In November 2016 I spent a weekend in my academic cradle, ANU in Canberra for “Thesis Bootcamp.” This critical moment pushed me to reckon with the beautiful beast of my research project. From 3pm Friday until 6pm Sunday my time was scheduled by this writing workshop. One of the coolest things about studying through ANU has been coming into close contact with some of the most brilliant minds in the country- in this case it was Inger Mewburn aka “The Thesis Whisperer” who ran the tight ship of this boot camp.
During that weekend we had to write as much as possible. It didn’t have to be the best writing, it just had to be about our research: no pressure, no pretence, just get it out. Each 5,000 words got you a little foam lego block. I churned out just over 10,000 words. My foam trophies would later sit as icons of compulsion and promise under my monitor.
All this writing crystallised the realisation that I was incredibly far from having a coherent exegesis. In spite of this, it did begin the transformation of the mass of ideas, partially formed paragraphs, and threads of meaning and concepts congesting my neural pathways since at least 2012 into an external document. Sitting next to neuroscientists and social researchers and their numerical data in the boot camp left me feeling like my visual arts research was a soft blob of fuzzy subjective conjecture. On the other hand, putting my hard fought observations into writing forced me to commit to the positions that had formed through my research. It was the beginning of making things solid, of choosing a narrative structure in spite of the inevitable partial perspective it would be.
Another reason this account starts with this weekend is because of the definition of “exegesis” provided by Inger Mewburn during that time. With a creative practice doctorate the thesis is the completed artwork which is presented for the final examination. The exegesis is the body of writing that accompanies the thesis. The function of the “exegesis” can be best understood by understanding its origins in the work of translating scripture. Translating from one language to another is not a one-to-one transaction, there are shifts and gaps that occur between language systems which displace or alter meaning. An exegesis acts as a critical account and interpretation of this process, it is an accompaniment that attempts to bridge that gap.
Without doubt the biggest cognitive burden of my research process was the exegesis that lived, breathed, and convulsed within my brain.
I do not say this with resentment. I am one of those artists who loves the theoretical (namely written) dimensions of the creative process as much as I thrive within studio.
No doubt it was in part the institutional weight of the PhD candidature and its rigorous conventions that made the unborn exegesis a mental and emotional burden. Upon reflection I can also see how the very fundamental process of translating embodied experience- felt knowledge and observation- into the particular rules of language demanded mental endurance. As a scholarly practice a scaffold needed to be generated between my own critical account of the meaning produced in my research and the ideas, theories, histories, and meanings pre-existing within culture relative to my research concerns. This sounds massive. It was. The mental space it consumed was massive too.
Ultimately the only way to expel the beast was to commit to a process of writing. Simple, right?
It took from January 2017 to February 2018 to pull it off, or out. It was a hideously long year.
There were moments of pure horror and chaos as Christmas, family visits, and school holidays coincided with the business end of writing. In the final stages I sought refuge in a friend’s vacant home for two weekends in a row. It was this uninterrupted focus that finally enabled me to complete the critical account of six years of close examination of my intersection with my environment, my intertwining with the landscape and my home.
That final period of writing was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I’d rather give birth than ever do that again. Yet just like giving birth, I would not exchange that time or the way it sculpted me anew for all the lazy Sundays in the world. The eruptions of euphoria as key ideas, observations, and concepts were finally synthesised were the richest reward.
My sister’s 40th birthday was scheduled for the weekend just after my exegesis was due. After a late night formatting the whole document I had it printed and bound in time for us to hit the road for the eight hour drive to the campground were her 40th would be held- I mean, who wouldn’t make that drive in the wake a week like that!?? (Clearly most people, but I am not most people)
The plan was post the four copies of my document to ANU from the border town of Wodonga, a day or so less in the post to make up time I’d lost in the final week.
Of course our car blew a tyre about an hour an a half from there. I don’t think I’ve ever worried less, I was on such a mental high my husband and I just giggled our way through changing the tyre like a pair of pit-lane pros on the side of the Hume Freeway. I had finally broken the enchantment that bound me to my computer and the massive piles of paper surrounding it for years, you could not bring me down.
I posted it from Benalla instead, sayonara…
By the following afternoon I was at a campground in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains with my extended family. For a brief 10 minutes I paddled my sister’s kayak out to the middle of the Snowy Hydro era lake and savoured my place in the world.
That such a critical component of my research was recognising the way we had turned the landscape inwards through our damming of such waterways to make electricity and provide clean drinking water for our homes was front of mind as I sat on the black waters of that lake.
That really cool, quiet moment in time will feed my soul forever.
Now, I was finally on the other side.
It was time to figure out how to put the river that ran through my research into material form…
I had about six weeks to have a resolved artwork reassembled at the ANU School of Art Gallery in Canberra.
Knowing where to start was tricky.
Following from my installation test at the Warrnambool Art Gallery in early February I knew that I would be somehow weaving my collection of little “warm safe houses” into a matrix of PVC pipe built to fit the mathematical dimensions- read: metaphor for the material/physical conditions of my research site- from my kitchen sink to my ensuit.
Art making is problem solving through materials. And it’s the little, very material things about materials that sit at the nub of this: which specific PVC pipe materials would I need? How many lengths of pipe? How many fittings? What kind of fittings? How would I adhere my boxes to these pipes? How would I manage the construction of this form in the central walkway of my home?
If I was a different kind of person I could have perhaps extrapolated the answers to these questions abstractly by measuring the space, imagining and precisely drawing the ideal “river” form to occupy that space and then methodically working out exactly which PVC bits would be required. This would no doubt be more efficient.
But if I was that kind of person I would be doing a PhD in Engineering not Visual Art. I think with my hands in response to things as they exist in space. The only way to figure this one out was to begin to play.
I went on-line to scope out the types of fittings that were out there. Ideas began to form.
I went to Bunnings to see what I could source immediately. I returned with small 45o & 90o elbows and a few T-joins. Using pipes from my earlier art gallery test I “drew” the linear form of a breaking wave at my ensuite and bedroom entry, a river mouth opening out. This gave me a sense of how things might go.
Following this I prepared a bulk order with an online plumbing supplier. I also dropped back out to Bunnings and bought the makings of the central “spine” (which an ANU Lecturer, upon seeing the whole exhibited work in Canberra later that month, aptly referred to as “That Big Mother-Fucker”) which would house the sound system on which the sample of my dying washing machine would be played.
I played with the remaining bits I had on hand as I waited, and waited, for my on-line order to arrive.
During this wait I completed the final stages of my “warm safe house” series. These boxes combined fabric, painted town planning maps, and photographs taken during my examination of my domestic space. I printed some of these photographs onto transparent sheet and layered them across the acrylic windows on a number of the boxes.
The last step was painting a series of icons onto about 25 of the boxes. The rationale behind incorporating these images was to document the effects of “habitual perception” witnessed throughout my research. I had observed how repeated and predictable encounters with particular facets of the everyday obscure the world’s “phenomenological depth”- i.e. we don’t need to see objects like the milk carton or sites like the shower or the concrete gutter outside our homes for anymore than what they serve in the given moment of our interaction. This is one of the ways that our everyday world’s become ordinary- and yep, this is why there is an exegesis accompanying this work…
I chose milk cartons, washing baskets, shopping bags, the kitchen tap, and the gas meter as the icons of habitual perception that intersect our gaze and adhere it to the surface of life.
As I finished painting the last of these I began to freak out that three weeks on from placing my on-line order it was still yet to arrive.
I really had attempted to not leave this all to the last minute.
With just ten days until I was due to leave for Canberra, and after about 400 distressed phone calls and emails, my missing freight was located.
At last I could properly begin.
Could I pull this off?
I “knew” what kind of form I needed to create. I knew it had to be really, really special. I was terrified that it might be almost great. I realised that pushing it beyond “almost” great would require non-stop effort, an incredible amount of materials, and the patience of my family within whose home this form would finally emerge.
The process of creating Oikos was an all absorbing dance. An interaction of making and responding through which the final form grew organically in response to the myriad parameters of its creation. A wonderful synchrony emerged between my body and the forming artwork, between my hands, eyes, materials, my home, and my ideas.
I began by placing “The Spine”- “The Big Mother-Fucker” drain pipe – in its central position and then created an outer boundary on either side using a combination of 40mm & 50mm pipes. This create a sturdy, thick framework which would allow the whole conglomeration to stand unsupported once it was in the gallery space. From here I built in sections which allowed me to only partially block the epi-centre of my home over the course of the week.
I created a solution for mounting the boxes by screwing PVC plumbing caps to them so the pipes could be plugged into them. Bless my husband’s cotton socks, he graciously helped with this time consuming job…. and bless the cordless drill who, with the right drill bit, sped the process up considerably.
Oikos took over my house. Given that this was the final stage in a long research process centred in my home it was fitting that the material form of my research should spill out and consume the domain of my family life.
Little by little, night by night, day by day (9am-3:30pm) it grew….
The best accompaniment to these photographs is the words from the final chapter of my exegesis:
“Constructing Oikos to my home’s dimensions will require me to transiently block the entrances between my kitchen, lounge, bedroom, and bathroom. This will disrupt the metabolism of this domestic organism by restricting movement of the embodied subjects whose aesthetic entanglements in this space regulate entropy and order within it. This intervention will briefly collapse the distinction between art and the everyday critiqued through this research while enabling deliberation on these objectified practices within the ordinary space in which they operate.”
“Even as energy and food circulate continuously through an ecosystem some energy always dissipates in the form of warmth. Heat is directly tied to entropy. Heat indicates the amount of disorder and net energy loss within a system. As warmth emanates from a given system or object it is as though it becomes fused with temporal-space. Perhaps the transient warmth I observed within the home is a product of the entropy we seek to delay. Perhaps warmth stretches out and fuses our subjectivities to the world like the webbing that Shiota weaves through space. The final form that Oikos takes within the School of Art Gallery will attempt to make tangible these processes through which entropy and renewal entwine in and activate materials to generate the embodied warmth and transient stability our of internal worlds.”
 Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life. Glasgow: Flamingo: 48
 Baker, J. (2007). 50 Physics Ideas you really need to know. London: Quercus Publishing Plc: 36-39
And then, one Friday afternoon, just before school pick-up the day before I was meant to leave for Canberra, it was finished.
The dance between shapes, and lines, and angles, and textures, and ideas was done. She was done. Oikos was made.
Last year, Liza McCosh, Director of Scope Galleries, generously invited me to exhibit my video work “Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space”. I took this as an opportunity to develop some of the thinking contained in the video as well as to further develop my installation processes. Inside Out marked an important step forward in my thinking about my specific research as well as my broader understanding of how art produces knowledge. I came to realise the extent to which this video work is very much in conversation with the work of colonial landscape painter Eugene von Guerard and his observations which sought to understand the landscape as an interconnected ecosystem. I also came to realise the important role art plays in not only observing and critiquing our relationship to the world but also how crucial it is in proposing new and alternate ways to imagine this relationship.
I was fortunate to share the gallery with an exhibition titled Embedded produced by Andrea Radley, Gareth Colliton and Karen Richards. Embedded was an acclaimed exhibition of works made during a residency in the Emergency Department at South West Health Care Warrnambool. You can read more about their work by following these links:
I reworked my footage from “Gaia is Symbiosis (…)”, slowly it down and playing it from end to start so as to let the viewer work backwards back to the ground. I also set this footage to a very simple soundtrack, a recording of my washing machine as it works through a wash cycle, occasionally thumping as it spins itself off balance. The spinning footage and the sound of the washing machine were a perfect complement and worked to draw together the sense of the ordinary domestic with the sense of the “bigger picture”. I made a series of sculptures that imitated water hung out on my clothes horse and my ironing board. As a happy coincidence the smell of the running data projector was almost identical to that of a hot iron.
The following is the statement that accompanied Inside Out:
Through PhD research at the Australian National University Canberra I have been examining the overlap of body and environment as an “aesthetic subjectivity”. This way of understanding subjectivity emphasises how embodied consciousness is embedded in and emergent from its environment- an environment that we primarily experience aesthetically as the combination of sensation, emotion and meaning. A creative practice led inquiry into my domestic environment has centered this research. From this point I have attempted to make sense of and plot my relationship to the larger world in which I exist. I have used photography, drawing, sculpture, written reflection and sound and video recording in this continuous observation of my relationship to space.
Inside Out is a fragment of a larger body of practice that reinterprets my 2013 video work Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space in order to imagine continuity between our ordinary domestic world and the larger social, ecological and cosmological realities we share.
Focusing on the aesthetic nature of our connection to the world has provided me with a way to imagine the materiality of our continuum with time and space. My aim now is to create spaces that convey this to others.
The video Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space was originally created as part of “The Kitchen Table Art Expedition”, an Arts Victoria Artists In Schools Program held at Macarthur Primary School in 2013.
In late December 2013 I was able to make a research trip to Sydney. My aim was to see two spaces that I had viewed from a far for too long- Edge of Trees and Paddington Reservoir Gardens. I also took advantage of my temporary location by visiting a few other art sites.
I visited the amazing collection of contemporary Chinese art at White Rabbit Gallery in Central Sydney http://www.whiterabbitcollection.org/ , I was impressed by the way many of the works really grappled with the social, political and spiritual turbulence spurred by globalisation’s rapid pace. Gonkar Gyasto is the artist who has most stayed with me- his works deals with place and placelessness and identity.
After lunch I made the trek to Brett Whitley’s Studio in Surry Hills, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/brett-whiteley-studio/ where I spent time with epic self-portrait as a landscape, Alchemy. I had seen this work on an ABC Documentary http://www.abc.net.au/arts/artofaustralia/ and felt that Whiteley’s process of making an immense landscape as self-portrait and autobiographical narrative illustrated my notion of aesthetic subjectivity perfectly. I crawled over this painting for almost an hour.
Walking back into Sydney Central I made my way to the Art Gallery of NSW. Here I was most keen to see the work Illuminate. The product of a community arts collaboration between paper makers and Euraba artists from Northern NSW. I found this work mesmerizing. A corrugated box hut made of paper and illuminated from the inside out by four video projectors which animate each of the four walls with documentary style footage- it became this glowing aesthetic object, what you imagine the intersection between memory and place, our memory and home may be.
On my second day I sought out Fiona Foley’s and Janet Laurence’s Edge of Trees and the Museum of Sydney Forecourt. I first saw this work on a documentary about Laurence on the ABC (God bless aunty) back in 2007 I think. At the time I was really impressed by her approached and just really “got it”. In this work trees originally felled from the area (that had taken seed pre-colonisation) were returned to the site as greyed, noble logs. Laurence and Foley have used a number of materials to convey and capture the memory of this site, Latin and indigenous names are inscribed on the poles and heard echoing through this relic site. This was one of those sites which visiting only enhanced my appreciation of it, I felt it as a really powerful memorial and as a place in which to come to terms with history. Sitting there on a Sunday morning with the noises of buses, cars and pedestrians I imagined what it would feel like in the quiet of 3am, in the dark would the speaker’s aboriginal voice echo in the urban still?
I took a punt and figured out how to use Sydney public transport just enough to get myself to Paddington. I bought myself a coffee, crossed the road and walked down the stairs into the Paddington Reservoir Gardens. A young lady sat taking flute lessons, a family picnicked on a section of grass. I looked around the space, beautiful- what I had expected, an eclectic intersection of ruins and landscape gardening that embodied that contemporary eco-aesthetic. But I was a little underwhelmed too, and that is not a bad thing, I really had to query why I was underwhelmed. My research has led me to look at our relationship to the environment and this has in turn revealed the many ways in which this relationship is constructed. This construction process is not always one in which we can exert our own agency however, it is not uncommon for the constructed spaces in which we find ourselves to be forces themselves in fact shaping our agency.
I had stayed in Western Sydney and caught the train to and from that infamous urban landscape. Making my way into the Sydney CBD that morning it was impossible to ignore the way money concentrates itself as witnessed in the buildings of the area, their commercial occupants and their proximity to the harbor, the memory of that Edge of Trees nestled into this Western, globalized space. Sitting here in Paddington it was hard to detach from the awareness that this beautiful, ethical space was entwined in the circumstances of privilege that keep its nearby property prices so high. Another dimension to my underwhelming was to do with the difference between a space made using aesthetics to create a more neutral common area and a space made using aesthetics as a language to engage its visitors and its socio-historical contexts in order to push into a questioning of that relationship between subject and world.
These are questions and currents that keep pushing through my research and will be developed as I go. In two fast approaching weeks I will take flight for overseas field research in America and Japan. Questioning the processes of aesthetically made spaces will be a core task of this research. Stay tuned…
The drawing series “Making Spaces” notes the shift in my understanding that occurred through the domestic observations I undertook through my PhD Research in 2013. I had come to see how the interfolding of body and environment was dynamic, reactive and productive. It could never be a pure, pre-reflective engagement. Perception is always prewired in some way. Just as each photograph I took of my domestic life operated to construct a scene, each perceptual engagement with space operated to construct that space, making it into a particular space dependent on the intention and activity of the subject and the resources and conditions of the given space.
I saw these drawing works as indicating some of the processes that enable us to make the ordinary (almost invisible in their apparent un-remarkableness) spaces of our everyday worlds. I chose to draw on maps which were directly relevant to my ordinary life. The maps include the location of my children’s school, family daycare and my house. My previous year’s research into the operation of ecosystems, Warrnambool’s geology and indigenous understanding and connection to land combined with a deepened understanding of Colonisation’s material processes of naming, dividing, selling and “developing” land. This utterly changed the way I perceive the fixed, concreteness of urbanization, its infrastructure and the cultural practices it enables. I see these drawings as an interaction between the maps, the drawn image and the title. To me this is a way of grappling with the actual material reality of how it is that we shape land and resources in order to produce and maintain the homogeneity of contemporary urban life and the regular comforts this enables.
I have been getting back into my PhD studies over the last few weeks. The main focus of this research is to investigate and develop my notion of Aesthetic Subjectivity. This model of subjectivity looks at the human, or the self, as an enfolding of body and environment, always absorbing and processing (metabolising) the external world in the process of forming its conscious image, drawn from sensory inputs and body states (synaesthesia), of its self in this relationship. Said in another way, looking at how we process the intersection of our inner and outer worlds to interact within “the world”.
I began my PhD in February 2012 by focusing on my relationship to the environment. This took in my childhood and adult geographic environments as well as the socio-historical lineages of these environments. That first year of my research was mainly spent surveying that vast contextual field. A vastness that turned out too overwhelm my core research aims. I was advised by my supervisor, Head of the ANU’s Sculpture Workshop Wendy Teakel, to narrow the aperture of my focus to my immediate domestic space. I was resistant and sceptical to this idea at first and the shift from the theoretically and geographically broader landscape to the absolutely localised space of my immediate world was an at times painful transition. But at my heart I am a good girl and I could see potential in Wendy’s suggestion so I did what I was told to do and set about observing my domestic space through visual diary format.
This process of continual observation has proven to be a rich venture yielding insight into that overlapping of self and space that so enchants me. It gave me the platform that I needed to ease myself back into the production of art itself. I can see a strong little body of works emerging that embody my research concerns. This series of small sculptures considers the way in which we interact with everyday domestic and familial objects, ingesting there physical forms and patterns as our muscle memories form the habits of their use. Through observing myself and my family in our ordinary space I have come to believe that these habitual actions provide the canvas for our social interactions, the shared moments through which we model behaviour and modes of organising emotion, communicate and gesture our believes and values, and so critically yet often so unwittingly imprint each other in shared experience. I use fabric in these pieces as a loaded medium. To me fabric conveys something of the material body, the weaves and intersections and connections of neurons, nerve fibres and muscle, the intricate braids of DNA . It is also temporal, it conveys “social fabric”, the “rich tapestry of life”, the weaves that extend from one generation to the next.
This series of works is titled “Memory Flesh”. I can envisage a kitchen full of these items, the inanimate made aesthetically animate. The work at the top is called “Memory Flesh #3, Unfold Me”. I borrowed a lyric from a beautiful, vulnerable Sia song “Breath Me” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSH7fblcGWM . I put this piece up for auction at the recent F Project fundraiser for the Artery and believe it was bought by one Mr Gareth Colliton. I am using a combination of textile work, painting and poly resins to create these expression of the body. I am quite excited to see what else comes through this creative stream.