ANNE GRAHAM: MNEMONIC OBJECTS

Anne Graham, William Wright Artist Projects, 28 August–13 September 2014. Shifting sands and falling trees, Articulate, 19 September–5 October 2014. Published in Craft International 2015

Visiting Anne Graham’s studio several years ago was akin to a child visiting a lolly shop – eye’s darting everywhere, settling on one object only long enough to be enticed towards another. Etched into my memory were boxes of combs, fossils, horsehair, gatherings of wood and wax, shells, pins and needles, all of which I likened at the time to a Foucauldian community of monsters.[1] These objects pop up now and again in various artworks, and while some find themselves permanently attached to a work others go back into the library of things for a future incarnation. This gathering of life’s minutiae and detritus, from lint, coal, dust and dog hair to bowls, feathers and Japanese stools all reflect Graham’s interest in the way that ordinary things are imbued with meaning.[2] Susan Pearce’s observations on the compulsion of collecting acknowledges that the peculiar qualities of objects open up the possibility of forming relationships with the distant or relatively distant past, and in doing so achieve some sense of continuity.[3] The objects themselves have been collected over several decades from travels around the world or from Graham’s own backyard, hearth or the local laundrette. She also has an uncanny ability to persuade unsuspecting victims, including her curator husband Anthony Bond, to participate in her folly and this is how some of the works in two recent exhibitions in Sydney came to be. The first exhibition was held at William Wright Artist Projects, and the second, Shifting sands and falling trees was held at Articulate.

Both exhibitions contain works that are made from either found objects – a distinctly Duchampian trait – or works that are made from earthbound materials, such as felt constructed from dog hair or pieces of discarded wood and metal reflecting Graham’s deep interest in the work of Joseph Beuys.[4] Beuys believed that materials such as copper, felt and fat could generate restorative energy. In the upper gallery at William Wright Artists Projects Graham installed a number of works from a series she has been working on that involved several friends and their canine companions. Over a period of time two artists, a curator, a writer/designer couple and other friends collected the hair discarded by their dogs. Through the ancient process of felting, Graham combined the dog hair with merino wool and made large sections of felt, which were then cut and sewn to make coats, hats or scarves for the pet owners, the resulting garment depending on how much hair was collected. In the exhibition, the garments hang on the wall next to a large photograph of the subject wearing the felt costumes, accompanied by their beloved canines. The tactility of the felt is reinforced by the subjects, who in wearing the garments are in the process of becoming ‘dog’, swathed in the warmth of their animal friend who not unexpectedly resembles their owner.

The objects in both exhibitions are highly enigmatic, tactile and mnemonically charged – one work bares the trace of a cooked fish in Japan, another recalls the singing sands of a long lost Japanese beach, and yet another, the wings of currawongs or dancing dervishes. These objects evoke memory-images, fluid as in a fictive narrative or a ‘contaminated memory’ as Graham puts it, and yet they are rooted in the mere object-ness of the thing before us. This process recalls the writing of WG Sebald, whose inconsistencies between his meandering writings and the photographic images he includes to give veracity to the text, form layers of meaning that are shaped by both Sebald and the reader. Graham’s works, like Sebald’s texts are from the position of being the outsider or the observer who, like the character in The rings of Saturn, collects experiences and stories along the way that become merged into new forms.[5]

Several of the works in both exhibitions fall into this category – such as the works resembling Japanese fans made from cedar salvaged from an industrial cooling tower that were combined with copper, aluminium or Perspex shelves. The various shelves hosted living organisms such as a grevillea root or mini native orchids. These objects become contemplative and meditative spaces where something new is formed from often seemingly conflicting materials. This is true also of the sculptural installation Ziggurat, which is reminiscent of a shrine, consisting of a number of Japanese stools piled on top of each other and various glass and wooden vitrines. On the central stool at the top of ziggurat is a bottle containing water from the Cox’s River in the Blue Mountains and on each side are vitrines containing bird feathers, lint from the Lithgow laundry and cinders from Graham’s fireplace. Placed on the remaining stools are brass bowls with ash from the home hearth. All of these objects have a visceral connection to the artist and to her sense of place, whether in a local or global sense. This sense of place comes very much from mnemonic connections to objects but also in Graham’s ability to situate herself in a place through various artist residencies that build up an archive of memories, stories and things that she can draw upon to make her art.

The story of the lint from the Lithgow laundry provides a narrative that draws on Graham’s wit and her interest in detritus. On chatting to the laundry owner “Mrs Washalot” (as she calls herself), Graham became intrigued with the role of the laundry as the place where local workers and miners have their uniforms washed, and she requested the lint be collected for a possible project. What resulted were sheets of fibrous lint that contain layers of various colours and textures from the uniforms plus the coal dust, hair, and other fibres pressed into rivers of patterns. These lint sheets, like the dog-hair felt, contain traces of various lives all interwoven into the textiles presenting a tension between their corporeal forms and incorporeal qualities. In the exhibition these textiles are somewhat severed from their associations and “reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights—like torsos in a collector’s gallery” as Walter Benjamin puts it.[6] Benjamin likens memory to an archaeological report in which the subject digs through the layers of strata to locate traces of the past.

The sculptural installation Singing sands is a reconstruction of a piece Graham made for the 2009 Niigata Water and Land Art Festival in Japan. Like Benjamin’s archaeologist the work located the connection between Shinohara Kozaburo’s house in the village of Gokahama, which had been relocated from Kakumihama, a small village that disappeared due to erosion and was famous for its singing sand.[7] By creating Singing sands as a site-specific piece in the house, Graham reunited the building with its former location through the memory of the singing sands. The ‘singing’ sound is formed from friction when the grains press against each other in movement such as when a foot presses on the dry sand or in Graham’s work, when the glass beads and carborundum are funnelled through the centre of the glass and bronze columns. Singing sands keeps the memory of the former village alive but also brings with it other related stories that blogger Noi Sawaragi discusses in relation to Graham’s exhibition in Gokohama.[8] The villages of Niigata and Kakumihama are connected, not just through the relocation of Shinohara’s house, but also through the legacy of Atomic warfare. According to Sawaragi, Niigata was identified as a potential atomic target at the end of World War II, fortunately averted due to bad weather. In 1969 it was proposed that a nuclear plant be situated on the remaining site of Kakumihama, which thankfully never went ahead given its unstable foreshore. Graham’s new iteration of Singing sands in Sydney keeps these connections fresh and creates new relationships between her mnemonic objects and us in forming memories of them.

[1] See my catalogue essay, Anne Graham: The alchemy of becoming, Sherman Contemporary Art Gallery, Sydney, 2003 and Michel Foucault, The order of things 1966.

[2] See Janet McKenzie, Anne Graham interview: ‘The ability to see things as if for the first time is for me the essential quality necessary to make art’, Studio International, 1 October 2014. http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/anne-graham-shifting-sands-falling-trees-sydney?id=2501&tmpl=component&print=1&layout=default&page= [accessed 6 October 2014].

[3] Susan Pearce, On collecting: an investigation into collecting in the European tradition, Routledge, Oxon, 1995, 250.

[4] Marcel Duchamp, 1887–1968 and Joseph Beuys, 1921–1986.

[5] WG Sebald, The rings of Saturn, Michael Hulse trans. The Harvill Press, London, 1998.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Excavation and memory, c1932, Rodney Livingstone trans. in Michael W Jennings et al, Walter Benjamin: selected writings, vol 2, part 2, 1931-1934, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, 576.

[7] McKenzie, Anne Graham interview, np. Shinohara Kozaburo

[8] Noi Sawaragi, A Restatement: The Art of 'Ground Zero' (Part 10) Nukes and Niigata III, http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_contri9/4cQ9STGKWCqUFJBYf2Mi/ [accessed 7 October 2014]