Breathing space

Craig Walsh
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane & Central Station, Brisbane; Eagle Street, Brisbane

The present is now "irreducible to any traditional theory and practice, even perhaps for any theory or practice at all".1 Baudrillard, with his eye keenly focussed on the human condition in contemporary times, observes that all is one and one is all. It is no longer appropriate to search for the simplistic model, the overriding definitive paradigm. We should acknowledge the complexity of today and embrace it for what it is. But how is this to be expressed? If it is so complex how can the present be captured? Simply, it cannot be captured, but perhaps it can be framed.

Traditionally, art has been relatively easy to define as a category. It was formally separated from the everyday, the normal, the usual, the non-art. To assist the viewer art was framed. Heavy guilt frames encompassed the great masters, the sculpture was placed on a pedestal, the performance staged. To further enhance this perception, art had its proper place; the gallery, the foyer, the theatre, the museum, and lately the public space. If we were in the presence of such an object, its reverence, its importance, was bought to us via its setting and its delineation from the other. Subsequently, art was easy: easily found, read, and consumed.

Craig Walsh's latest project, Breathing Space, challenges these conventions. Effort is required if one is to read Walsh's work contextually. In exchange for this he provides us with a "breathing space" from which to view art. In this breathing space Walsh forces us to take a step back to look beyond and to challenge the restrictive barriers which are imposed on art.

The three installations which made up Breathing Space – During Inspiration, End Inspiration, and Forced Expiration –  formed a triangle which spanned the north-east corner of Brisbane city. Each piece stood alone and could be viewed in isolation, but the project was meant to be read as a whole. The project was a geographic triptych which marked out and reflected both a metamorphosis in city and art, and the relationship of viewer and object.

The first point of this triangle, During Inspiration, was (and remains) on the site once destined for the world's tallest building, bordering the train line between Roma Street and Central stations. During Inspiration is four yawning faces in frames overlooking the passing commuter traffic. They are exposed in the apparent ruins of a long forgotten city gallery, left in the wake of the city's deconstruction. In this setting, the images are sublime and subliminal; a suggested message placed in the path of the viewer by the artist. Commuters catch the images out of the corners of their eyes. They invade the consciousness akin to the use of subliminally suggestive advertising. They're uninvited and enigmatic.

The second point in Walsh's Breathing Space triptych, End Inspiration, also appeared anonymously in the cityscape. Six enigmatic faces, pressed to the glass and supported by construction props, gazed out from the Pier Street public viewing-space. The faces, like those depicted by the train line, silently moaned-mouths agape, eyes wide. The anonymity was further enhanced by the reflections of a passing society which contributed to the images. Behind the faces was a pock-marked and cratiform terrain, other-worldly and scarred from eons of environmental degradation. The images in this setting were not framed, for they inhabited a recognized gallery space. This formal setting precludes the necessity of delineation.

Forced Expiration, was exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) at Ann Street on the border of the city and Fortitude Valley. Here, five frames defined the window space, the external environment as objects to be viewed. The exhibition's opening revealed that this form invited the viewer to become intimate with the subject. Conventional works have a personal space from which the viewer is traditionally precluded. These "pieces", however, invited the viewer to not only enter the intimate threshold but embrace it and become part of the image. The audience was compelled to look out of the pieces, not into them. They were metaphorical canvasses of actuality. With his particular twist of irony, Walsh used the gallery to force the viewer to look beyond its sphere of influence.

The five framed pieces, simply titled Expiration 1-5, suggested a commonality in content. However, one piece stood in stark contrast to the other four. While four were allowed a free connection between gallery space and external environment, exposing the gallery to the external, one, Forced Expiration 4, had the gallery imposed upon it. It alone expressed the fear of the external breaking into the internal. Within this piece one found a confluence of forces: Walsh's attempts at openness were suppressed (the breathing space stifled); reality imposed itself on art; the need to protect, was set against the desire to reveal. Forced Expiration 4, easily overlooked, was perhaps the most important piece in the IMA installation.

One of the dilemmas facing art today is its function or role in the wider social conversation. The plethora of "art" which daily bombards the viewer/consumer threatens to over· whelm, causing dilution in meaning and value. Facing this, Baudrillard argues for a need to address and express the whole, an "irreducible". He writes "the real is always that which it is, but there is no longer a sense in which to think it nor reflect on it as such."2 Walsh, through Forced Expiration, attempts to provide that reflective "sense".

notes: 

1. Baudrillard, J. In the shadow of silent majorities, 1978. New York, Semiotext(e), 1983.

2. Baudrillard, J. La Gauche Divine: Chroniques des Annees. 1977-84. Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1985 pp. 39-40.