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Ephemeral Works 2005―2008

Ephemeral Works 2005―2008 is a photographic archive of installations by Claire Watson. Here, the viewer is invited to trace threads of continuity in the early experimental works of a young and adventurous artist. Whilst the photographs may at first glance appear to be vastly divergent, we see upon closer inspection a sincere engagement with particular themes. In Watson’s work there is a tendency to reach beyond the traditional contexts of exhibiting, so that very few pieces are installed in conventional gallery spaces. There is also a persistent fascination with the transitory nature of existence, often reflected in perishable materials used within the artwork. Finally, we see a desire to arouse awareness of the immediate environment, whether it be a forest in Helsinki, the shores of the Black Sea or Sydney Road in Brunswick, Melbourne.

 

Throughout her career Watson has developed fresh perspectives by reconsidering simple daily interactions. In each of her works she focuses on an isolated experience, such as the choice of a jellybean or the purchase of a pineapple, and constructs an aesthetic meditation on its basis. Four of the images exhibited here feature the jellybean as a subject, chosen by Watson for its capacity “to highlight the subjective nature of choice”.[1] In an installation at Bus Gallery, perspex tubes are mounted upon the walls in a way that mimics the presentation of sweets at a lolly shop. Nearby, small clusters of jellybeans are isolated according to colour. In a related video work, Watson carefully removes all the jellybeans of a particular colour from a mound of mixed beans with an air of scientific precision. The group of works thus concentrate on the surprisingly confirmed preferences many people harbour concerning their favourite colour of jellybean.

 

Pineapples for Piscina is a tropical scene inspired by the manner in which pineapples are nowadays presented on the supermarket shelf. In an absurdist gesture reminiscent of Mikala Dwyer[2], blue pineapple heads lie intermingled with various plastic objects, all of which bear an instant association with seaside leisure activities. Sand is strewn on the floor and a bright blue tarpaulin forms a backdrop across the wall. The artist describes how, “combining themes of fishing and pineapples, a symbolic language was formed that attempted to chronicle my effort to fish for meaning as both a consumer and an artist”.[3] The abandoned pineapple heads serve to represent our dislocated relationship with the natural world. This lack of ecological attunement is highlighted by the juxtaposition of the pineapple heads with the powerfully synthetic look of the objects we use in water: items such as kickboards, fishing equipment and pool hosing.

 

Beyond Watson’s delight in the absurd lies a fascination with the contrast between the inherent order of nature and the order imposed by humanity. There is a consistent use of natural materials as part of the artist’s palette: we see the juxtaposition of jellybeans against snow and grass, the beach used as a backdrop for a portrait of Harold Holt and sand strewn upon the gallery floor in Pineapples for Piscina. Rather than pillaging nature for the purposes of aesthetic contemplation, the artist displaces natural materials in a way that mirrors the manner in which humanity purposefully tinkers with patterns of life.

 

The artist recently undertook a residency in Finland, where she created several installations inspired by the local staple foods: potatoes and cabbages. In a spectacular outdoor intervention entitled Epiphyte, Watson grafted 25 cabbages to birch trees. The contrast of heavy round objects against the thin vertical tree trunks creates a jarring visual effect which recalls the installations of ping pong balls by Nike Savvas.[4] The merging of disparate natural materials alludes to developments in genetic engineering, but also mimics our everyday encounters with the urban landscape, where we often see plants from vastly diverse origins cultivated side by side. In Transporter, the scene is strangely reminiscent of both a scientific laboratory and a religious shrine. Blue painted potatoes, at times inserted with thermometers or light globes, are positioned on the floor and on a pane of mirrored glass. Here we are prompted to consider both the fixation with measurement that underpins scientific enquiry, and the obsession with the “use value” of things which provides its ground.

 

Regardless of materials, in all of Watson’s works we see a tendency to incorporate the immediate environment. In an empty building on the busy shopping strip of Sydney Road[5], we see “images taken from within and around the actual site” placed within ducting to create viewing portholes.[6] The tubular portals in Conduit disrupt the viewer’s spatial orientation in a way that the surrounding architecture and signage becomes more apparent. In a piece which the artist describes as her most autobiographical, Watson has plastered a billboard with the slogan “Claire Watson, Emerging Artist”.[7] Here, the act of becoming an artist is presented as a corporate venture which blends in with the surrounding advertising signage.

 

Claire Watson is happy to make the world her studio. This is affirmed by the artist in code form, in a text piece installed in Turkey in 2005. Drawn from the poetry of the 13th century Turkish poet Mevlana, it reads:

 

Bir dahaki sefere, okyanus!
Sonsuza dek evim olacak.

 

Next time, the ocean!
I’ll make the infinite my home…[8]

 

Jane O’Neill
July 2008

Published by: Counihan Gallery, Moreland City Council

Exhibition Dates: 24 October - 16 November 2008

 

 

[1] Artist statement, 2008.

[2] Mikala Dwyer creates fantastical installations which incorporate natural and synthetic materials. In this context I am referring to Hanging Garden, 2007-2008 which consists of plastic, plants and earth.

[3] Artist statement, 2008.

[4] I am referring to Atomic: Full of Love, Full of Wonder, 2005, curated by Juliana Engberg at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Australia.

[5] Sydney Road is Melbourne's longest continuous shopping strip, with an abundance of small businesses and a variety of restaurants and coffee shops, clothing stores, places of worship, and community services.

[6] Artist statement, 2008.

[7] Watson explains how “The necessary process for contemporary artists to apply for grants in order to pursue their passion necessitates the distinction in the funding category: ‘emerging artist’.”

[8] This text installation was presented as an accompanying work to Next time the ocean, where the artist constructed a large scale portrait of Harold Holt upon the shoreline of the Black Sea in Turkey.

 

 

 

 

Ephemeral interactions and cognitive dissonances ― Claire Anna Watson's Reverie

 

In the Finnish winter of 2008, in the small town of Haukivuori, a stand of birches sprouts pale green ‘epiphytes’: twenty-five cabbages carefully attached to the delicate trees. In Evoramonte, Portugal, in 2010, a pomegranate tree’s harvest mysteriously expands to include strawberries and bananas; an olive tree grows a crop of plastic ravens; and by a river, schools of trout dangle absurdly from twisted, overhanging branches.

 

Were these dreams? Not dreams, but a Reverie: “a state of fanciful musing”[1] brought on by the unusual products of artist Claire Anna Watson’s fertile imagination. As this latest exhibition makes clear with playful abundance, Watson’s work encompasses the delightfully absurd and the darkly visceral, creating a world where ‘order and caprice’[2] fit hand-in-glove.

 

Reverie brings together several key works from the past four years of Watson’s practice, allowing Australian viewers to experience some of her site-specific interventions via large, lush Type C photos of these ephemeral works. The artist sets out to recontextualise our relationship to the foods we eat; and in the three videos in Reverie sheds unexpected light on the humble pineapple, cabbage and strawberry; while a new installation work, Harvest, extends earlier meditations on that most artificial of foods, the jellybean.

 

The Epiphyte series (2008) suggests whimsy rather than parasitism, with the curious, cabbage-adorned birches seeming to express a strange natural order. Almost glowing in the pale winter light beneath a lacework of high twigs, the symbiotic cabbages assert their eerie presence against the slender vulnerability of the young trees; the crisp, round heads appearing to float in the cold air. Watson conceived the intervention after seeing hundreds of cabbages stored in a local coolroom; passing by the ubiquitous Finnish birch forests, a “virtual montage”[3] formed in her mind. But far from being a simplistic comment on mass agricultural production, Epiphytebrings to life a mysterious ‘colony’ in the forest, and a moment of curious questioning for the onlooker.

 

The Tree Studies (2010) document two among several dislocations of the everyday created by Watson as part of her 2010 artist residency at Foundation OBRAS, in Evoramonte, Portugal. As Jane O’Neill notes in a previous catalogue essay, Watson is fascinated with “the contrast between the inherent order of nature and the order imposed by humanity”.[4] While Epiphyte’s order seems almost ‘natural’, the sight of skyward-pointing artificial trout dangling from Evoramonte’s trees is patently surreal, while resonating with the perpendicular of a fish drawn up from the sea on a line. Here in the gallery, her cream-bellied ‘fruits-de-mer’ amid muted foliage are juxtaposed with a second Tree Study, a larger-than-life close-up of another Evoramonte intervention, whose ripe strawberries pulse with colour against vivid blue sky. In a cheekily extreme ‘re-re-commodification’ of the original fruit, Watson’s saturated metallic-print strawberry-tree outdoes the glossiest of advertising posters. The result is strikingly artificial, and mouth-watering.

 

In its intimate exploration of everyday food items, Watson’s Reverie steps beyond dream into nightmare, with the beautifully visceral Sortie (2009). The medium of video activates multiple senses, and in the case of Sortie immerses the viewer in a “site of torment and darkness”,[5] as a pair of surgical tweezers plucks the seeds from a ripe strawberry in horrifying close-up, each minute act of violence concluded by the metal-and-porcelain click as the seed is tapped, off-screen, into a dish. “Food has the potential to evoke not only life, but also death,” says Watson. “Like the human being, its existence is transitory”.[6] Growing reckless, the tweezers strike increasingly savagely at the helpless fruit, which appears, at one point, to actively recoil from the destruction. By the end of the video the fruit is reduced to bruised and bloodied fragments.

 

More clinically, in Endocardium (2010) Watson investigates a cabbage, searching for its knobbled heart. Like Sortie, Endocardium is accompanied by a disturbing soundscape of dark rumblings and reverberations – the super-amplified diegetic sounds of camera, rustling clothing, and in this case the squeaks and cracks of surgical gloves and snapped-off leaves. Under harsh white light, Watson creates an unsettling distance between her exploratory experience and the “natural matter” upon which she works, highlighting the disjunctures between the way we experience and “know” food.[7]

 

Pineapples for Piscina (2007) was originally an installation featuring various objects related to both fishing and pineapples, chronicling the artist’s effort to ‘fish for meaning’ as both consumer and artist.[8] In Reverie, Watson revisits the work, recontextualising two elements: a video of the hapless or heroic[9] pineapple, bobbing in the sea; and the improbably blue-painted pineapple head, resting in sand like a fantastical porcupine. Across these two pieces, Watson’s concerns can be seen extending from the prosaic to the poetic. While the video is so immediate, so utterly local, the photograph seems to express a metaphoric and elusive logic as the long, animate spines reach out like protoplasmic limbs towards both ground and sky.

 

While the highly-processed jellybean might seem at odds with the ‘natural world’ of Watson’s fruits and vegetables, it provides the artist with a rich symbol for what she calls “the age of selection”,[10] in which humans in developed countries exercise almost-endless choice in what they consume. A new work created specially for Reverie, Harvest selects the black jellybean – most-loved or most-reviled among all jellybean ‘types’ – and formally displays it in the gallery space; where it resonates unexpectedly with the deep blue of Watson’s pineapple head, the multiplicity of her crowds of fish and clusters of cabbages, and the rich black background ofSortie. “Harvest represents a manmade food source,” says Watson. “It mimics commercial mass production, laid out on a conveyor belt destined for packaging. The sense of repetition and consumerist production is quite unlike the naturalistic interventions of other works. Yet it shares a sense of the absurd.”[11]

 

Watson’s works both charm and disturb; their gentle absurdity brings to notice a crucial part of the world around us: the food that we eat. In Reverie, we gain the opportunity to participate in an artist’s “phenomenology of food” and to renew our relationship to what we consume; exploring our own lived experience through the “cognitive dissonances” that Watson so delightfully presents. [12]

 

Urszula Dawkins

March 2011

 

Published by: Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale

Exhibition Dates: 2 April - 15 May

 

[1] C Yallop, JRL Bernard, D Blair, S Butler, A Delbridge, P Peters, N Witton (eds), Macquarie Dictionary, 4th Edition. Macquarie Dictionary Publishers: Sydney 2005, p.1211

[2] Order and Caprice is the title of a series of previous works by Claire Anna Watson; she describes her new work Harvest as, in a sense, an appendix to the series.

[3] Artist’s statement, 2008

[4] Jane O’Neill, catalogue essay, Ephemeral Works 2005–2008. Claire Anna Watson at Counihan Gallery, Brunswick, 2008

[5] Artist’s statement, 2010

[6] Emailed interview with the artist, 14 March 2011

[7] Emailed interview with the artist, 14 March 2011

[8] Artist’s statement, 2008

[9] ‘Heroic’ suggested by Robert Nelson in his review of Ephemeral Works 2005–2008 at Counihan Gallery, Brunswick, ‘Breathing heroic and sinister life into the inert lump’, (The Age, 5 November 2008)

[10] Artist’s statement, 2011

[11] Emailed interview with the artist, 14 March 2011

[12] Emailed interview with the artist, 14 March 2011

Sortie

 

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[i]

So said—not Aristotle, not Galen—but Gandalf the Grey, in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.

 

Read in a post-appendicitis convalescence, my 12-year-old brain reeled at this aphorism: it seemed eminent, obvious, and yet entirely counter-intuitive. How can you understand anything without getting to the heart of it? And how do you get there without breaking it? As distinct from the fantasy milieu of Lord of the Rings as Claire Anna Watson’s Sortie is, it forces the same kind of contemplation of the scientific underpinnings of the modern era, and makes evident our complex relationship with it.

 

In Sortie, a pair of lab-grade tweezers pluck the pips, one-by-one, off the surface of a plump, fleshy strawberry, which emerges from sensuous black shadows. Anticipation builds and dissipates as the fruit is first denuded, and then, horrifically destroyed. The dramatic, discomfiting soundtrack increases both the tension and absurdity of the work. It is just a piece of fruit: it is not just a piece of fruit. The literal breaking of the Strawberry in Sortie mirrors another kind of ‘breaking’, a process of pathologising which says that what is not useful in a human context must be eradicated or corrected. We must deem it broken before we can fix it, to justify what follows. Sortie both evokes and contradicts the scientific aesthetics which would reassure us and obfuscate its ethically uncertain aspects.

 

Lab coats; hygienic white; gleaming stainless steel; the pristine isolation of samples: all these images distract us from the imbalance of power between researcher and subject. This dynamic has been abused in the past and is still evident in common modern practice: we induce palsy in lab rats, fellow mammals involuntarily submitted to our cause; slice happily through brain matter—the physical stuff of our intellect, our identity, our souls; we alter the genetic structure of our food, even as we are still discovering new truths about our own.

 

Against this backdrop, is it surprising how easily suspicion is mobilised in the general public against, for example, climate science? Ironically, as public confidence in science seemingly fades, we are almost impatient for it to save us already: our environment and our economy absolutely dependent on the new technologies, new sources of energy, new industries which scientific research might yield. The dilemma of how to continue to embrace ethical challenges of science without rejecting its philosophy wholesale, is one which echoes around Watson’s body of work, particularly in the dark, tense, Sortie.

 

Sortie is charged with the tension of poiesis[ii], and Watson’s fascination with food as both every day object and site of transformation intersects with Heidegger’s concept of enframing.[iii]The strawberry, once accountable only to its own context in nature, has been designated as a food, to be ‘perfected’ by humans and drawn into a framework of human values. It is constantly poised in a state of potential—created to be destroyed, part of a complex of bringing—forth, to be transformed from matter into energy and into matter again, literally through our bodies. The ‘God trick’[iv] of technology, which constantly expands the range of our human gaze, is also established here through the use of large-scale High Definition Video projection. The extension of human perception through scientific and medical imaging has enabled us to see around and through things, the macro and the micro, the visible and the invisible, and always from the safety of an objective non-place. Developed largely with technological—not aesthetic—concerns in mind, the God trick is now readily within the average person’s grasp. The question is, does this expansion of vision enable us to see more, to see better? Or is our encounter with nature limited by these increasingly ‘accurate’ but increasingly abstracted, mediated imaging technologies? Again, Watson establishes a tension between our reliance on science, and our tendency to take it for granted.

 

As Matt Ridley pointed out recently in his talk When Ideas Have Sex: “we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand”. [v]We live in a profoundly specialised world, where no one person knows how to produce anything from beginning to end. A video artist may have a comprehensive knowledge of the effects of various compressions, and know how to manipulate their equipment to achieve desired effects, but how many know anything at all about the material with which they work? Especially in this age of DSLR, where the materiality of video has all but evaporated. Viewed through Sortie’s lens, you might say we’ve created the ability to see things we don’t even understand. A strawberry, Watson suggests, is both commonplace and a mystery: utterly banal, and yet representative of a complex science that may remain to most, inexplicable.

 

Jessie Scott

August 2011

 

Jessie Scott is a video artist, filmmaker and occasional writer. She is a founding member of Tape Projects collective.

Published by: BLINDSIDE, Melbourne: Australia

 

Exhibition Dates: 17 August to 3 September, 2011

[i] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (Volume I: The Fellowship of the Ring). New York: Ballantine Books, 1954-1974, p.259.

[ii] Heidegger refers to poiesis as ‘..the arising of something from out of itself… a bringing-forth’ Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Basic Writings. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p.293.

[iii] Heidegger defines enframing as 'to reveal the real' and as a 'way of revealing that holds sway in the essence of modem technology and that is itself nothing technological'. op. cit, p.302.

[iv] Donna Haraway. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn), Washington D.C.: Feminist Studies Inc., 1988, p.581.

[v] Matt Ridley. When ideas have sex. TED Talk (video), 2010, retrieved 2 August 2011: http://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html.