Deborah Vaughan

Atopia
Artspace, Sydney

Deborah Vaughan's installation Atopia was an elaboration and development of her earlier work Scripsit, shown at Performance Space, Sydney, during 1993. Physically, both consisted of the same elements, a column or stack of paper, with each sheet individually coated with a mixture of sand and clay; two speakers set within a narrow metal tray filled with inky black liquid; and vein-like PVC tubing through which the black liquid was pumped, circulating between the trough and the column of paper. In the two installations however, these shared elements were deployed very differently. Whereas Scripsit developed internal relationships of scale, allowing it to be installed almost anywhere (for instance the stack of paper lay on its side on the floor, approximately the length of the trough of inky liquid), Atopia was site-specific, its composition relating to the particularities of the architecture of Artspace. Here the single trough was extended by the addition of two more troughs which were abutted against the original, one at either end. This tripartite sequence mirrored the three columns that run down the centre of the gallery space. The stack of paper, no longer prone and gravity bound, rose from floor to ceiling disguising, or visually replacing the central column.

Given the work's site-specificity, it seemed ironic at first that Vaughan chose to call it Atopia – derived from the Greek word meaning 'no place'. Yet this ironic quality was central to the work's poignancy and to the number of themes which resonated through it: the difficulty of developing a 'sense of place' through which to communicate or to create; the associated process by which 'otherness' subtly dissolves and reforms; and the way in which one's labour (in all of this) continually teeters between visibility/invisibility.

In the detailing of these aspects of Atopia there is, inevitably, the danger of destroying the balance between carefully constructed tensions-of making the labour of the piece too obvious and reducing its semiotics to platitude. Certainly, the evidence of labour (the layering and dipping of each sheet of paper) remained visible only at the outer edges of the stack, thus suggesting a visceral relationship between the private act of 'writing' and the public act of its reading. The 'veins' (carrying the inky liquid between trough and paper) furthered this allusion. The 'embodiment' of writing/ creativity was heightened by an air bubble which caused the pumping veins to twitch every few seconds. Equally, the scratching sound emitted from the immersed speakers reinforced this connection. The installation-'a body of work'was every bit as physical/metaphysical as our own body; the seemingly endless column and the Sisyphean effort stood for the endlessness of our endeavours to reconfigure the world.

There is another kind of labour that was crucial here: the meticulous attention to detail and the careful weighting of effect in the construction of Atopia, opened the possibility for the viewer to experience the work 'temporarily'-as a fluid or duration-based encounter rather than as a rigid textual construct. By spending time with the installation one found that the simplicity of the elements-at first suggesting a corporeal or at least animate presence-gave way to something even more familiar. There was a gradual realisation that the scratching sound was not some strange animal presence, it was in fact the recorded sound of a pen nib on paper. All the elements of the work likewise began to dissolve and reform into a myriad of semiotic configurations. This 'cohesion' of knowledge was gained through a focused or concentrated temporal experience-the folding and unfolding of associations.

In this way, Deborah Vaughan's Atopia made links between creative and manual labour and the development of a sense of place. Temporally and structurally Atopia made palpable the process through which the strange becomes familiar, while retaining shades of difference. Relatively speaking, Atopia could be either dystopia or utopia-but more often than not, it was somewhere in between, where the promise of a brighter future and the terrors of the unknown stalk us at every turn.