harvested from trees which, even after several eradication attempts by Council (they are regarded as noxious weeds), repeatedly sprout again in spring. Clouston has used the willow wands to construct curved igloo- or tent-shaped frames that suggest shelters, for human or non human. These remind of the willow’s traditional practical uses in wicker weaving, pain relief and reducing fevers (salicylic acid is an ingredient in aspirin), wood carving, water divining, producing charcoal, and for the making of musical instruments and protective charms.
As well its multiple therapeutic effects, the willow’s other qualities – such as its connection with water, being fast growing and easy to strike (it will grow from a piece in the ground), and a tendency to form sheltering groves – all link it symbolically to growth, regrowth and recovery (including from rejection in love). Thus, in many cultures, the willow (Greek helice; Latin salix) has also been associated with creativity and inspiration, the emotions, compassion and hope, death and mourning, and witchcraft.[i]
In the installation, the willow structures convey human warmth and a living aspect, and also protect the ashen, powdery remains of plaster sculptures (from the exhibition Beaming 2009), which have been painstakingly reassembled and were imbued with a fragile beauty by the fire.
In the second smaller room, there are two laptops. One shows the studio before the fire, and the other features the artists’ newly launched website www.buragorang.org. With a click of the mouse, one can see digital images of the artworks whose burnt remains form part of the installation. On the wall, inkjet prints document close-ups of the fire’s aftermath – a pile of shivery grey layers of baked paper; a melted folded plastic down pipe that appears at first to be a pelican’s beak or skull; a burned wombat skull whose teeth have been fired to a deep indigo.
On the floor, a large metal filing cabinet is warped, twisted and barely recognizable, with its exposed drawers, remarkably, still filled with the scorched sheaves of papery ash. On top, a large bone ‘palace’ made from found kangaroo bones (from the exhibition Bonetown 2004) has been reduced to a scattered mass of bones and ash. Nearby, in a drawer, there’s a blue black sheet of paper with the fine deep black outline of a dog’s paw preserved on it (the fire has accentuated the artist’s drawing, black on black). On another piece of charcoal black paper you can see the ghosts of music notes; yet another resembles a fragment of softest black velvet.
As you move through the installation, the prelude ‘Breath’ is replaced by ‘Requiem’, in which the notes of a single scale are laid over one another and played at four different speeds, as Boyd says, ‘slow and tumbling, layering, coming into and out of focus with one another’. This monastic, sombre piece – in memory of the recent passing of Boyd’s mother, Mary, at around the time of the fire – is both an affirmation of her love of music in life, and of life itself.
Dust inevitably poses the question, How would I feel and what would I do if this happened to me?
The scholar, Steven Connor, argues that the word, damage, ‘has [the] possibility of survival in it’ because it ‘names not just the action of damaging, but what is left as witness to it’.[ii] Connor draws attention to what flickers between the English word ‘damage’ and the French ‘dommage’:
… In French, one says ‘c’est dommage’ familiarly to signify not only some loss or damage, but also one’s pity or regret that it should have taken place. Quel dommage: what a pity, such a shame. Indeed shame is implicated … it is a shame to harm things. C’est dommage; such a shame that things should come to harm. [so]… Even language, it seems, strives to repair the damage to which it attests.
To say it is a shame that the artists lost so much in the fire would be to understate the enormity of their loss. What is intriguing is the way they have chosen to move on from it. If the cause of the fire was an ‘act of God’ (possibly a lightning strike or a spark from a rat-chewed electrical wire), their response as artists has been decidedly human, a deliberate act of engagement with the fragility of certainty and the transitoriness of life and things. We are invited not just to bear witness to the fire’s effects and their response in it, but to have our own emotional responses to the damage and loss.
Dust resonates on many levels – personal, local, global. With imagination and creativity, it seems to be saying, we can recreate, repair, rebuild. Given Alison Clouston and Boyd’s previous focus on using but not spoiling what the environment provides, Dust may also be asserting that it is in our interests to protect and preserve the environment from the kinds of damage that could spoil it for future generations.
In the Australian bush, fire is both destroyer and, paradoxically, a creative force – germinating seeds and sparking new growth. Similarly, in Dust the artists have salvaged the beauty of what the fire damaged and distorted, but could not destroy. The sculpture and sound installation has a movingly resonant beauty. It speaks of loss, but also of resilience and acceptance, and equates these with resourcefulness, the pleasure of making things, and the observation and appreciation of beauty and possibility in even the most damaged and distorted of things. As Clouston observes, ‘Sadness and beauty are so close’.
© Annee Lawrence 2011
[i] For example, according to Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (Faber & Faber, London, 1961), in Greek mythology the willow (helice) was sacred to the Goddesses Hera, Circe, Hecate and Persephone; and Helice was the Goddess of the Willow. It also gave its name to Mount Helicon which was the home of the Three Muses (p. 173). Graves also notes that Orpheus was represented as receiving ‘the gift of mystic eloquence’ from touching the willow; and in the 13th century Irish poem The Song of the Forest Trees it says the willow is not to be burned because it is ‘a tree sacred to poets’ (p. 174). The willow is also associated with the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, Kuan Yin.
[ii] Steven Connor, Damage, a talk given on 6 April 2005 to accompany the exhibition of works by Christian Marclay, Barbican Art Gallery, London. www.bbk.ac.uk/english/skc/damage/ Accessed 20 June 2011.