grip: ann-maree reaney, mona ryder, ann wulff

The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore / Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery
2 - 28 August 2002 / I 0 September - 20 October 2002

The Art Gallery at Singapore's National Institute of Education {NI E) was the venue recently for Grip, an exhibition by Australian artists Ann-Maree Reaney, Mona Ryder and Ann Wulff.

Though small, showcasing but a single installation by each practitioner, Grip was also neat and well-formed, affording its Singapore audience a cross-section illustrating the variety and depth of current conceptual and visual directions in Australian contemporary practice.

Viewed singly, Mona Ryder's Stretched and to a lesser degree Ann Wulff's The Lachrymist could be construed as gender pieces; however any gender agendas melted into the background of subtler, stronger and less limiting themes exploring emotion, communication, the interpretation of signs in public and private contexts, and visual re-appropriation of ready-made codes, text and image.

Visually, Grip was perfectly at home in the NIE gallery's sober white cube. Dominating the threesome, Ryder's Stretched, the show's most sculptural piece, could be viewed both from outside, through the gallery's eight metre fagade-window and, more dramatically, from above from the gallery's mezzanine twelve metre balcony.

Stretched is another of Ryder's 'stocking' works, which she has shown over recent years. Here, several dozen pairs of women's stocking, dyed blood red, were dangled, stretched or pinned from a grid installed eight metres from the gallery floor. The only artist of the three to make concessions to Grip's Asian stop, Ryder stuffed her stocking-figures' abdominal area with locally-purchased pastel-coloured kitchen receptacles-colanders, bowls, sieves. Without seeming contrived, the addition of the made-in-China plastic utensils gave an extra dimension to the work's discourse of problematised domesticity and fragility. Was it Ryder's intention to allude to Asia's sex trade that transforms its women into cheap, mass-consumed-and-trashed commodities, like so many kitchen. strainers? Singaporeans who, glimpsing the kitchen paraphernalia, identified with the work's parochial flavour were left to ponder the question. An Australian audience, perhaps conversely attracted to the exoticism of the cheap, no-style utilitarian quality of the ensconced kitchen-wares, may likewise give the piece a socio-political reading.

Whether intended or not, Stretched's reference to Asian domestic issues only serves to give greater weight to the installation's deft play on the juxtaposition of carefree, confident whimsy, and taut, apprehensive vulnerability. Though visually lyrical, Stretched does not allow the viewer to go away unchallenged, the work's aestheticism underscoring an emotional poignancy that recognizes the fragility, temporality and changeability of life itself. Ann-Maree Reaney's Blind If is concerned with codes and semantics. The artist reappropriates a handful of semaphore flags-reproduced slightly over-size in synthetic fibre-which are used on maritime vessels to signify and direct responses to variable situations. Amplifying the flags' encoded messages, Reaney also literally transcribes a flag's message 'stop carrying out your intentions watch my signals' on window blinds. The piece is a cryptic examination of communication, authority, convention, and cooperation-all human tools of power. As secret and Spartan as Ryder's piece is lush, for all its simplicity. Blind If is sensually captivating, both in the crispness of its box-flags and in its purely referential quality. At first glance the installation might be dismissed as 'mere appropriation', devoid of artistic input. But Reaney's oblique, thoughtful challenge to the flags' raison d'etre is sufficiently weighty to carry the work, the sketchy allusions to authority, convention, etcetera, left to wiggle themselves insidiously under the audience's skin, the questions posed all the more provocative for their elliptic transmission.

Ann Wulffs The Lachrymist in some ways also examines codes and signs. Made up of a collection of large black and white photographic portraits of a women and child crying, similarly-scaled black and white stills of views of tears under the microscope, and an assortment of vials of the artist's tears, the work explores physiological manifestations and their association/disassociation with human emotion. The work proposes that tears indicate sadness externally, but that without context, contact and explanation of cause of the supposed grief, the physiological manifestation is deprived of significance, pointing aimlessly to a closed and unknown supposed reality, invisible to the viewer. The latter is thus invited to disassociate emotion from the prompt that triggers feeling. Visually cold and clinical, The Lachrymist is successful in its commentary on this artificial but all too easy dissociation of emotion from sign-of-emotion. Yet if the piece works on a purely conceptual level, it remains unmoving, lacking the visual tension that one might expect to underline the known/unknown or visible/invisible paradigm so neatly presented as the piece's core idea.

Stretched, Blind 11, and The Lachrymist are three very personal works that although different, nonetheless share conceptual integrity and sophisticated process and presentation. As a show Grip works well, playing on changing ranges of ideas and concisely representing the breadth and depth of current Australian contemporary practice. Singapore would gladly welcome more contemporary Australian talent!