Hilyard + Nair: sense cultures

Liz Bradshaw

Virginia Hilyard & Varsha Nair, screen (detail) 2001, duratran, fluoros sound

Virginia Hilyard & Varsha Nair, screen (detail) 2001, duratran, fluoros sound

Virginia Hilyard and Varsha Nair’s first collaborative project your hand opens and closes and opens and closes grew out of an opportunity to work together in Bangkok. There are 3 variable elements: 2 video projections with sound, woven mats from Thailand, and the smell of linament. This scent overlays the significance of the visual imagery and the material of the woven mats with particular reference to certain kinds of cultural practices. The video projections are slowed down sequences of Thai boxing and massage, where lyrical imagery transposes the conventional meanings of these events: the force and speed of boxing, and the nurturing, medicinal connotations of massage are manipulated to imply their opposite. The boxing becomes a delicate, graceful dance, drained of violence. The passivity of the hand being massaged is almost painful to watch as the viewer hears the quick heavy slap of hands and fists on the body.

Firmly located in the trajectory of experimental film, the subtle formal and technical processes—the treatment of the original video, including a positive/negative reversal, and the draining of the colour back to duotone—are seductive. They direct the viewer from an almost abstract movement of tone (carefully framed details that add layers of signification to the imagery such as the boxers’ decorative arm bands, the flecks of sweat flickering across the screen, the background text) to a questioning of the location, particularly the cultural location, of the work. The mats provide a reference—the arena specifically and Thailand generally—and even to the scale of the massage table, folded as they are to body size on the floor. As with all their work, the space of installation, here Darwin’s 24HR Art, is a working part of the experience of the piece.

screen, the second collaborative work, is made up of 2 large scale black and white duratrans. (A duratran is a photographic transfer process where the image is developed on opaque plastic: it is designed to be backlit and has a luminous quality when lit that diffuses the light through the image.) The first is a close-up of a mouth held open for the inspection and intrusion of the dentist’s tools, confronting the viewer with the border between inside and outside, and with the vulnerability of an open mouth—open to the violence of a medical apparatus—and the simultaneous sensation that at that moment the body shuts down, protects and closes in some internal way. Redolent with filmic reference, and medical and even sexual violence, the image refers us to the heroine’s scream on the one hand and our own personal trauma on the other (in Buddhist terms, always just outside the frame, the suffering of the human condition at the least).

At the centre of this image is the figure of the filmic frame, the fade to black: the perfect circle of the dentist’s mirror reflects only the grain of the film and the play of black and white, a cypher for the abyss, the frozen moment of breathless anticipation through which interiority is marked, an identity constituted, sense made of interpretation. The mirror does not reflect, signification is not transparent but distorted and ‘open’ to our individual reading.

The companion image in the piece is a blown up reversed x-ray of a pair of hands, held up for the medical gaze, but in that gesture both open to receiving and closed to shield, and again protect. Do they cover the vulnerable mouth, ward off a blow, contain signs of age or illness, or are they caught in the moment of coming together in prayer? While almost body size there is a delicacy and fragility about them, and a conceit about a Western will to knowledge and mastery that, even when dissecting the body, misses the unseen or the non-material.

The duratrans are lit from behind by the careful placement of linear fluorescent tubes, which echo the structure of the images: 2 hands held up moving outward from the wrists, the horizontal of the mouth flanked by the handles of invading instruments. This draws the images into the space and into an awareness of a physical relation to the work, at once inside and at one remove. Indeed, what lies behind is a crucial metaphor: what is hidden, what is beneath the skin, what is beneath our understanding, is the substance of the work’s allusions.

screen is accompanied by an intense and insistent soundtrack, the slowed down syncopated rhythm of crickets droning and humming: a piercing sound that insinuates itself into the mind and echoes in the body. This oppressive aural attack extrapolates the work of the images in leading the viewer to a very physical experience of open and closed, inside and out.

The third installation in the exhibition is Hilyard’s The Room which, located in close proximity, extends screen into other visual and rhetorical domains. The images are backlit duratrans of 2 drawings: the rubbing of a large antique steel security door, its solidity, strength and heavyness translated into the translucent lightness of a sheet of paper, and its form fractured, torn and lifted from its past use and materiality. Again, it serves as a sign for open and closed (the internal relation implied by a door—never simply open or closed), the physicality of exit and entry, the space of containment and security, and as a metaphor for the body under the impact of a psychology and an emotional terrain.

It is accompanied by an image of a multilayered rubbing of a coat, structured along the axis of a row of pebbles in the place of a spine, and a frenetic coil of rope in the place of internal organs. The disparate elements come together in a seamless and coherent weave of signs, alluding again to interiority and a range of emotional and psychological identifications. The Room, this room, is a claustrophobic space, anxious, frantic even, which has been set in thin sheets of opaque light-permeable plastic, confounding ideas about external and internal, imposed constraint and self-imposed strictures, resonating across a cultural divide to Buddhist ideas of impermanence, suffering and the illusions our minds create.

The work of Hilyard and Nair requires and rewards time and attention and is a series of visual, aural, olfactory and spatial encounters that play on our ideas of introspection and interpretation, always refering richly outside their frame. A range of visual codes explores the particularity, detail and personal encounter, as well as what it means to encounter culture, and the culture of another. The viewer is led through an identificatory process, physically at least, if not emotionally, psychologically and then, perhaps, spiritually.

Virginia Hilyard and Varsha Nair, your hand opens and closes and opens and closes; screen; The Room, 24HR Art, Darwin, April 27–May 19

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 37

© Liz Bradshaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001