Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 15 - the X issue
Log 15 - the X issue

Susan Jowsey - FLUTTER
Physics Room: 7 November - 29 November
Robyn Stoney


Some time ago it was customary on Switzerland’s mountain chalets to see silhouetted transfer images of birds in flight applied to large reflective windows. When I first encountered this I understood it to be a decorative feature, however, its purpose was also to warn. Real birds, on seeing the mirrored images would recognise the pane of glass as a reflective surface, and consequently would not fly into it and injure themselves. There is a sense of this duality in Flutter.

The space in which Flutter is presented appears at first uninhabited, until eventually the viewer becomes aware of subtle images intensely covering the wall. They are images of birds, screen-printed directly onto the wall in pale pink face powder. The birds, represented in flight and at repose, surprise the viewer by their ephemeral presence, almost vanishing in their delicacy.

The work was initially triggered by an experience of the artist, when she tried to show her small son a flock of birds sitting on a nearby phone wire. But at that age, he was not able to see the birds, and could not understand what she was pointing to. The tension of the moment, the child caught in a moment of anticipation and the mother isolated by the inability to communicate her seeing, led the artist to consider sight and vision, and how anticipation and experience determines the way in which an object is seen.

It is often assumed that seeing is a passive and uniform activity, in which all viewers see an object in the same way. But vision is individualised and shaped by experience. These experiences construct a frame of reference which shapes our ability to see and recognise an object. Drawing on the Lacanian principle of the reciprocity of the gaze, Jowsey asserts the active role of both the subject and the object in the process of seeing. Likened to a caged bird, the viewing subject is trapped into seeing and negotiating meanings.

An instance of this reciprocity is a childhood fear of the night when objects appear to have eyes and can take on a threatening presence. In a child’s mind these objects, or even shadows cast by moonlight on a wall, may seem to come alive. And yet childhood memories - either of an imaginary carefree golden age of innocence or contrarily of looming fears and intense moments - remain a fiction constructed by adults dissociated from lived experience, as a way of dealing with or suppressing the complexity of childhood emotion.

The image of the bird is particularly evocative and has a rich and meaningful history. Within the decorative, such imagery may be considered a sign of domestication and control of the natural, physical environment. For example, a fantail flying indoors was often considered to bring good luck. Birds can represent the tamed and the wild, and both innocence and aggression.

In Flutter, some are represented in flight while others sit on an imaginary wire or branch. While they appear to represent freedom, they are rendered so as to appear as shadows cast on the wall, and are confined by their shadows. Despite their fleeting lightness an underlying sense of entrapment evokes a sense of desperation not dissimilar to the hysteria of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, The Birds. The presence of the images is both benign and menacing, a duality also evoked by the title, light and flighty yet also connoting agitation and unease.

Beneath the work’s seductive, aesthetic surface lurks an ominous presence. The counterpoint of calm and chaos is a powerful tension within the work, creating an increasing sense of foreboding. There is a sense of an "immense weight of sadness" where shadows and silence evoke memories and mark an absence, a sense of vulnerability and loss. The anticipation of the incessant and intrusive sounds of birds evokes an intense psychological state of unvoiced screams of a trapped self, caught in the shadows and silence of memory.

Flutter continues to evoke the nostalgic quality evident in much of Jowsey’s earlier work, conveying an intense sense of longing. She examines how the self is defined in relation to the physical environment of the home, which gives a sense of place and belonging. Female identity is learned from, defined in relation to and as distinct from female forebears. The time-consuming nature of detailed work often associated with the domestic realm has a ritualistic quality that gives comfort. Domesticity and nurturing is at once resisted and embraced. It is a notion of the past as performed, enacted and re-enacted; residing in images, heirlooms and domestic skills and activities.

Jowsey’s earlier stylised images of the swallow as Bird of Happiness are perhaps more clearly related to the decorative patterning associated with the interiorscape. However, the materials and direct application of Flutter also reference wallpaper and other forms of aestheticisation of the domestic environment, questioning notions of value and quality in relation to art and the decorative. Working intuitively, she has an acute sensitivity to the possibility that the media affords, exhibiting a defined sensibility in her choice and use of materials. Face powder, tactile and fragrant, has a sensuous quality, evoking familiar memories of maternal comfort and reassurance.

Jowsey first adopted this medium in the 1996 Artspace show, When Night Comes, Girl’s Room. In Flutter, the intangibility of the soft, pale pink dusty image is underscored by its gradual degradation and removal over time. But rather than being retouched, the work is allowed to absolve itself, its impermanence a reminder of the instability of the surface. This transience is a sign of erasure - of the self, corrupted by memory. The traces of imagery successively marred over the duration of the show may signify a prior presence made evident through domestic decoration.

Like Hitchcock’s birds, Jowsey’s powder images become a sign of both female beauty and threat, assisting in staging the spectacle of the feminine. Makeup, used for the beautification of the female body, is a strategy employed in the masquerade of the feminine in a battle for control. As with Veronica’s Veil, Jowsey’s collaboration with Fiona Pardington at the George Fraser Gallery in 2000, the cosmetic surface acts as a veil masking the self, like a shroud or screen, and yet also pointing to the existence of something beyond itself. As a surface applied to cover the skin it becomes a stand-in for skin, yet also a refusal of it. It is a tool of concealment, and of a cleansed purity, referencing the site of interface between the internal and external, a site inevitably of rupture and loss.

The work’s ephemerality adds to the displacement of time and space trapping the viewer into its presence. It is an inanimate object, trapped in a field of vision and staring back, echoing the gaze of the viewer. It is more than a passive recipient of the viewer’s gaze because not only is its presence created as it is observed, it reciprocates that gaze. Consequently the viewer in seeing her/himself being seen, becomes aware that the self is not fixed and uniform, but is located within a fluid process. Nor is the subject in control of her/his viewing and world, as both the subject and the object are entangled in the trap of vision.

Seeing is a transformative process which can involve pleasure, pain, longing, and power. In this way, as established by Wittgenstein, a work changes depending on how we want to see, so seeing is desire and in particular the desire to possess. The viewing subject creates the object, and the reflexive nature of this contract ensures that meanings go in both directions. If meanings change according to the viewer, then the experience of viewing the object alters the viewer. This has been likened to a spider’s web, where the seeing self is not the spider, who weaves the web, nor the fly caught in the web, but the web itself streaming in different directions with no centre of self.

Objects of the internal landscape are employed to signify the marginalisation that occurs through the demands of motherhood and domestic duty, resulting in a fragmentary concept of the self, marked with dislocation and estrangement. The notion of a unified self with a whole and unchanging centre is displaced, as personal identity is subject to fracture and effacement. When identity as lived and experienced is revealed as splintered and founded on instability, the subject is required to negotiate these conflicting positions. An almost unbearable disjunction results, and all that remains is a sense of the self as a "desperate fiction" lacking a unified identity.

Robin Stoney is currently Acting Director of the Gus Fisher Gallery at the University of Auckland. 


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room