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Essay by Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces

When we first spoke, Judith Wright and I, it was to discover a shared love of space and its potential eloquence. For both, the movement of one’s body through space and across space is a language or way of understanding. Perceived by most as silent and mute, the body holds coiled within its movements a range of memories; pain, desire, fear, boredom, fascination. To those who have been encultured within the West’s philosophical and religious doctrines, the potential of the body to be overwhelmed by these emotive memories is often frightening. The body is perfidious; it leads one astray with its base instincts and diversions. One cannot trust ones body, one must silence and tame it. But, as psychoanalysis has gone to great pains to elucidate the body’s memory cannot be mastered by the intellect. Something flows over, cannot be repressed.

Physical memories of the maternal, of being small and vulnerable are often things we experience when we are ill, scared and alone. There is a sense of moving inwards, of losing focus and objectivity. In an attempt to curb this we often seek the horizon of the outside world, but its enormity and busyness only reinforces the sense that we are outside, boundaryless and lost. Small bodily processes and sensations grow louder and draw our attention. These processes are real, present, defining.

Why is it precisely the middle space, the link between feeling boundaryless and focussed, between an expanse and the detail that is missing as we move through the space of Wrights Blind of Sight? The constant movement between abstraction and detail in Wright’s paintings and videos undermines the middle ground and the ability it provides the gaze and subsequently the intellect to master her subject. Wright’s space is a tactile space in which we discover, like a suckling child through the memory of our body’s sensations, only the edges of what is happening.

I start in a dimly lit gallery, in which 12 large square paintings hang, pinned like blankets to fall softly from the wall. The gallery is large and the paintings, all the same size and tones, appear like portions of a larger narrative or landscape which I only grasp in part and at what seems like an oblique distance. Because of the dimness of the light and the softness of the paintings forms I feel drawn to move closer until the individual paintings are much larger than me and there is no way of establishing edges without moving my head or body. I have the sense as I move from one painting to the next, forwards and back, that I am moving across an expanse and that when I reach the last painting that I will have no better sense of the start and finish of the work, its edges, than when I began. Indeed there is the sense that the paintings will continue like a path in the desert, the further I walk, the more that will open up in front of me.

“The matrix has no center, it constantly slides to the borderline, to the margins. Its gaze escapes the margins and returns to the margins. Through this process the limits, borderlines, and thresholds conceived are continually transgressed or dissolved, thus allowing the creation of new ones.”

The adjoining gallery is much darker than the first. Projected on the far wall is a large black and white image of a woman’s face appearing and disappearing beneath hands moving white facial cream in long sensuous strokes. The white cream is deliciously opaque and appears cool and wet like paint straight out of a tube. The woman’s face remains still and inert whilst the action of the hands are compelling and rhythmic. I stand entranced sensuously soothed with a growing feeling of horror and discomfort at the absolute stillness and vulnerability of the face. The use of black and white and cropping out of any detail frustrates my desire to place what is happening in front of me in any particular time and space. The image hangs at once persistent and fleeting.

“What finally frightens you and throws you into disorder is the knowledge that desire sometimes makes you a victim, you become flesh, without identity and without meaning”

To one side, near the door is a much smaller projection. Warm in tone and very soft in focus this projection feels more familiar and intimate in its scale and its presence. Soft washes of flesh tone merge into darker shadows, as gentle curves and forms appear only to blur before I can grasp the meaning of their shape. The more I concentrate the more the sense that I know this image slides away. Then almost with a shock the forms sharpen and my senses flood with the recognition of a baby pushing its head into flesh, mouth open searching for its mothers nipple. I am no longer standing looking but awash in my bodies memory.

“Concerning that stage of my childhood, scented, warm, and soft to the touch, I have only a spatial memory. Not time at all. Fragrance of honey, roundness of forms, silk and velvet under my fingers, on my cheeks. Mummy. Almost no sight – a shadow that darkens, soaks me up, or vanishes amid flashes”

It may seem incomprehensible, at first that the paintings in Blind of Sight are edits from a short video of a mother breast feeding her child or that a woman having a facial could have any connection with this most symbolic of acts. However what emerges the longer one is with the work is a realisation that Wright is not interested in representing breastfeeding per se; rather that this powerful event acts as a trigger for other layers of experience which have often been repressed visual representation. Indeed, the iconic image of a mother suckling her child is found at the very heart of Western representation as both a symbol of the ideal transcendence of the body and the repression of an archaic all encompassing pleasure (for both mother and child).

The function of the maternal, as symbolized in the figure of the Virgin Mary with child acts within the history of painting as a mark of the sacred and unnameable. But it does not succeed in doing this “without relying on the feminine representation of an immortal biology” . That is this representation gains its power through the memory of another unnameable experience – childhood before language in which there is no link between different sensual experiences and the maternal body is a source of pleasure, bounty, safety and trauma. That and the repression of the female body, it’s many sourced pleasure and way of knowing the world. In the image of the Holy Virgin and Child we are provided with a way of visually consuming and mastering what is otherwise unnameable and ungraspable.

What Wright seeks in her mobilisation of space, shifts between mediums and abstraction is to introduce a system of different viewing distances and conditions, which provide vastly different experiences. Here “especially haptic qualities are demanded of the viewer; not to follow optically the line of ideas and see only the representation proper, the surface, but to probe with eyes the pictorial texture and even to enter the texture and probe below the texture” . Such “touching” with the eye does not provide the grounded sense of having touched something with ones hands. Unable to project ourselves we feel disorientated and without a position in which to secure the act of looking. We are thrown back on our bodies – the vulnerable and unruly body resembling early childhood.

In Blind of Sight, the space of our bodies is a space of vulnerability and a certain degree of anxiety. There is however a rhythm to this work that reminds me of Oliver Sachs description of his experiences of a phantom limb, in which he moves from the feeling of being unable to connect to his leg, absolutely at the mercy of his body to discovering a rhythm within his body in which to move. Wright’s Blind of Sight provides a space in which, not able to trust our sight we are encouraged to stop and listen for the presence of a different mode or rhythm for being in the world.

“It seems that there has long been a connection in our culture, or a least in our psyches, between the loss of sight and the loss of self”…And yet it might be that the connection is in fact the other way round: that a dimming of sight, a changed condition of seeing, and therefore a change in our social relations, forces us not into a loss of self but into a confrontation with the self.”

Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces, first published in exhibition catalogue Blind of Sight, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2002.

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