The Figure in Question

by Mark Calderwood

No object or form elicits a more subjective, more potent response than the human figure. Our instinctive, visceral and uniquely personal reactions have shaped the traditions of figural sculpture, which celebrates the body as an object of desire and a metaphor for power. The sculpted form gains new depths amid contemporary trends of digital disembodiment: we respond to its tactile, tangible habitation of our physical space with feelings of tenderness and connection, sympathetic elation and pity.

The Figure in Question, the first exhibition of figural sculpture in the region for over a decade, draws together four Hunter Valley sculptors to explore the human figure through its political, social and fundamentally intimate dimensions. Despite their divergent practices, these artists share common ground in their obvious engagement with the material working process, creating works that are immediate, evocative conduits for ideas and emotions.

Embracing new media alongside traditional techniques and using narrative devices which mimic animation and museum dioramas, Trevor Weekes plumbs troubling characteristics of the human condition: destructive habits alongside noble ingenuity, its envious-antagonistic relationship to nature. Reminiscent of both religious frescoes and early cinema, The story of flight is as much an exultation as an apprehensive forewarning:  an aeroplane strikes the environmental tower of Babel we have built, in order to marvel at our own technological achievements.

These rumination, underscoring the artist’s fascination with the confusion surrounding concepts of heroes and villains in our culture, also condition the works Death of the new bird and When I can fly. The former, with World War II training footage projected behind a figure cradling a wounded bird, mourns the corruption of the dream of flight.  The contrasting images of destruction and compassion question whether combat pilots should be regarded as champions or enemies; perhaps the answer lies only in the shifting sands of ideology.

More ambiguous is the multi-panelled work When I can fly. An archaeopteryx-like bird, never seen in nature, is released to soar beside a white-coated man, himself stepping off the ground… to fly or fall, we are left uncertain. The limitless freedom of intellect suggested by the genetically engineered bird poses disturbing questions of ethics, of the envious desire to control and modify nature, and of the unknown consequences which might befall the godlike exercise of our powers. Is the rush of science and technology the greatest intellectual heroism of our race, or its most prideful villainy?

Graham Lang’s practice has been preoccupied for over a decade with questions of postcolonial dispossession and identity. A former British colony like his native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Australia remains bound by cobwebs to the ghost of an empire which continues to haunt our history. We make claims to a folkloric “Australianness”, yet the evidence of our provincial dependence is all around us in our political and cultural structures, and not least in the popular acceptance of a British monarch as the head of state.

Lang’s untitled installation seeks to make this uneasy ghost visible: the weight of empire in the cast Britannia finial compresses and stunts the rough-hewn trunk, through which passes a delicately balanced swing-arm adorned with African clay fertility ornaments. The structure’s resemblance to a shaduf recalls the simple technologies and sheer ingenuity that many colonial settlers required to survive, as well as suggesting the intimate connections between identity and the land.

The accompanying figure, appearing from within its exfoliating mould, signals the inexorable process of emergence from the shadow of the past, witnessing the tentative but increasingly confident evolution of an independently Australian political and cultural identity. The space between the installation’s components reflects Lang’s feeling that art should provide space for the viewer to find their own poetic connections within its encompassing symbolism.

Seemingly naïve, Peter Speight’s figures have a more complex heritage of history and memory. Inspired by painted and joined wooden statues from Egypt dating to 2700 BCE, his sculptures reflect something of the same votive quality. They resonate with the lure of the lost world, with sympathetic magic and the afterlife, conveying subtle nuances despite their stylisation. Their gestures and faces form a language that stabs to the heart of the insecurities, obsessions and possibilities percolating through every relationship.

The simplified, totemic forms reflect our tendency towards mythic reconstruction of past relationships, as time strips away inessential details to leave only the emotional core of the memory. Many are clad in the old-fashioned summer dresses which the artist associates with the need to present an appearance, to belong, that he observed in his mother’s generation, but his use of found garden materials (camphor laurel, huon pine and fine-grained camellia) and his manual process celebrates rather than covers the flaws or asymmetries of his sculptures. It is in fact the flaws, the faults, the non-conforming aspects, that make people interesting.

Peter Tilley’s Know thyself draws us back to somewhat unsettling introspection. Tilley is drawn to the layered resonances of objects and their ascribed meanings in relation to each other. Here, found and carefully crafted objects are arranged on a table as if in a still life, before a life-sized figure which uncertainly contemplates the array.

Laden with memory and poetry, archetypal and personal symbolism, they are the component artefacts of everyday life: the things with which we surround ourselves, the things which reinforce what we are and what we have been. Suggestive of both wunderkammer and canopic jar, they also hint at our desperate desire to cling to the material and familiar in the face of the unknown.

Rather than presenting a detached, critical tableau, the installation instead gently offers opportunity for reflection. The androgynous figure shares our space within the gallery in companionable identification; the oddly rusted, velveted texture of its solicitously worked surface invites sympathetic touch as we contemplate by its side. By enabling each person to invest their own resonances and meaning in the work, Tilley makes his personal symbolism universally accessible. We are prompted to mindful re-evaluation of our role as architect and curator of what is meaningful in our lives.

Exhibition Catalogue, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery 2006