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Julie Shiels has pursued a socially engaged art practice for almost three decades. In recent years, she has turned her critical attention to the politics of public space, and specifically to the gentrification of the inner Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.
Shiels’s exhibition, ‘Sleeper’, explores the phenomenon of abandoned mattresses in public spaces; a familiar sight in St Kilda, a suburb long known for its itinerate community of underprivileged people. Found mattresses inform Shiels’s work in two ways: they contribute material and ideas for the creation of new studio work, and serve as the principal site for the staging of ephemeral public space interventions, the documentation of which is presented in ‘Sleeper’ as a series of photographs.
Throughout her exhibition Shiels rails against the validation of ‘beauty and utility’ as an ‘ideological alibi for development’.1 She appropriates abandoned mattresses for her art because these objects symbolise an unwittingly subversive spurning of development imperatives by the disenfranchised.
In her series ‘Quoting’, Shiels presents photographic documentation of quotes she has stencilled in situ on to abandoned mattresses or cardboard boxes. At a glace, these photographs suggest an agitprop campaign against gentrification and a critique of bourgeois taste and consumer excess. Despite resembling politically-inspired graffiti, Shiels’s gently provocative signs are essentially ambiguous, not didactic, and provoke contemplation rather than political action. For example, one mattress is stencilled with Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, ‘Less is More’; a quote that could equally serve as a stoic mantra for the disenfranchised or as a reference to property location surpassing building size as a marker of social status.
‘Sleeper’s’ centrepiece is a wall of photographs entitled, Sleeping with Knives. This installation exploits the symbolism of the bed as a receptacle of personal history and mines its rich cultural associations; as a haven for rest, nurture and retreat, as a site for sexual expression, marital negotiation and violence, and as a place where deep seated desires and fears are played out in dreams. Sleeping with Knives juxtaposes close-up photographs of mattresses stacked at a recycling factory with forensically documented knives and other potential weaponry, alongside two children’s toys which were found concealed inside these mattresses. The installation evokes possible narratives and emotive dichotomies that strengthen Shiels’s exploration into the lives of the disenfranchised.
‘Sleeper’ also explores the tension surrounding the value assigned to these mattresses, and indeed to any object of consumption, including works of art. The complicity of art and design in promoting consumer fetish is referred to in the close-up mattress photographs in Sleeping with Knives, which reference both Greenbergian formalism and home decorating paint strips, in a critique of the utopian modernist paradigm that fuels gentrification.
Bedtime Stories offers a series of clothbound books containing swatches of richly coloured and embroidered mattress material that similarly explores the social impact of development. The swatch books restage unwanted mattress fabric as a desirable commodity and connect seemingly benign home decorating practices, such as choosing paint, wallpaper or carpet, with the mechanisms of social exclusion. Shiels beckons us to touch the sanitised swatches, however, our desire is subjugated as the sullied provenance of the plush fabric is revealed at the final page of each book.
In her ‘Afterlife’ series Shiels examines intimate spatial relationships, in this case between the mattress and the human body. This idea is strongly developed in a series of works that again features recycled mattress fabric, this time refashioned into objects of intimate apparel. The resulting pyjamas are displayed in small groups to suggest familial relationships, evoking an unsettling pathos of resurrected identities emerging out of the mattress fabric’s inherent memory.
The use of mattress fabric of uncertain provenance to create beautiful and seductive garments is a redemptive act by the artist. The presentation of the pyjamas in an art gallery recuperates the fabric and a sign inviting viewers to touch the pyjamas redeems it further, however, it also negates its status as art.
‘Sleeper’, with its accessible interpretative devices, such as signs inviting touching and playful explanatory text, together with its focus on the documentation of ephemeral art, could have weakened the potency of Shiels’s anti-institutional public space practice. Instead the exhibition serves to enrich and extend Shiels’s critical spatial investigations in the context of the codified gallery environment.
1. Deutsche, Rosalyn, ‘Uneven Development’, October, 47, Winter, 1988, p.8.