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Fiona MacDonald and Ricky Subritzky
Artist Fiona MacDonald and curator Ricky Subritzky have worked together since 1995 when Subritzky commissioned work from MacDonald as part of the inauguration of the Museum of Sydney. Since then the two have collaborated with Fiona Hall on Strangely Familiar, an installation which combined work by MacDonald and Hall with ornithological specimens from Sydney University’s MacLeay Museum. Shown at ‘Culture Fix’, the 2005 Cultural Studies of Australasia conference, Strangely Familiar mulled the consequences of collection and consumption in a domestic environment haunted by what Subritzky called ‘the complicated folds of capitalism’. A year later, MacDonald and Subritzky collaborated with Susan Norrie on ‘Dream Home’, an exhibition predicated on ideas of possession and dispossession, in Washington, DC. ‘Dream Home’ comprised work by MacDonald along with Norrie’s ‘Twilight’, a video of the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, and it took place while ‘Dreaming Their Way: Aboriginal Women Painters’, the largest show of Australian art to take place in the United States since Australia’s bicentennial, was on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Lobby, Fold, Spin is a three-part project which acknowledges some of this earlier territory—several of MacDonald’s works reappear—while the three installations are linked by a single overarching idea: liberty. Here Subritzky took the text of President Bush’s second inaugural address, where the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ occurred more than forty times in connection with the defence of American interests and ideals. Linking the War on Terror to the West’s current manic nesting impulse, Subritzky and MacDonald revisit the domestic realm of the earlier Strangely Familiar exercise, suggesting a connection, as Subritzky puts it, ‘between comfort and terror’.
Liberty is given form throughout the exhibitions through the repeated use of the image of the last surviving Liberty Tree. The Liberty Tree is both historical fact and symbol: the first such tree stood near Boston Commons and was used as a meeting spot for protests against the 1765 British Stamp Act. Liberty Trees were subsequently taken up by all thirteen of the original American colonies and, in living form, became patriotic rallying points for the independence-minded Sons of Liberty in the years preceding the American Revolution. The last surviving example, a tulip poplar some four hundred years old, was axed in 1999, after damage sustained by Hurricane Floyd. MacDonald and Subritzky treat this image as a motif, silhouetted, repeated, and made into a pattern. In Lobby it is transformed into a mandala-like canopy covering the ceiling, circled by doves and hawks. The surrounding space of the lobby in which the work was installed was swathed in nine-hundred yards of silk covered in a repeat print of faces to suggest a crowd.
Spin strikes a slightly different note. A series of domestic table lamps have been transformed into zoetropes, the hand-powered optical toy that was one among the many precursors to cinema. By spinning the drum, the viewer creates the illusion of movement in a sequence of images; a hand passes a buck, a character backflips, another fans flames, and the liberty tree’s canopy twirls in shadowy patterns. Spin is a pun and a gimmick—a good one—the ludic appeal of the device outlasts the word play.
Pattern dominates the work in Fold. Fall/Wall (2005) sets a lightshade and Thonet-style rocker against a long wall, the lot covered by an interlocking pattern of falling leaves and ascending warplanes so that the objects effectively disappear into the design. Patterns double in Crusade (B-1B) (2005), a digitally printed silk drape, where a B-1B bomber motif, rendered as an eight-pointed star or snowflake, is printed over images from a magnetic intensity data map. American Raptors (2002), a gridded collection of supermarket shopping bags, each bearing a silhouetted image of an American raptor, amplifies the idea of overprinting, while the black avian outlines echo the pattern of Fall/Wall. Liberty (2006) and Loom (2006) both use the image of the last Liberty Tree which appears as a tree drawn over a collection of four-hundred and ten US one dollar bills in the former, and as a circular pattern in blood-red on a floor rug in the latter.
These two works suggest the limits and the possibilities of Subritzky’s and MacDonald’s use of motif-as-critique. In Liberty an arboreal skeleton appears to hold together a patchwork of dollar notes; a detail of this work also shows a miniature tree ‘growing’ over the portrait of George Washington that appears on every American dollar bill. Pattern—the repetition of the liberty tree motif—here reads as obfuscation, as cover up and camouflage in a way that suggests a parallel with Bush’s second inaugural speech. Loom takes greater risks, or at least it risks some ambiguity. The blood-red mandala that is the Liberty Tree canopy, stripped of leaves, could just as easily be a Rorschach ink blot or a Marimekko silhouette print. This proximity to fashion is not coincidental. As signalled, for instance, by NEST interiors magazine, ornament’s revival comes like the return of the repressed. And ornament, figured as the desacralising repetition of symbol, is very much at stake here. Subritzky has called it ‘insidious’ but it is unclear from the exhibitions whether this is the property of ornament itself, or rather the particular ornament favoured by the project. It may be both: patterned ornament as camouflage and liberty as ruse. However, in this appeal to suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy, Liberty shows how close the Subritzky and MacDonald project approaches what Richard Hofstadter famously called the paranoid style of American politics. More than forty years ago Hofstadter wrote: ‘The paranoid style has greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than the truth or falsity of their content.’ An exhibition, even three of them, cannot articulate a program, but Lobby, Spin, Fold does aspire to criticism of the use of liberty as a justification for war. This seems a big burden for the Vasarely-like optical tricks of Fall/Wall’s wallpaper, where fallen Liberty Tree leaves disguise bombers. On the other hand, if the exhibition aims to answer Subritzky’s question — What might liberty mean now? — Liberty=Terror is a simple enough equation.