Tactile Fragility

Barbara Bolt

Ricky Swallow, Killing Time (detail), 2003-2004

Ricky Swallow, Killing Time (detail), 2003-2004

Ricky Swallow, Killing Time (detail), 2003-2004

In the middle of a darkened space sits a heavy, old fashioned and roughly hewn kitchen table. A single spotlight illuminates fruits of the sea spilling out over the table top: dozens of oysters, a crayfish on a plate, squid, snapper, mullet and garfish. A knife rests on the edge, next to a lemon that is partly peeled, its skin curling away off the table. This cornucopia is laid out for our viewing pleasure.

Ricky Swallow’s sculpture/installation Killing Time possesses a ‘gasp’ factor that turns adult viewers into kids dying to touch. What takes our breath away is the fact that nothing is as it appears. The entire work—from the fragile curling lemon peel and the finely wrought legs of the crayfish, to the bucket and folded cloth—has been meticulously carved out of wood. Swallow’s mimetic skills are awesome and his ability to re-present reality captivates audiences who can’t seem to help taking a ‘reality check’ through physical contact with the work. Little wonder the gallery positioned an attendant to watch over it.

Ashley Crawford wrote in The Age (April 17) that Killing Time is based on Swallow’s childhood experiences as a San Remo fisherman’s son. Without doubt this work is personal, but it connects with viewers on a far more profound level. For all the carving skill demonstrated in the recreation of this laden table the work is disconcerting. There is no tell-tale fishy smell or seductive colour, no sounds of laughter or kitchen noises that such bounty would engender. It is as if all the life and colour has been bleached out of the scene.

Given that Swallow dedicated 6 months to crafting the work, Killing Time is an apt title. However, the title, the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and the tableaux link the work to the Dutch and Flemish traditions of still-life painting or natures mortes— literally ‘dead life’. Seen in this light, Killing Time potentially takes on a political edge.

At a literal level, Dutch still-life paintings offer a skilful mimetic rendering of simple everyday things. However, simultaneously these everyday things assume symbolic meaning, a warning against the seductiveness and emptiness of material excess, reminders of the need to maintain balance between the spiritual and carnal. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s La Raie (The Rayfish, 1728) for example, warns of the danger of licentious living, through its juxtaposition of sexually laden symbols: a cat with its hackles risen, oysters, jugs, the underside of a rayfish and a knife balanced on the edge of the table with its blade thrusting into the delicate folds of the tablecloth.

The similarities between the composition of Chardin’s La Raie and Swallow’s Killing Time begs a reading of one through the other. In La Raie, we are also presented with a rough hewn kitchen table groaning with seafood. And I ask: What does it mean to show the underbelly of a rayfish or to present a profusion of oysters? Is the knife balanced on the edge of a table just a knife or does it signify how delicate the balance of life is? Why is Swallow’s knife balanced on the edge of the table? Is the half peeled lemon hanging precariously off the side of the table intended to show the virtuosity of the artist, or something more significant? And why has the artist presented the crayfish with its underbelly to us in a state of helpless vulnerability and impotence?

In the silence of the gallery space viewers have responded to Swallow’s work in whispers and with an almost religious reverence. Yes, the work is a virtuosic feat. However, in the tension between its tactility and untouchable fragility it demands that we do more than just gasp in awe. In his interview with Ashley Crawford, Swallow makes the evocative comment that Killing Time is something to do with “owning up.” Perhaps this is what the work is asking of us.

Ricky Swallow, Killing Time, Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, Melbourne, April 2-May 1

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 46

© Barbara Bolt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004