16
Jul
13

Review: ‘Anne Ferran: Box of Birds’ at Stills Gallery, Sydney

Exhibition dates: 26th June – 27th July 2013

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tar·ant·ism [tar-uhn-tiz-uhm]
noun
a mania characterized by an uncontrollable impulse to dance, especially as prevalent in southern Italy from the 15th to the 17th century, popularly attributed to the bite of the tarantula.

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I have never been a great fan of Anne Ferran’s exhumations. Her digging into the ground of history and restoring, reviving (after neglect or a period of forgetting) traces of life and bringing them into light (through photography) – bringing them back to light – has resulted in images that are paradoxically pretty, lifeless. For example, photographs of patches of grass in Lost to Worlds (2008) are given great import as contemporary evidence of the site of a female convict prison, near the small village of Ross, Tasmania as Ferran, “continues to play with the invisibility of this specific history, using large-scale photographs to show what little remains today, and to collectively reflect on the difficulty of grasping a ruined and fragmented past.”

And… so… what else?

These photographs really mean very little, another example of an artist picking at the scab of history to what end, what purpose, other than to dig up deleted histories that are past their use by date. Move on, move on, nothing to see here!

And there is literally nothing to see, except patches of grass that are given import by the contextualisation of the artist, the “look at this, I think it is important because I have seen it, because I have researched it, because I am an artist, because I am aware” – when the interrogation actually means very little. It is like the prevalence of contemporary photographs of empty, abandoned spaces – abandoned petrol stations, hospitals, insane asylums – that are supposed to impart great poetry and narrative to the spaces. Ruin porn as Dan Rule termed it recently.

Thankfully, these latest photographs are of a different taxonomic order – they are vital, alive, full of swirling tarantism that beautifully expresses the trapped energy that Ferran saw in a 1940s photographic archive of 38 unidentified women who were patients of a Sydney psychiatric hospital. In their formalist abstraction the artist has perfectly captured the unquiet spirit of the women and – here is the crux of the matter for me – these photographs allow me to go further into the subject, they take me to a different place and don’t just leave me on the surface of the image/history. They speak to me, they n/trance in multiple ways like little of Ferran’s work has done before for I feel this work, this hidden narrative, in the artist’s performative shaping of reality. Suddenly these women, trapped in a space (of the photograph, of the archive) and place (of the hospital), can spread their wings and anonymously shake their feathers (their spirit) with declamatory enthusiasm. As an artist friend of mine Julie Clarke observed, “I was captured by the amount of folds in the fabric Ferran has used. Her emphasis on ‘felt’ as felt emotion and the feeling associated with those almost absent bodies is intriguing.” And how that felt emotion relates to the work of Joseph Beuys and his use of felt as insulation, warmth and a kind of comfort, here represented in institutional form (I am reminded by the markings on the felt of the arrows of prison garments).

As the text for the exhibition states, “This new series marks a significant shift in approach, as Ferran harnesses photography and performance in an endeavour to manifest the archive’s continuing power in the present. Ferran’s performers conceal their identities behind lengths and swathes of painted felt, in some cases creating strange and outlandish figures in a disorder of material, bodies and space.”

It is a welcome shift in approach. Ferran’s mental, material dis/order produces significantly more memorable images than what has “passed” before, imaging as they do a conflation of past, present and future rather than relying on the death of the historical archive evidenced in the deathly photograph.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to Stills Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Anne Ferran. 'Agitated thrush' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Agitated thrush
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Clamorous shrike' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Clamorous shrike
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Conspicuous kite' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Conspicuous kite
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Night whistler' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Night whistler
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Pale-headed flycatcher' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Pale-headed flycatcher
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Slender-throated warbler' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Slender-throated warbler
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Stonebird' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Stonebird
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Tricoloured sylph' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Tricoloured sylph
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
72 x 48 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Feathered Emissary' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Feathered Emissary
2013
from Box of Birds series
Pigment print
60 x 80 cm
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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“Over the past 20 years Anne Ferran has worked with the residues of Australia and New Zealand’s colonial histories, probing them for gaps and silences. She has been especially drawn to the lives of anonymous women and children, seeking to shed light on their presence, and absence, in museum collections, photographic archives and historic sites. It is characteristic of Ferran’s images that the subject is not what is seen but rather what haunts it, something only partially visible. Intellectually and emotionally engaging, her photographs have explored episodes of incarceration in prisons, asylums, hospitals and nurseries, giving voice to the spectres of the lost and unseen.

Box of Birds returns to the subject matter of her previous works INSULA and 1-38: 1940s photographs of 38 unidentified women who were patients of a Sydney psychiatric hospital. In a significant shift of approach, rather than exhuming traces of the past, Ferran harnesses photography and performance in an endeavour to manifest its continuing power in the present.

Ferran’s process alternated between the considered and the uncontrollable. Female performers were instructed to hold pieces of felt up to her camera, the 38 lengths of dyed and painted fabric recalling the crumpled clothes worn by the women in the original photographic archive. Other images were wholly improvised, the performers creating strange and outlandish figures out of a disorder of material, bodies and space.

In a deliberate departure from the 1940s archive, Ferran’s performers conceal their identities behind lengths and swathes of fabric, raising ethical questions about photography’s role in recognition, representation and expression.

All the work in Box of Birds aims to elicit the energy Ferran saw trapped in those 1940s photographs, their unquiet spirit.”

Press release from the Stills Gallery website

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Anne Ferran. 'Chorus No.1' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Chorus No.1
2013
from Box of Birds series
38 Pigment prints
60 x 42 cm each
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Chorus No.2' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Chorus No.2
2013
from Box of Birds series
38 Pigment prints
60 x 42 cm each
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Chorus No.3' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Chorus No.3
2013
from Box of Birds series
38 Pigment prints
60 x 42 cm each
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Chorus No.4' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Chorus No.4
2013
from Box of Birds series
38 Pigment prints
60 x 42 cm each
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Anne Ferran. 'Chorus No.5' 2013

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Anne Ferran
Chorus No.5
2013
from Box of Birds series
38 Pigment prints
60 x 42 cm each
Editions of 5 + 2AP

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Stills Gallery
36 Gosbell Street
Paddington NSW 2021
Australia
T: 61 2 9331 7775

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 11.00 am – 6.00 pm

Stills Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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