rethinking spirituality: beverley southcott—garden city

UpstArt Contemporary Art Space, Port Adelaide
5- 19 May 2002

"I shopped with reckless abandon, I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit" (Delillo, White Noise, 1984).

Spirituality in the context of globalisation and economic rationalism is a theme that has been addressed by a number of important exhibitions in Australia, among them Spirit + Place: Art in Australia 1861-1996 curated in 1996 by Nick Waterlow and Ross Mellick for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Taking her cue from Spirit + Place, Adelaide based visual artist Beverley Southcott, in her recent exhibition Garden City, explored the relationship between spirituality and consumerism in the context of the corporate culture of the urban and suburban environment.

Beverley Southcott subscribes to a form of spirituality that, as she explains, is 'not necessarily a religious doctrine that is strictly adhered to, but can be seen as a private, quiet sense of place for spiritual reflection' . Southcott's meditative spirituality 'is about living in the present and being reflective in daily activities and actions'. Her research and art explore this secular spirituality as a quiet space of reflection in the context of a late capitalist environment marked by consumerism and the rapid proliferation of information. Working across the mediums of photography, painting and mixed-media installations (the latter concocted from a range of manufactured objects, including safety lights, jewellery cases, porcelain bowls, picture frames, holographic images, laminated pediments, tinted acetate, carpet overlay, artificial flowers and plastic toys), Southcott's art in Garden City asserts a mode of spirituality that haunts and penetrates both the domains of work and leisure.

In installations like Buy and Bye, 2000, Southcott arranges empty jewellery cases and stands on a pink tabletop, and positions these in front of a modified photograph of a glass jewellery cabinet showcasing a range of exquisite necklaces. A large, glowing Christian icon, the chalice, is digitally manipulated onto the glinting, transparent surface of the cabinet depicted in the photograph. In juxtaposing the empty cases with the photograph bearing the chalice (a symbol of the Holy Communion, the Last Supper and the redemption of individuals through Christ), Southcott alludes to the emptiness of shopping and the simultaneous spiritual gratification that some seek through the acquisition of commodities.

The long exhaustive routine of work and the inability to gain satisfaction from possessions are themes explored in Fuel and Gruel, 2002. A number of bowls and spoons are positioned in a circular pattern on an unusually high, round table. Although the cutlery and its arrangement evoke a space for communion and sharing, the bleak colours (dull soft shades of grey), lack of room and the oblique height in fact induce discomfort, exclusion, withdrawal and discontent.

In Contained Breath, 2002, a series of three C-type photographic prints mounted on MDF, Southcott presents a more subtle commentary on containment and corporate control as well as the sometimes surreal atmosphere of shopping malls-in this case the Marrickville/Newtown complex in Sydney. Photographed whilst moving on an escalator, these images of various plants creeping into view from a smoky, grey cloud of mist behind frosted glass betray their context (a suburban shopping mall) and appear both alluring and uncanny, invoking idyllic references to more 'natural' environments.

In Southcott's work, the spiritual is not the transcendental antithesis to the material but is intertwined with an environment dominated by glossy skyscrapers, sexy hi-tech shopping malls and a plethora of seductive paraphernalia. In highlighting the nexus between a personal, contemplative spirituality and the activities and outlets of the city and the suburbs, Southcott's work humorously teases the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material and in doing so celebrates the mall and the market as ambivalent sites of thrift and excess as well as rapture and meditation.