Elizabeth Gower

Conversations 1955–2005
Sites 1980–2005
VCA Gallery, Melbourne
August 2005

Elizabeth Gower is a collector. She has spent the last twenty-five years collecting household objects, cast-offs, books, and most recently, advertising material. But Gower is no junk mail junkie, scouring her neighbour’s letterboxes for spare Officeworks catalogues. Her collecting has a purpose. She gives particular attention to the things in these catalogues, which far from being necessities, appeal to our aesthetic desire to look good and be surrounded by finery: leather shoes, gold bracelets, designer toasters, sports equipment. She cuts out various pictures of the same object and composes elaborate patterned collages on drafting film. They look like quilts, snowflakes, knitting rows, or DNA. One series, Artefacts from the 20th Century; features a composition of 1990s style runners; they seem cool or lame, depending on your experience of the decade. These works operate both as mini time capsules and commentary on unfulfillable consumer desire—the minute we slip the ‘newest’ fashion on our foot, another ‘new’ is already on the way.

In recent years, however, Gower’s collecting has eschewed the material world in favour of more evocative things: meaningful events, conversations and places that have marked the world at large. After September 11, Gower compiled lists of significant attacks, invasions, battles, or conflicts which took place in the modern world between September 11, 1901 and September 11, 2001 and presented them on long sheets of drafting film. The ceaseless repetition highlights S11 as one event amongst millions like it, but rather than numbing us, the list becomes a body of evidence that awakens our horror at the human propensity for violence fuelled by religion, money, and power. Her most recent installation of lists, Conversations 1955 – 2005, and Sites 1980 – 2005, moves from the war zone to the personal.

For Conversations 1955 – 2005, Gower kept it simple; she collected lists of everyone she had a conversation with over fifty years and printed this onto long sheets of drafting paper. For Sites 198 – 2005, which is viewed in a separate room, she presented photographs, which feature her feet in various sites that she has visited, lived and worked in. To view the first work, Conversations, you had to enter through a gap in long sheets of partially transparent paper which were suspended from floor to ceiling in a wafting cube formation that rendered invisible the outer walls of the gallery space. Once inside, you read, year by year, all the names, in alphabetical order.

Standing in the room, surrounded by all those names, two things began to happen. It was like reading a book; I began to visualise the conversations. I could see a young Elizabeth Gower, seated at her school table in prep, talking to her friends. The various references to Aunties and Uncles in the very early years brought to mind family gatherings with little cousins running around together. As years go by, I saw her standing in her parent’s front yard talking amiably with the neighbours or standing in the corner at a festive party, fielding awkward questions from her father’s work colleague. I watched her at her first opening, imagined her meeting new people on her overseas residencies. I saw her at her children’s school, talking to their teachers. I imagined her talking quietly to her husband, spending time with her students, sitting at the edge of her daughter’s bed, discussing the day. I saw her talking to the vet about whether to put down the family dog. Then I find myself wondering if she ever had a dog. I liked seeing the repetition of some names, year after year, and felt the strange sting of their sudden disappearance. Intimate, public, everyday, these are the conversations that shape a life and give it meaning. They are moments where we perform a role, or genuinely express something real.

The second thing that happened was that I began to think of all the conversations I have ever had, ones that flowed easily and freely, where the closeness was unmatched. I thought of ones where it seemed my life was changing there and then, in the middle of the conversation, as I realised something new, asserted something final, or revealed a secret. I thought of conversations where either I, or the other person were oddly out of sync, manipulating, blocking, insulting or refusing. And I found what I am sure Gower did, that once you start, there is no stopping the list; it goes on and on and on! Until we are dead!

A conversation as Gower frames in this project is an exchange, whereby nothing and everything is possible. By creating a soft, yet monumental display of the sheets, Gower held us in thoughtful contemplation, not just of her life, but of the power of the conversation itself to transform and direct all our lives. It reminded me of the Vietnam War Memorial, in Washington, D.C. which I first saw with my father, a veteran of that war. He looked up all the names of the men he had served with who had died, and finding their names on the wall, touched each one with his hand. That day, for the first time, he cried in front of me. People respond to seeing their life acknowledged in some way.  Gower’s monument is less austere, but still I imagine people she knows, upon finding their names, felt a rush of something, the way my father did.

In the second room, Sites, Gower has displayed a long straight line of 5x7 photographs over two walls of sites she has visited, lived or worked in over twenty years. We know them because they are listed in a casual pencil scrawl below, ‘Outside PS1, New York 1980’, ‘Rankins Lane Studio, 1984’, ‘Rosebud Beach, 1988’, ‘Kowloon, Hong Kong 2003’ and ‘Painting Department, VCA 2005’. Her feet are there in every one, tanned and barefoot in summer or covered by a number of variations of a soft slip-on ballet style shoe (in red, blue, black, pink) that has kept her in good tread for over twenty years. She has endearingly resisted the ‘new’ in relation to her own footwear! The photographs reveal sites she has visited or lived with family, worked at, holidayed in, or travelled to for art research. One cannot help but be impressed by her worldliness and regular international travel, but somehow, those feet jutting into frame make it both anonymous and everyday, and instead I thought of how the places have changed her, and how she might have changed them. In one particularly striking composition, she is standing on her desk at the VCA; art magazines, a rotary dial phone and papers are artfully strewn around her feet. The photographs of her children’s feet on hers in the yard is touching; you know by the year that they are late teenagers now, but in the photo they are probably two and five years old, their pudgy little feet, tangled up with their mother’s.

On leaving the show, I thought of Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules show at the National Gallery of Victoria. What a collection of stuff! Piles of it, invites, cards, fashion mags, books, music, tapes, letters—it was everything popular and sparkling but somehow dull and boring. And though it was a testament to the artist as diffuser of stuff into something else, I could not really get through it, felt annoyed at heavy breathers lingering over the same cases as me, and, oddly, felt cheated that the yellow t-shirts donned by staff were not for sale. It is not a contest, but if it were, I would give Gower prize for ‘Best Presentation of an Ongoing Personal Collection’. Hers is the post-consumer offering, the choice to talk to a friend or read a book instead of gorge and shop. Conversations and Sites made me feel I am not alone. I imagine at looking at her own work, Elizabeth Gower must have felt the same.