A Wilder Sun: support, surrender, control, release

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition A Wilder Sun at Firstdraft, Sydney (3 October – 26 October 2018).

Knowledge cannot be separated from the bodily world of feeling and sensation; knowledge is bound up with what makes us sweat, shudder, tremble, all those feelings that are actually felt on the… skin surface where we touch and are touched by the world.[1]

A Wilder Sun is artist Blake Lawrence’s vulnerable and honest account of healing through feeling, from “moments of cathartic recalibration and emotional ecdysis”[2] to “an attempt at the proclamation and reclamation of personal narratives”.[3] The core elements linking each work are sunlight and water, as instruments of the cyanotype process and sources of strength for the artist.

Lawrence has immortalised anonymous subjects with whom he shares an intimate connection in his death shroud series Catasterisms 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. These death shrouds act as a materialist form of “spontaneous memorial”.[4] In experimenting with cameraless photography, Lawrence removes the photographer’s organ[5] and replaces it with an alternate “technology of memory”.[6] Perception arises from bodily contact with the natural fibre that is gently laid over each subject as they turn their face to the sun and wait for the ultraviolet light to cast a “registry of sensory impressions”.[7] Cloudy agate slices mimic the human eye and return the viewer’s gaze with a fixed stare. Soft pink sequins resembling marine creatures have been delicately sewn to the surface of each shroud – perhaps they are fish swimming upstream, ending life’s journey by returning to the place they once hatched.

From the series Catasterisms 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8, 2017, cyanotype on cotton, sequins, agate slices. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sea animals re-emerge in Costume from Palimpsest, this time as a masked crown. Lobster pincers and tails reach upwards to embrace the air, while a crab spreads itself across the artist’s face. In a previous life, Lawrence studied marine biology and his deep fascination with aquatic species continues to inform his work. Indeed, this impressive headpiece could be an homage to the crustacean. Costume from Palimpsest is imbued with queer codes and collective cultural practices: “physical acts and performative rituals”[8] that celebrate a rich history of intergenerational drag heritage.[9] This work is an ontology of the (queer) flesh – it foregrounds the body’s largest organ in order to “recapture the feel of perceptual experience itself”.[10] Skin is bound up with the ways we instinctually express love, connection and support, as we seek other warm (queer) bodies to hold.

Having spent his childhood in the sugar cane fields of Palmers Island, on unceded Yaegl, Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr lands, Lawrence honed the art of whipcracking. This pastime is re-contextualised for another location of personal significance – Little Bay Beach, Sydney – in A Cathartic Action, with the artist’s much-loved whip becoming a kinesthetic symbol of mourning. The process of whipcracking is a full-body experience – rhythmic, fluid motions propel Lawrence’s whip through the air until a section of it has gathered enough momentum to move faster than the speed of sound, creating a small sonic boom. Lawrence occasionally pauses to rest, collects his whip and paces across the rock, maintaining an elegant composure even on a craggy surface in sky-high Pleaser shoes. Towards the end of the performance, a small section of the whip snaps off. The artist stands resolute, framed by a shimmering ocean backdrop while the viewer is left to contemplate “the affective potential of grief”.[11]

Dead Reckoning is Lawrence’s most recent video work and marks a turning point in the artist’s path to “personal and shared healing”.[12] With the support of his chosen family, Lawrence works to expose and develop large photographic shrouds that are unearthed from the sand. The trio wrap the shrouds around each other, activating exposure through skin contact. The cyanotypes are then rinsed and fixed in the ocean. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in his famous meditation on phenomenology, The Poetics of Space, “there is no greater value than intimacy – it has magnifying properties”.[13] The union of Lawrence and his companions is sustained through emotional, ecological and ethical mutuality. Dead Reckoning is another contribution to the “abstracted family albums”[14] Lawrence has been assembling over time. In recording the bodies of lovers and friends, the artist hopes to unlock “the healing power of autonomy”[15] as an outcome of these sentimental collaborations.

A Wilder Sun is filled with tender vibrations and an unwavering commitment to ‘the ethics of care’: “the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect”.[16] Seeing as this also informs the ethos of an artist-led organisation such as Firstdraft, the relationship between exhibition and gallery feels particularly organic.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 171.

[2] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft, accessed September 25, 2018, https://firstdraft.org.au/exhibitions/a-wilder-sun/

[3] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[4] Erika Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning in America”, Material Religion 2, no. 3 (2006): 294-319.

[5] Gilbert Caluya, “The Aesthetics of Simplicity: Yang’s Sadness and the Melancholic Community”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 27, no. 1-2 (2006): 83-100.

[6] Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith, “Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no.1 (2002): 1-19.

[7] Anthony Fitzpatrick, Faraway: so close (Melbourne: Arts Project Australia, 2017), 6.

[8] Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials”, 300.

[9] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception [1948], trans. by Oliver Davis (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 53.

[11] Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials”, 313.

[12] “Dead Reckoning”, This is Not Art, accessed 26 September 2018, https://thisisnotart.org/events/dead-reckoning-sunday-installation/

[13] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [1994], trans. by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 184-189.

[14] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Carol Gilligan”, Ethics of Care, accessed 26 September 2018, https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/

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