Praying hands

Art Life , Reviews Aug 20, 2010 3 Comments

Isobel Philip discovers the spirituality of the Ipod in Nell’s new show Made in The Cross

There is one work in Nell’s show Made in the Cross at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, hung high up and tucked into corner, that seems to metaphorically encapsulate the entire exhibition. In in the altar of the moment even a stingray can kill you a stingray (looking rather like the face of a ghost) sits upon, and partially obscures, a crucifix. Even though the crucifix is playfully masked, it is the literal and conceptual skeleton supporting the work. This allegorically translates as the show’s overriding conceptual scheme in that religious references implicitly underpin each work, yet are at times veiled. The show presents itself as neither an explicit adherence to, nor a questioning of, religious faith, but as an anatomization of how religion is defined. Nell’s idiosyncratic religiosity, as it unfolds in Made in the Cross, playfully challenges the essential hegemony of certain religious doctrines.

Nell, self-nature is subtle and mysterious –, 2010
glass reinforced plastic, silver leaf, varnish, nickel plated bronze
2 parts, 121 x 8 x 4 cm; 91 x 75 x 59 cm.

The works are hung in the smaller side gallery. Separated as it is from the rest of the gallery, the space feels like a little chapel, and as such contributes to the show’s thematic.

In the middle of the room is a life-size sculpture of a Buddha-like seated figure (modeled on Nell herself) holding a silver stone, painted black and covered in white, hand painted writing and images. Lying on the floor in front of the figure is a silver branch. The figure is surrounded by a series of black panels covered in white text. There is a harmonious cohesion between the panels and the figure that heightens the spiritual energy of this chapel (or temple, given the presence of the Nell-Buddha), teased out through the overt, and also implicit, religious and spiritual references within the works themselves.

The text-covered panels that line the walls reminded me of the stone tablets on which the first editions of the bible would have been written (fittingly, one panel lists the books of the Old Testament, and another the books of the New Testament). The central figure, a painted body, also reads as a religious ‘text’, relating to those cultures that use the body in religious ritual.

In other panels, the religious references are latent, and dependent on (at times quite loose) metaphoric associations. The list of different music genres in all world sounds – sounds good (each written in an appropriate typeface) can be seen to equate the cult-like status certain bands have acquired with religious fanaticism, whereby music has become its own quasi-religion. This connection is strengthened by the parallels between a figure praying, head bowed and eyes closed, and a solitary iPod listener (who can hold in his palm all these different genres of music, just as the figure praying holds the bible). Both are completely absorbed by internal voices and sounds.

Yet amid this torrent of religious subtext, what caught my attention above all else was that reflexive silver stone being in the hands of the figure.

I had been thinking about hands from the moment I stepped into the gallery. The text on each of the different panels could have been written by different hands; the hand that drew the hopscotch on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, nell is childlike (even reversing some letters) and appears completely distinct from the steady hand that wrote up the books of the New Testament. And then there are the panels that seem to have been written by many hands, each writing in a different typeface.

One of the hands metaphorically responsible for these works could possibly belong to Colin McCahon. Some of Nell’s scrawls quite closely resemble McCahon’s own, as does the cultivation of a complex religious subtext – so much so that the work could perhaps be seen as a tributary homage.

In the Artist’s Prayer, written by Nell and included in the catalogue, there is a passing reference to hands in the proclamation; “let my hands do only the work of hands.” I couldn’t help but read this as a reference (most probably unintended or unconscious) to the multiplicity of hands (where ‘hands’ does not simply refer to the abstract notion of hands, but, literally, many hands) implicitly alluded to throughout the show. These are any hands, our hands even. In any case, against the hegemonic attitudes of particularly religions (specifically Christianity), spiritualism and religion (regardless of how it is treated; either seriously or playfully, literally or metaphorically) is an acutely individual construct, and the work of many hands. As religion functions differently for every person, it seems gently appropriate that the stone held by the figure should operate as a mirror; a device that reflects those ‘other’ hands.

Isobel Philip


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    speak to the hand?

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