Into a Mirror Darkly
Excerpt from essay by Dr Louiseann Zahra-King

Into a Mirror Darkly, RMIT Project Space, Spare Room and School of Art Gallery, 2006

Curator Dr Louiseann Zahra-King
Excerpt from the catalogue essay for Into a Mirror Darkly, a trilogy of exhibitions bringing together Greer Honeywill (AUS) and Carole Shepheard (NZ)


Into a mirror darkly brings together the work of Greer Honeywill (AUSTRALIA) and Carole Shepheard (NEW ZEALAND) in a cluster of two solo exhibitions and a shared project. The exhibitions span all three galleries within the School of Art with Shepheard utilising the vitrine-like quality generated by the glass wall in Project Space for The Vanity of All Human Things, Honeywill the dark, contained space of the School of Art Gallery for she had many offers of marriage #2 and both artists coming together in Spare Room to make The Velvet of Uncertainty. 

Shepheard constructs whimsical, magical collections that are worlds within worlds forming an enigmatic poetry of perplexing and poignant objects. The work references museology and the process of collecting itself. Shepheard gathers objects that have been displaced from their original context. These objects allude to the lost time and place from where they came, with the nature of their displacement contributing to the conceptual and visual content of the work. Meaning here is a soft, changeable notion where the object speaks only when spoken to. The work is elusive and subtle, unashamedly aesthetic and highly refined. Shepheard’s objects can be seen to be metonymic and remind me of Barthes’ observation in A Lover’s Discourse – Fragments that ‘Sometimes the metonymic object is a presence (engendering joy); sometimes it is an absence (engendering distress).1 Shepheard’s objects serve to do both. They are reminders of other times and places and yet exist firmly in contemporary time and space.

In The Vanity of All Human Things Shepheard has collected and reworked an eclectic array of objects. Housed in black, flocked boxes each object is fitted into recessed cavities in which these newly precious objects are enclosed. The process of placing objects together in vitrines and/or boxes generates the notion that, often, disparate objects have some kind of formal or cultural relationship to one another.

In The Vanity of All Human Things Shepheard has collected and reworked an eclectic array of objects. Housed in black, flocked boxes each object is fitted into recessed cavities in which these newly precious objects are enclosed. The process of placing objects together in vitrines and/or boxes generates the notion that, often, disparate objects have some kind of formal or cultural relationship to one another. ² In The Vanity of All Human Things one such box contains a pretty, old-fashioned lady’s vanity mirror upon which are gathered a pile of wishbones cast in bronze. Superstition suggests that breaking a wishbone generates the granting of a wish to the lucky person left with the larger part of the bone. ³ A friend tells me of a recent wedding in country Victoria where each guest was given a wishbone in order that one might ‘make a wish’ for the bride and groom. Shepheard’s wishbones hold the memory of their existence as bone whilst embodying the unwished wish – they are not broken. Their new materiality of bronze tragically suggests the elimination of the potential for wishing. Contained in carefully constructed boxes Shepheard’s objects are stilled – as if trapped in a fairytale spell.

One of Shepheard’s black boxes houses a 19th Century, cut-glass decanter that the artist has had silvered, generating a mirror on the inside of the container. 4  Like so many of Shepheard’s objects, this object fascinates – it beguiles and seduces, rendering one somewhat confused and disorientated. Only the inside of the bottle is mirrored – all that it reflects is itself and the tiny, distorted world that steals in through the tight lips of the decanter. I’m reminded of the character of ‘Jeannie’ in Sidney Sheldon’s popular 1960’s television series I Dream of Jeanni who, when banished to the luxurious prison of her bottle by her tyrannical master/husband, would look into her mirror as if to find something outside of herself and the bottle, contained within the image reflected.

I look for signs, but of what? What is the object of my reading? Is it: am I loved (am I loved no longer, am I still loved)? Is it my future that I am trying to read, deciphering in what is inscribed the announcement of what will happen to me, according to a method which combines paleography and manticism? 5

Shepheard in The Vanity of All Human Things generates a mood for seeing something outside of what can literally be observed, generating a sense of manic gazing in order to find meaning through the substitution of a magical, metaphorical world for the literal. The mirror serves as a foil to seeing, generating a vehicle for perception in lieu of a likeness to reality.

Text may also be seen to generate a space in which reality may be viewed at somewhat of distance. Honeywill and Shepheard have been in email correspondence since January and have generated The Velvet of Uncertainty from their electronic dialogue. The notion of voice has been both lost and found in the writing with the artists misplacing their own voices in the process of finding both shared and new voices. The text generated is frank, wilful, questioning, guileless, a stream of consciousness occurring in the work of two artists across an ocean meeting in the meandering poetry of text. In many, ways The Velvet Uncertainty is a curated collection of thoughts and ideas, fragments and memories, writing and images.

Like many other contemporary artists including Louise Bourgeois, Christian Boltanski and Rosemarie Trockel, collecting is a major component of both Shepheard and Honeywill’s practices. The museum and the process of collecting have become significant artistic methodology generating practice that is inclusive of the work of the detective, the anthropologist, the historian, the amateur collector, the museum curator, the scientist and the conservator. Shepheard and Honeywill are both gleaners of the refuse of others, scouring markets, antique and Op Shops, and involving others in their quests to locate both material and narrative.6 Honeywill has been collecting second-hand birdcages for some time. Emptied of their feathered, whistling occupants the silent, empty cages are rendered somewhat useless and are quickly bundled into sheds where they are left to rust before being abandoned to hard rubbish days and the jumble of second-hand shops and markets. The birds that have occupied Honeywill’s cages are long gone to either freedom or death but their cages remain as rather sinister yet beautiful reminders of their internment.

In she had many offers of marriage #2 Honeywill transforms the School of Art Gallery into a shadow labyrinth; a shifting, elusive dramatic space rendered in capricious shadows cast by theatre lights, filtered through, the clutter of second-hand bird cages. The cages line the gallery floor. Shadows flicker as one moves around the space. The solidity of the walls becomes ambiguous, and negative and positive space invert as one finds oneself in a virtual maze. Like the large-scale shadow installations of Eulalia Valldosera Honeywill’s installation is premised on the power of absence. It is the shadow, the absence of light that generates the threat – there is nothing to fear – it is only a shadow – but how threatening nothing can be.

Honeywill fills the gallery space with the ominous apparition of an architecture of the heart, over which can be heard the plaintiff lyrics of ‘Falling in love again’, sung by Marlene Dietrich which fill the silence of the empty cages and suffuse the space with a sense of tragedy.7 One hears Dietrich intoning, ‘Falling in love again, what am I to do, never wanted to, can’t help it.’ and one is assured as to both the inevitability and hopelessness of romance. In Honeywill’s accompanying video work misunderstanding and the absurdity of comprehension in a milieu of love and desire is defined by the incomprehensible and insistent programming text that fills the screen, writing and then overwriting itself. It’s nonsense. A wordless language that is overwhelming and ludicrous in the context of the powerful, though seemingly absurd, emotion that Dietrich sings of in ‘Falling in love again.’ 

Into a mirror darkly is a project suffused with romance, a romance that is lost in the moment of its making.

“The stars were shining.” Never again will this happiness return just this way. Anamnesis both fulfils and lacerates me.’8

Romance is fragile – dying quickly and being replaced, somewhat clumsily, with it’s more robust yet gauche derivative – the romantic. Shepheard and Honeywill work with the carcasses of romance, the discarded embodiments of sentiment that are the accoutrements of romance and love and memory, constructing worlds that generate a glimmer, a flicker of that exquisite, poignant moment.

 

Dr Louiseann Zahra 2006
Curator/Coordinator, School of Art, RMIT University, Melbourne

 

Footnotes
1 Barthes Roland. Howard Richard (trans.) A Lover’s Discourse – Fragments. London. U.K; Penguin. 1990, First published in French as Fragment d’un discours amoureux by Éditions du Suil. 1977. p. 73
2 Putnam James. Art and Artefact: The Museum as Medium. London, Thames and Hudson, 2001. P. 37
3 Opie Iona, Tatem Moira. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 448
4 Silvering is the process of constructing a mirrored surface upon glass with a solution of silver, ammonia and water.
5 Barthes Roland. Howard Richard (trans.) A Lover’s Discourse – Fragments. U.K. p. 214
6 In 1999 Honeywill engaged in a project where she advertised in her local newspaper for donations of used food graters to construct an artwork. She received many responses to her request and the collected graters were used to construct Embrace 2000.
7 Marlene Dietrich. Falling in Love Again (Hollânder-Connelly)
8. Barthes Roland. Howard Richard (trans.) A Lover’s Discourse – Fragments. Penguin. U.K. p. 217