(Text to accompany the exhibition "Archaeology of Practice" Langford 120 gallery, 10 September - 9 October, 2016)
by Julian T. Spiller www.tabula.net.au
We shouldn’t be confused about where a work of art starts and finishes: paintings have borders, films go until they stop. A sculpture is made out of some stuff and when it isn’t any more, it ceases to be a sculpture – so on and so forth. An artwork succeeds when it is modest about its own purview – with the exception, maybe, of some Russian novels and epic poems – and prefers to concern itself solely with the subjects of its composition, or coyly subverts our preferences with the intimation of, rather than an intrusion of, some interesting things that take place outside the work. For example, the mysteries of Velasquez’ Las Meninas are broader and deeper when its satire is pointed out to us, but no amount thereof solves it as an artwork – but from it, we can ascertain various markers.
From them, we can begin to appreciate the context of the artwork: the age, the weight and the colour of the air that it was produced in, even if it would be ingenuous to think that these things are the only interesting contributors to the aesthetic complex that emerges. Causes and symptoms are different things, even though one of the pivots of postmodernity is a recognition that the two are more of a description than they are an institution. Since we stopped being ashamed of self-reference and reverence, we discovered that cause and symptom run together identically as often as they file into convenient lanes: now, maybe, the cause of an artwork (to this very minute) is itself, albeit in some earlier form.
Sometimes this is subtle, and other times it is dramatic – which leads me to the works of the present exhibition, which are (to various extents)
an exploration of artwork (and artworking practice) in the context of time. As demure abstraction demands, we’ll scarcely find paintings and sculptures of futuristic watches or reality-bending wormholes, but instead an array of things that politely testify to a sequence of events that would almost certainly pass invisibly absent the occasional curatorial note. There are things here which are older than they appear and things that appear older than they are; there are works here which time and indignation have transformed beyond recognition into new things, and might well do again in the future.
It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to see these pieces entirely originally, so acquainted with them as I am. Perhaps I appreciate them only as forensic puzzles, the secrets to whose improbable solution I can barely resist revealing, and perhaps for all my contextual handwringing I yearn only to see them abstracted from their chequered, rehearsed history.
by Julian T. Spiller
What I do or do not do now is important for everything that is yet to come and is the greatest event of the past: in this tremendous perspective of effectiveness all actions appear equally great and small.
Nietzsche, The Gay Science (tr. Kaufmann), 233
The change and transformation of all forms of life goes on.. ..but we do not know who sustains this change. How, therefore, can we know beginnings? How can we know ends? There is nothing else to do but wait.
The Book of Chuang Tzu (tr. Palmer) p. 174
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then I woke up and I was suddenly Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu
The Book of Chuang Tzu (tr. Palmer) p. 20
It is accepted that development is not from any one thing into any other thing, but that everything is resolved into that from which it came;
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (tr. Thomson) 1173b-5
It seems to me, in a word, that all existing things are alterations of the same thing. For if the things which now exist in this world.. ..were not the same thing changed in many ways and altered, then they could not mix with one another.
Diogenes of Apollonia in Aristotle, History of Animals (tr. Barnes) 511b30.
But insofar as they never cease their continual change, to that extent they exist forever, unmoving in a circle.
Empedocles in Simplicius, Commentary on the Physics (tr. Barnes) 31.31
You won't notice – but maybe it will seem obvious, once you've been told – that many of these works are constructed from older, sometimes less successful pieces. Creating new things from odds-and-sods is an old practice, so you might think: ah – collage! Or, ah – assemblage! –but as much would be mistaken, because those old elementary accidents aren't included to evoke anything grand and spiritual (or political, or psychological), but rather to serve as just one layer of many. Nearly all these layers, you won't notice, are imperceptible to the naked eye.
In future, it could well be that these works turn into others, again; by then, they will be just as different, again.
Julian T Spiller ( more writing by this author at www.tabula.net.au )
by Richard Collins
Winsome Spiller makes art in both two and three dimensions. Sometimes her paintings begin as three-dimensional objects: canvas is ruched and crumpled like a relief map on the floor to provoke pools and rivulets in the dilute paint she pours over it. When the canvas returns to its destined two dimension, these patterns spur her further invention.
On occasions she has soaked muslin drapery in plaster to make wall pieces that arrest the fabric’s billowing in time. Laneway Lace has an affinity with these artworks. If we walk up the lane where it is located we see the familiar ripple of bush vernacular corrugated iron painted to mimic the gathered pleats of a fabric curtain: blokey metal turned into lady-like lace.
Winsome has painted this lace without trompe l’oeil facility but with great delicacy. The result is a rare thing in street art, a gently understated piece of visual wit. It is clearly a painting of a lace curtain and it is clearly a sheet of corrugated iron, and their coupling gives us a frisson of aesthetic pleasure.
An added pleasure comes from the association both these materials have with an older Australia, of similar vintage to the bluestone cobbles of the lane itself.
Long may the gate/curtain stay untagged.
by Julian T. Spiller
Preferring to be inclusive, it is natural to recoil at the things that the 'traditional' art establishment stands for – brokerage, patronage and exclusivity – and so we celebrate unconventional attempts to generate art, like street art. Why, though, do we want to call it art? What makes a stencil different from erecting a new picket fence, or tipping sudsy mop water down the drain, and what makes it similar?
Most obviously, the place that street art goes is important: it has to be in the street, broadly construed. Eminent graffiti artists might have migrated their work to the gallery space in the recent while – a Banksy, du jour, is a sought after commodity – but these objects always carry a bit of the street with them. Dismally, one can go to stationary stores and find prefabricated stencil-style canvases – but these are not really street art. The authentic item owes itself to the accidental forms of the urban place, even though art is never an accident; street art wants to be thought of as a contribution to the utilitarian streetscape, which bulges in such-and-such a fashion, or planes off in thus-and-so a way, because that is how houses and buildings fit together. A vast, flat, empty wall might provoke the street artist to salivate at the prospect of working conventionally, but this is not to say that these spaces could be engineered by artists to yield more imaginative results. Street art is not vagrant high art; street art does not wish it were in a gallery. Good street art shows us how to discover things in already discovered places.
Secondly, we might think that street art expresses itself in a way that is unmediated and authentic; street art in its coarsest forms boldly strikes a claim to popularly unclaimed spaces (even if, notably, these spaces are entirely owned and possessed in the legal sense). As a streetscape is commonly uncurated – except, perhaps, by architects and statutory planners – there are no constraints to an artist's industry or sincerity. Liberated from the inclination to win friends and make sales, an artist can do what they like, and what emerges is a sort of discipline that exposes in some artists a dearth of meaningful things to say. Others, however, discover new ways to say meaningful things. It is hard to object: oh, the only reason we think of that as art is because it's in a gallery – because a street isn't a gallery. Street art, then, can be judged on its own merit: after the vagabond thrills subside, expertise and originality are what remains in a conversation no longer dominated by dilettantes and sycophants.
This adds up to something familiar: street art instantiates an old practice in a new (or a recently rediscovered) place, in more or less the same way as ever before. Importantly, nothing stipulates that street art couldn't be produced in a traditional space, although it would be deprived of the street in its moniker – this is because the street is a venue, not a method. Were it to fall tragically out of fashion – like frescos, or murals, or happenings – we welcome street art into the tradition precisely because it doesn't offer anything new, materially speaking. The challenge for the artist is in the original setting, not in original media: the air, the paint and the sunshine are the same. As antithetical as it might seem to the new democracy of street art, the value of a work is accessible and intelligible in the same way that it always was (and indeed, the same artist's supply retailers ring up sales in the same currency!), and for a traditionalist, this is a relief.
Thus, we can celebrate both the new democracy of street art while criticising it in the old way. Street art is not a kind of artistic hookey that slips the criticism of the visual establishment: rather, street art lays itself out to be criticised in an open, popular air.
By Brooke Babington
There is a sense of play at work in Winsome Spiller’s The Transformer Room. The fragments of colourful material dotted at irregular intervals along the outer walls of the space act as invitations to engage with the work, tempting the viewer to move around a large central column of brick hung with parti-coloured lengths of tulle, lining up rectangular cutout windows in the fabric with their corresponding outlying forms. The hues are vivid and breezy and the tone is one of lighthearted discovery. As viewers move around the room, translucent fields of colour blend and overlap in their fields of vision, shrouding the walls of the gallery in curtained filters punctuated intermittently by glimpses through to the other side to create that which Spiller calls ‘view corridors’ through the structure.
Through this process of engagement the work recalls Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, but the association is fleeting. Spiller’s selection of colours belie the stoic formalism that attended Albers’ investigations. Here lilac, highlighter yellow, cerulean and bottle green veil the space in sunny hues more reminiscent of fairy floss and ice-cream cake than the strictures of Bauhaus formalism; an impression only heightened by the artist’s choice of tulle as her medium.
A further point of difference with Albers’ optical colour studies is also that which imbues Spiller’s Transformer Room with dynamism: while for Albers, the optical interactions of colours affected a perception of depth that moved beyond the surface of his paintings such that the palest hues seemed almost to float or recede against their more vivid backgrounds, here an inverse effect is achieved: pushing and pulling three dimensional space uneasily into the flattened space of the frame.
In this sense the work can be likened to a cinematic or photographic rendering of space in which fore-, mid- and background jostle for position across the screen (or photograph’s) surface. Indeed, Spiller entitled a previous incarnation of The Transformer Room for Dear Patti Smith gallery ‘Viewfinder’ in seeming reference to this effect. The surprising spatial and perceptual shifts contained in the work contrast with the apparent simplicity of form and lightness of touch Spiller employs. The gesture here is airy but the optical effects pronounced.
Perception and sensory immersion are at the heart of Spiller’s concerns here in an effort to focus the viewer’s attentions on the particularities of site. Once a power hub for the adjacent railway lines before being subject to years of neglect and vandalism, Spiller heightens lingering traces of these divergent chapters of the Substation’s history through an economy of means.
The cutout forms replicate the dimensions of the brickworks elaborating the building’s interior spaces while aligning the gaps left by them draws attention to remnants of infrastructure from the gallery’s former industrial life. The title refers to the site’s history by riffing on the dual meaning of a transformer, both as a modifier (here, of perception) and as an electrical device. Likewise, lurid blue and red graffiti adorning the pillared scaffolding of the Transformer Room (leftover from a time when the Substation stood abandoned) is emphasized by overlaying it with mauve in vibrant contrast. This scaffolding is formed of the remains of an alcove presumably used to house large-scale industrial machinery, now long absent, but invoked by Spiller’s structure – a ‘transformative machine’, she explains, ‘for looking’.
This veiling and unveiling of the building’s substrate accords with Spiller’s aim for the Transformer Room to heighten perception. Unveiling has long stood as a metaphor for enlightenment; the act representing a symbolic shedding of illusions. In an unnamed sonnet, 19th century English poet Shelley wrote “Lift not the painted veil which those who live/ Call life”. Similarly, in Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism and also in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave it is suggested that our sensate experience of the material world is a mere veil of the true or highest form of reality. Invoking this rich symbolic tradition, Spiller’s Transformer Room ‘enlightens’ us to the nature of perception. The half-seen world that surrounds us – that which we usually filter out – is glimpsed a little more clearly through the gaps in Spiller's veil like flashes of insight that lead to a greater focus.
Brooke Babington, 2013