Alexandra Gillespie
 and Somaya Langley
Canberra Contemporary Art Space
7 February – 14 March 2009

Alexandra Gillespie and Somaya Langley’s collaborative installation,Collars was centred upon twenty shirt collars dotted around the Canberra Contemporary Art Space’s main gallery. The collars, displayed on stands, were embedded with electroluminescent strips of text. This text was taken from the sound component of the work in which the original collar owners recounted personal memories relating to their garment.

 Immediately when one entered the exhibition, the darkened gallery space swallowed up the small and delicate parts of the clothing. This feeling was amplified by the minimal installation; the twenty collars displayed so sparingly, although in conversational groups, did not carry enough weight visually in such a large space. They appeared lifeless, instead of implying the absent wearer of the collar.

Gillespie’s spatial arrangement sidelined the viewer to the periphery of the work and denied any physical engagement with the more subtle use of technology. The small sized text, quite neatly wrapped around the outside of the collar, provided a link to the soundscape of whispered stories which formed an absent crowd conversing. These links between recollection and object needed closer inspection for one to gain some appreciation for the layering of media. This would also help in drawing out the work’s continuous shifting of narrative and the tenuous nature of memory.

We are left perplexed. Why the use of collars? What is it about the collar that Gillespie and Langley perceive as a social object to open up discussion? Although the installation attempts to engage us with the presence of the collars owners (who are friends and family of the artists), we do not gain a sense of these people. The neck is a connection between the head and the body without being either: to place any real emphasis upon this part of the body in relation to personal experience is questionable and difficult to engage with. Those original collar owners’ lives and experiences are too complex to be conveyed through a simple strip of material worn. If anything, the text selected by the artists from these people’s stories inscribed a stereotypical expression of their lives. Text such as SELF INFLICTED RESTRAINT blazoned across a stiff white collar only reaffirms stereotypes surrounding class and identity instead of challenging them. Sound and text trod dangerously close to simplifying complex issues of class and social status.

The use of technology did not negotiate the materiality of the fabric collar. The texts lit up as the voices retold their recollections, yet due to the fact the text was taken from the sound recording, it only served to reiterate the sound work. What was interesting in this installation was that, although seemingly straightforward, the intersection between the spoken memory of the object and the actual object of the collar, just did not create dialogue. Instead of the technology creating a more enriching experience of the collars, the sound and text operated in disjunction.

Treatment of subject matter was more subtle in the sound competent of the work. The voices move forward and recede in conversation with one another, creating a sense of rhythm in the installation. However, the soundscape’s inferred crowd sat in opposition to the physical installation. Use of the stand to display the work was too overpowering for the collars and obstructed associations the viewer may have had with the absent owner’s physical presence. These stands and the necessary wires also obscured the more understated placement of the collars at the original owner’s height. We are left to consider what elements constituted the work and what parts were simply involved in mounting and presenting it.

Gillespie and Langley’s Collars represents an exhibition in which the new media aspect of the work does not attempt to give voice to the poetics of the subject matter. Unfortunately this overestimation of the ability of the technology to engage an audience only created a frustrating experience.