Art & the natural born archivist

Michelle Moo

'Eternity boy', Enmore Road, Enmore Megan Hicks

'Eternity boy', Enmore Road, Enmore Megan Hicks

An hour from Melbourne—a small cream fibro cement cottage, paint peeling, curtains fading. Inside it’s dark, cool, ants are making their way around. It is 2001, and the owner has only just left for the nursing home, but all over the house is evidence of the last 70 years. A calendar from 1956 hanging in the kitchen, letters from the turn of the century in the cupboards; old tins of laxative pills, matchboxes from the 50s with Aboriginal men standing on one leg and the sunset behind. There are recipes for Sao biscuits from the Depression, there is hand stitched linen; the laundry pegs are the big wooden ones Victorian children used to fashion into dolls. There is a collection of old mops hanging up, a wringer, and many old tin buckets and basins for handwashing. So much it is overwhelming. It’s a museum. And a few months later everything is collected by a younger relative who torches it in an all-night bonfire after downing a bottle of Jim Beam. Such is the ephemeral nature of most of our archives. Like memory, they can disappear overnight.

But the job of the archivist is to fix, to preserve. We are all collectors, accidental and considered. We hoard, we classify, we fetishise; magical objects arise from the everyday. The House of Exquisite Memory, at the Sydney State Records Centre, tips its hat to the “natural born archivists” (the hoarders, the children, the obsessives), although most exhibitors here are art professionals, a fact which is initially disappointing. However, the exhibition is necessarily reflexive given this: while some pieces work precisely as archives—Megan Hick’s Flat Chat, a photo documentation of footpath graffiti, is a fixing and celebration of what is fleeting in the everyday—others explore the nature of archive and memory.

In The Housing of Memory: off her rocker Fiona Kemp returns to the family home where her father, certainly a natural born archivist, has allowed the family archive to accumulate. From this, she has selected objects from her childhood and arranged them in a series of Perspex picture boxes—an autobiographical narrative of fragments, junctures and collisions. In one a type of suburban mise-en-abyme emerges: a hanky with images of washing hangs on a mini washing line, Astroturf below, in front of a photo of a backyard washing line. In another, the text “she always rocked herself to sleep at night” underscores a box in which a small blue dress hangs beside an empty hanger, with old receipts for clothes arranged underneath. There’s a haunting quality to it, and while there’s certainly an element of play here, there’s also loss and longing; gaps between objects and part-stories.

This is also the case in Barry Divola’s Critterholic, which traces a recuperation, not only of the objects but the practice of archiving. There is something here—in the recreated suburban kitchen setting, in the empty kitchen chairs at the Laminex table, and the Perspex cereal boxes, containing small toys—that resonates with a nostalgic recovery; not least because Divola’s present collection attempts to recover his lost one of 60s and 70s plastic cereal toys. (Divola resumed his cereal toy collecting 5 years ago—his mother had long since thrown out his childhood collection.)

Sally Gray’s My Garden as a Family Archive features dried flowers, images, and text suspended from the ceiling by string tied to rocks on the ground. Each picture twists with the breeze and movement in the room, giving us glimpses, a moving ephemeral montage of memory and attachment, where the familial and familiar are implicated in the complex of the garden. Memory, we are often reminded in this exhibition, is a collection, an archive. And in these works memory seems to disrupt more linear archival practices. Zoë Dunn’s first sounds and words, as recorded by her parents, again alert us to our often unnoticed practices (parents are always doing this kind of archiving), and the trajectory they trace along all our anxieties and desires.

James Cockington’s Memory Triggers is an assemblage of knicknacks and miniatures dating from 1966 (small because they had to fit into a shoebox in his bedhead) and features such objects as a mini Fanta bottle, and a Whitlam era it’s time badge. The miniatures are time capsules, synecdoches for an era. The collection is assembled as an enclosed checkerboard, part of a loungeroom setting facing a TV which plays Maree Delofski’s film The Trouble with Merle, an exploration of the conflicting stories about Merle Oberon’s background. I caught the end, with Merle’s “return” to Tassie where the convergence of studio bio and truths, gossip and secret (all archives in themselves), marks “a disaster” for the film star and the beginning of her so called decline.

That the exhibition is anchored in references to the everyday—loungeroom settings, checkerboards, kitchen settings, gardens—affirms that the everyday and familiar are sites of desire, longing, loss and recovery, asking us to consider what makes us collect; what are the practices and rituals that trace memory and recuperation about?

In David Waters’ Bus Farm, at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery, miniature wooden buses, perhaps a hundred or more, made from redgum sleepers with burnt relief, are arranged about the room; children visiting the exhibition wanted to move them around (and did). Playful, nostalgic, indelible, the repetition does recall childhood, toys—but they are rendered with a precise aesthetic that marks the work as artisan. Waters gestures to mass production, hence Bus Farm, and there’s some irony intended in the mass production of something so obviously hand crafted, raising broader issues about the question of replication. But this replication evokes a feeling of comfort, both in the reception and, I imagine, in the production; there’s a delight in this, an intimacy.

Considering this, I sit on the refashioned bus seats, and, looking down on the buses I see a street scene, a herd, and recover a feeling of the power of childhood; our domain over our magical objects.

The House of Exquisite Memory, curator Susan Charlton, designer Kylie Legge, State Records Centre, Sydney, Mar 28-Aug16; Bus Farm, Yarra Sculpture Gallery, Melbourne, Feb 19-March 12

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 35

© Michelle Moo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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