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Sandra Selig is best known for a very particular kind of work. Her ‘cool’, linear thread installations, which often function more as forms of architectonic drawing than sculptural works, have become her signature style. It is this component of her practice that featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s ‘Primavera’ exhibition of 2004 with the work Synthetic Infinite and that is on permanent display in the Brisbane Magistrates Court building as part of the commissioned public art program there.
Selig’s practice however has had other elements for some time now, including an ongoing investigation into the chaotic, organic architecture of spider web. A collection of these ‘web samples’ was included in the ‘Prime’ exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery last year. ‘Signature styles’ can sometimes be a spider’s web of their own, trapping an artist and disallowing them the chance to expand and develop their practice in new directions. Two recent shows of Selig’s work in Brisbane demonstrate her continuing determination to subtly shift her practice.
Firstly, Circuit at the Institute of Modern Art introduces a new sense of time-based experience to the work. On initial viewing this installation seems to consist of threads simply pulled into a hole in the interior wall of the street-facing gallery space. It becomes clear that the hole (and therefore the thread) leads through to an interior space, accessible through a baffled doorway.
Inside this gallery the work looks very much as one would expect from this artist: delicate, repetitive patterns of line and thread forming trajectories through space. However, a lighting system is timed to go on and off at regular intervals within this gallery. As the lights shut off, the threads making up the intricate installation glow for a period of time. As your eyes adjust to the new darkness, these glowing lines become the only way you can navigate the space. Slowly the phosphorescence fades, until the small round hole into the outside gallery is the only visible feature of the room. Then the lights come up again. This lighting effect is accompanied by the sound of hissing, reminiscent of the suction of a vacuum, emanating from a speaker stand directed at the hole.
Spending time with this work creates alternating sensations of disorientation and then calm expectation as the cycle becomes apparent. In his accompanying catalogue essay, Rex Butler describes the work as creating the vertiginous feeling of watching light sucked away through the small hole in the major wall, but it is also interesting that the apparent dematerialisation of the thread in Circuit is actually interrupted by its firm tethering to the outside wall. As the pattern seems to disappear we are paradoxically made more aware of its connection to the physically substantial world that we can partially glimpse through the hole.
Selig’s work has always been about multiple forms of sensory perception but arguably it has primarily been about vision. With Circuit our senses are more fully engaged in a bodily experience both in terms of the particular use of sound and the very real possibility of becoming entangled in the work, as I nearly did, entering the space during a period of almost total darkness.
Selig has mentioned before that she often found herself drawn to ‘lightweight’ materials. Sewing thread and similar materials have been preferred because of their fragility and delicacy. In the show ‘Ground’ at Bellas Milani Gallery, Selig abandons the medium of thread altogether, as she carries out spatial investigations in elastic, paper, aluminium, stone, plastic netting or brightly coloured wire coat hangers distorted into a web-like interconnection.
These works have a very clear relationship with the surfaces on which they sit. Even the large suspended work is anchored firmly to the ground with large stones. Nowhere in this show do we find the sleek regularity of Selig’s linear installations. Instead there is a tension between materials and their arrangement. While there is often still a strong geometry to these works, the patterns themselves appear random, tempered by an organic quality and exploration of colour. The virtual ‘volume’ evoked by the artist’s previous work is partnered by ‘mass’ as a key component of these new pieces.
If the aerial suspension of Selig’s work has previously been a defining feature, both Circuit and ‘Ground’ appear to be very much about bringing the form back down to earth.