Nadia Odlum on Emma Fielden’s latest at Dominik Mersch…
In June of this year, Emma Fielden was an artist in residence at Art Omi, in upstate New York. At the same time I was also completing a residency nearby, and one day I drove the hour between us to visit Fielden in her studio.
We were both going through a tough time emotionally, due to various personal events. Disconnected from our usual support networks back home, it was easy to experience feelings of isolation and displacement. Confronted suddenly with a familiar face, a piece of Western Sydney in a field in New York, we both found ourselves overwhelmed – we embraced, and cried, an outpouring of emotion and connection beyond anything we would usually express towards each other at home.
When viewing the work in ‘Between Stars, Between Stones’, I think about this moment. Much of this new body of work was created during the residency, which proved an incredibly fruitful period of exploration and creation for Fielden, pushing her practice into new areas of performance and engaging with process and materiality in new ways. However, for me, the work also expresses something deep and fundamental about the essential isolation of human existence, and our consequent desire to reach out towards other people, to create connection and moments of mutuality.
Orb, 2017, hand-crushed ferrite magnets, iron oxide pigment, rare earth magnets, linen thread. Photograph: Document Photography.
Numerous works in the show deal with experiences of distance and separation between two entities. With crushed magnets and thread the two pieces in Orb reach out across space, straining to be in contact with each other. The abyss between the surfaces is charged with tension, vibration, a material yearning.
In An infinite line (1km) a kilometre of string has been laboriously cut into tiny pieces – playing effectively with scale, this work renders the monumental minute, and a distance that is usually broken down by the body through the act of walking instead becomes something to be held in the hands, dissolved into a soft pile.
An Infinite Line (1km), 2017, 1 kilometre of hand cut linen thread, dimensions variable.
Photograph: Document Photography.
In this latter work, Fielden engages with notions of infinity, in particular the philosophical paradox devised by Greek philosopher Zeno – to walk across a room, I first have to walk halfway across the room. To move the remaining distance, I first have to get halfway again. Continuing with this logic, I would seemingly never reach my destination, falling instead into ever-smaller increments of halves, shrinking towards infinity.
For many, the very evocation of infinity can throw up feelings of existential loneliness – you will never fully traverse the infinite distance that exists between your mind and another. However, from the very confrontation of this fact – the acceptance of separation and isolation as a quality of conscious existence – grows the unending human desire for intimacy, and the many gestures initiated to reach out to each other across this void.
‘Binary II’, 2018, ink on Arches 300gsm paper, 44 x 59cm. Photograph: Document Photography.
The act of art making is itself one such gesture – an attempt at conveying individual outlooks upon the world, communicating particularities of strangeness. In Fielden’s work there also lies the evidence of communities of artists working alongside each other, establishing dialogues of materials and ideas. During her time at the Art Omi Visual Arts Residency, which she attended with the support of the Art Omi Australia Committee Fellowship, Fielden met seasoned performance artists and critics. They pushed her to recognise the performative potential of her installation work, to lean into this already existing aspect of her practice and fully articulate it in this new suite of works.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these new works is titled ‘We are two molecules floating together in space and our distance is infinite… then the sound of birds’, a two-part installation and performance, filmed in the New York studio by artist Orkhan Huseynov and performed with noted Japanese performance artist Hanae Utamura.
‘We are two molecules floating together in space and our distance is infinite… then the sound of birds’, 2018, single channel high definition video, 5:26 minutes, edition of 5 + 1AP, developed and performed at Art Omi Artists Residency, filmed by Orkhan Huseynov.
In the video, the two women sit facing one another, surrounded by two circles of stones and staring into each other’s eyes. Slowly, seemingly through some unspoken signal or cue, their hands float behind their backs. They begin to delicately scoop the encircling stones forwards, collecting them one at a time. As their hands travel towards the front, they push the stones up into a mound between them. The markers that defined their separation have been broken down and intermingled. They may not be together, but no longer are they so far apart.
Cleave (left), 2018, diptych, household acrylic on Saunders Waterford 425gsm paper, each 56 x 76cm. Photograph: Document
While this performance may show two people seeking coherence, other works in the show give distinct expressions of dissonance, and separation. There are two works titled ‘Cleave’. In one, dark paint pools upon the rich surface of thick white paper. The shape created could be joined to make one boulder-like whole, but instead it is divided, the two pieces framed separately, like a rock split upon a fault line.
The same title is given to another performance piece, which shows Fielden in her New York studio cutting a thread that holds two large rocks suspended in the air. The rocks crash to the ground, perilously close to the artist’s feet.
‘Cleave’, 2018, single channel high definition video, 29 seconds, from installation in two parts + action for one person. Developed and performed at Art Omi Artists Residency. Performer: Emma Fielden. Filmed by Orkhan Huseynov.
In an interesting extension of these works, the artefacts of the two videoed performances are also present in the gallery, but in different forms. For ‘We are two molecules floating together in space and our distance is infinite… then the sound of birds’ the stones seen in the video are presented as they appear at the end of the performance, grouped in a small pile. Transversely, the heavy rocks from ‘Cleave’ hang suspended from the rafters, as they did before their eventual and dramatic plummet. In this presentation of two states, I read the artist’s interest in cycles of matter. All matter, even the matter that makes up humans, is in flux – nothing stays in one state forever, and no state can be considered to be a beginning or an end. All is transitory, and the only certainty is that of transformation.
‘Cleave’ (right), 2018, site-specific installation, two suspended stones, linen thread, developed and performed at Art Omi Artists Residency. Photograph courtesy Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney
‘We are two molecules floating together in space and our distance is infinite… then the sound of birds’, 2018, site specific thread installation in two parts and action for two people, stones, developed and performed at Art Omi Artists Residency. Photograph courtesy Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney
Perhaps that is the linking element in all the works in this carefully considered exhibition – an exploration of changing states. Certainly, it was the defining element in the performance given by Fielden at Dominik Mersch Gallery in the second week of the exhibition’s run.
In States of Matter hundreds of black strings created a torqued form across a corner of the gallery. Installed with the assistance of fellow artist Rebecca Gallo, the exactitude of the piece was a result of the collaboration of two highly trained pairs of hands stretching out across space. On Sunday 11th of November, in front of a small crowd that included Gallo, Fielden stood within the work and slowly cut each of these strings. The room was heavy with silence, apart from the gentle snip of the scissors that, in the space of a few minutes, undid hours of meticulous work.
‘States of Matter’, 2018, site specific thread installation in two parts and action for one person. Photograph: Document
While the delicate stretching of the string across the corner did what many installations of its like do, drawing attention architectural spatiality, for me this was only an in-between moment for this work. The work only truly existed in two moments – in the stretching of its genesis and the release of tension in its final severed form.
Crouched at the front of the crowd, I was reminded solipsistically of the emotions and perceptions I was personally bringing to bear when witnessing this poetic act. In Aesthetics of Installation Art theorist Juliane Rebentisch uses the term “consciousness of performance” to analyse the self-reflective ‘watching-myself-watching’ that a viewer may have when experiencing an artwork or performance, and the resulting awareness that the meaning they are reading in the artwork is not objectively decodeable, but rather the result of a performative exchange between the artwork and their own perceptual and aesthetic experience. I knew that I would never fully appreciate the significance of this performance for Fielden, or know what others in the room were experiencing when watching the work unfold. However, I was acutely aware that I had been invited into a moment of exchange, a gesture towards openness and vulnerability, a reaching out across the infinite space between us.
Between stars, between stones continues at Dominik Mersch Gallery until 25 November. All images courtesy the artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney