Heather B. Swann | Bone

30.03.11 to 30.04.11

 

Breathing down your neck

 

In this exhibition, Heather B. Swann lays bare one of her central preoccupations: wildness and containment, and the nexus or relationship between the beast and the body.

 

Animals appear often in the artist’s work; creatures both wild and domesticated, cunning and dumb, with their physical features refined or intensified, abstracted or hybridised.

 

Here in Bone we encounter three particular favourites.

 

The dog has long been a significant brute presence in Swann’s work, from her very earliest undergraduate etchings to more recent Romanesque-surrealist sculptures such as Dog Eat Dog (2005, Dubbo Regional Gallery) and the 2007 City of Melbourne Laneways project Gates of Hell. Then there is the rat, standing on its hind legs and sniffing the air, which has featured in many drawings as well as in the pack of Ratties of 2005 (private collection). Finally, there is a relatively recent addition to the artist’s menagerie, the skyhook-tailed monkey which we see in Grinderman (2008, private collection) and Hook (2009, National Gallery of Australia).

 

But this trio are more than just comfortable familiars. These particular species have been adopted by the artist because of their dark sides, their bad reputations: the snarling, barking, growling, howling canine; the dirty rat of sexual and economic opportunism, of sewers and gangsterism; the lewd, loud, incorrigible, mischievous ape. They are troublemakers.
In these works not only is there the possibility of anthropomorphic reading, the possibility that each figure might stand for a particular attitude or emotional or intellectual position. The long history of human interaction with these guys is such as to have produced a rich store of linguistic and pictorial metaphor: the low dog, the black dog, the mad dog, the lap dog; the rat race, rats leaving sinking ships, rats we can smell; the cheeky monkey business in the margins of medieval manuscripts, the monkey on your back of addiction or obsession, the monkey with the long tail of a mortgage. These are not rudderless, cute animalia.

 

There is also something deeper, something primal happening here. Swann emphasises this mythic dimension through the three beasts’ essential dependence on a human climbing frame of reference. This is fauna in your face, on your back, breathing down your neck, gnawing on your bones; the dog, the rat and the monkey require a structure for their fierce play of dominance and submission.

 

Swann provides just such zoo-enclosure furniture in the current installation’s hard, osseous core, a suite of variously abstracted human backbones: a long torso racked over a wooden wedge to create a strange form somewhere between a vaulting horse, an anvil, the pommel of a saddle and a Chinese foot-binding shoe; a couple of Duchampian bisexual bicycle wheel vertebra-rings; a massive metacarpal woman-knuckle; a corset-laced, dark, upright tower; and that familiar, ferocious atavism of sexual coupling, a Rabelaisian-Shakespearean ‘beast with two backs’.

 

Here in this dream space, in the beast mistress’ Platonic cave, homo sapiens’ fragile, temporary, frontal-lobe dominance of the earth is revealed as a very nervous system indeed, little more than a pattern of shifting profiles, a vague, ambiguous spinal x-ray, a dance of evolutionary shadows.

 

January 2011

 

Opening speech, Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA