You could say things are not going too well here.
Humans have always experienced threat and anxiety but it feels like we’ve reached fever pitch now.
Wonderful David Attenborough, trusted and soothing voice of calm reason, warns we are facing global catastrophe – ‘irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies’.
Little wonder we yearn. For a rest, for escape, for the ideal, for the perfect place, for brightness, for greener grass, for a paradise.
Historically and culturally, in texts and in art, multiple versions of this ethereal place are described. Sometimes it is a garden, sometimes a city, sometimes both. Everything is the best imaginable, and beautiful. Paradise, Heaven, Jannah, Valhalla, Mag Mell, Aru… It’s not so easy to pin down the particulars when you start looking into it – though, being specific, evangelist Billy Graham did promise all true believers that one day they’d be driving down golden streets in yellow Cadillac convertibles.
Precious stones, peacocks, parasols, angels, boars, fish, crystal clear water, music, blossoms, comfortable couches, emerald rainbows, butterflies, fields of reeds, grapes, oxen, boats, wine (or not), mythical beasts, bread… Combining all the elements may present a clear picture.
These works were made after re-reading Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. The novel is set in Frankston, a beach side suburb on Melbourne’s bay, where the 1959 film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner was made. There’s a parallel between the helplessness of the inhabitants of the fictionalised Frankston at the end of human history and the pointlessness of our small efforts to protect ourselves while our fearless leaders preside over the absolute collapse of our environment. The stiff upper lip of the story’s protagonists is probably preferable to blind panic though.
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The natural environment seems to be taking revenge – extreme weather, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Australia, formerly lauded as the country of sunshine, beaches and fun, is now more newsworthy for bush fires and floods – and climate change deniers.
However, animal stories are more popular than hard news.
There’s a theory in Shute’s book that rabbits can survive radiation exposure longer than humans do.
What is good for business is good for all of us.
Or is it? Does increased productivity and economic growth justify a commensurate increase in the chances of getting cancer or another gruesome ailment? Penetration by transmitted rays and exposure to sundry new chemical combos – can this be good?
Small Dangers is a series of works that take a shot at quantifying the invisible, casually sanctioned, chronic, everyday threats to life expectancy.
Small Dangerous Objects
Thirty-one small birch wood appliances and transmitters, with stencilled figures detailing the emissions of each object as a percentage of the European safety limit on exposure to electromagnetic field radiation. Information kindly provided by Vodafone during a conflict over the siting of a mobile phone base station. Calculate your own daily exposure.
Eight birch wood Jumbo Jets. Supposing these were full of people, this provides a simple illustration of the numbers killed on the roads globally per diem.
Eleven red glossed food items. We’re exposed to over 500 new man made chemicals which weren’t present 50 years ago, and we consume a majority of them in our food. The chemical and farming industries vociferously claim that each new substance licensed is scientifically proven not to be harmful, though they are quieter on more recent research showing that the effects of the chemical combination cocktails we’re ingesting daily are far from benign.
The navigational ability of homing pigeons has been disrupted by the increasing electronic smog filling the skies. Here is a suggested solution.
We’re all going to die. Though amongst the super-rich there are those who believe the destiny of the common man is not for them. A portion of their hard-earned millions is being directed towards funding cell research into reversing the ageing process. Google has set up a biotech company, Calico, to develop technologies to tackle health issues related to ageing. Immortality could become another luxury commodity.
They may succeed. But sometimes there are agents of demise you just can’t predict.
Aeschylus and the Tortoise
In 458 BC Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, was killed when an eagle dropped a live tortoise on him, mistaking his bald head for a stone. The tortoise survived.
King William and the Mole
William of Orange was Stadtholder of the Netherlands, and in 1688-1689 he became King William III of England by deposing the Catholic James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. He ruled jointly with his wife, Mary.
Predominantly Catholic Ireland remained mostly loyal to the deposed James II, who landed there with French troops in March 1689. In July 1690, William defeated James and routed his forces at the Battle of the Boyne.
In 1702, William died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone caused by a fall when his horse, Sorrel, stumbled into a mole’s burrow. The mole became a heroic figure to many Jacobites, who took to toasting “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”.
Sir Francis Bacon and the Chicken
In 1626 Sir Francis Bacon, English philosopher, statesman, scientist and author, died of pneumonia contracted whilst experimenting with the freezing of a chicken by stuffing it with snow.
Jack Daniel and the Safe
Jack Daniel, founder of the Tennessee whiskey distillery, died from blood poisoning in 1911. The infection started in a toe injury he received when he kicked his safe in anger at being unable to remember its combination. His last words were, “One last drink, please”.
Tennessee Williams and the Eye Drop Bottle Top
In 1983 Tennessee Williams, the American playwright, was found dead in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York. The medical examiner’s report indicated that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops he frequently used.
Sigurd and the Teeth
Sigurd Eysteinsson, a.k.a. Sigurd the Mighty, was the second Viking Earl of Orkney who ruled circa 875–892. Having killed his enemy Máel Brigte in battle, Sigurd strapped Máel Brigte’s severed head to his saddle as a trophy of conquest. As he rode, Máel Brigte’s teeth grazed against Sigurd’s leg. The wound became infected and Sigurd died.
Margo Jones and the Carpet
Margo Jones was an American theatre director. In July 1955 during a party at her apartment in the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas, red paint got spilt on her carpet. Jones later brought in professional cleaners, who used carbon tetrachloride, a strong solvent commonly used in dry-cleaning processes. While she slept, the carbon tetrachloride absorbed in the carpet evaporated, filling her home with toxic fumes. These caused her kidneys to fail, and she died nine days later.
Henry I and the Lamprey
Henry I of England, a harsh but effective monarch, was mainly concerned with securing his dynasty’s succession to the throne. In 1135 during a hunting trip in Normandy, Henry, against the advice of his physicians, partook of a favourite meal. He then fell ill and died, thus becoming most famous for having died of ‘a surfeit of lampreys’.
A memorial wall piece in plaster. The Tasmanian devil faces extinction from a unique facial tumour, unheard of before 1996. The first devil to be diagnosed with the disease was discovered in north east Tasmania, in the same area where the big (and politically powerful) forestry company had begun large scale clearance of native forest – a process involving aerial spraying of highly toxic pesticides and herbicides.
In 2003 a helicopter carrying drums of alphacypermethrin, atrazine, terbacil and simazine crashed in the forest. Five weeks later following a flood, downriver in George’s Bay all the oysters died. Then the scallops, mussels, barnacles, crabs, prawns, fish, locusts and frogs followed them. The statistics for the local human population show a spike in neurological illnesses, intestinal tract tumours and reproductive cancers. Coincidence?
Autopsies of deceased devils produced no conclusive results, though scientists were surprised to find their bodies contained unusually high levels of flame retardant.
For a small, and possibly banal, artwork the Small Sheep has travelled widely, thanks to the generous sponsorship of its supportive patrons.
The first project took place in Norway. The Sheep travelled there in its custom made case and was exhibited (to a small audience, it must be confessed, of two) at the top of a mountain.
The Small Sheep Project II was at 24Seven in Melbourne. The Sheep travelled there alone as finance was not forthcoming for the artist to accompany it, the entire sponsorship budget having been absorbed by the costs of transport and the flamboyantly scaled logos of the sponsors.
During the Small Sheep Project No.3 the Sheep and the sponsors enjoyed widespread public exposure at the Toll Booth at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, Tasmania.
“They say all marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning”
– Clint Eastwood
A.k.a. Pocahontas or Rebecca. Mrs Rolfe.
Mrs Kingsford Smith.
Carving in situ of Norwegian Maple tree at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, 1996.
Zu Frieden Wie Eine Kuh
Kraftplatzroas Sculpture Trail, Region Grimming, Styria, Austria, 2000.
Private collection, Austria, 2012.
Birds And Flowers
Private collection, Australia, 2013.
Spinsters is a series of sculptures in Norwegian birch made during a residency at the Nordisk Kunstnarsenter Dalsåsen in western Norway and inspired by a visit to an old wooden house, now a museum, which was home to a family of British emigrants who tried to recreate Victorian England on the shore of the fjord. This was unfortunate for the daughters of the house who, being from neither one culture nor the other, were seen as odd by both English and Norwegian suitors, and so remained unmarried and living in the house together.
Similar to other languages, Norwegian has some pejorative terms for unmarried women – gammel jomfru (old virgin), pepper møy (pepper maid – if you reached 30 without successfully finding a man you’d be given a pepper pot to spice up your life), and another phrase which roughly translates as dusty old object found in a dark corner of the attic. ‘Spinster’ needed some rehabilitation and glamour.
Scraping the Carapace
Making sculpture is inextricably linked to how one views the world. The objects an artist creates are inevitably some kind of mental and physical reaction to our surroundings. Jackie McNamee carves figures that appear impregnated with a particular way of approaching their environment. As we approach, their presence obstructs our passage, taking space from us, quietly challenging our position. Glancing from one sculpture to another their resigned/hopeful, desperate/contented, hostile/passive gazes project a multi-channelled diffidence. Their paralysed expression fixes itself nowhere, looking through the viewer, aware of a past, unconcerned by the future. No action or reaction occurs between the objects, there is no situation, they stand but have no stance. Figurative but not mimetic, each sculpture hints at its origins through neatly crafted skin.
The physicality of carving is balanced with an acute awareness of finish. Thinned heavy wood seems weightless with saturated colour. The materiality of the wood is hidden, but not denied, by the delicate manipulation of the surface, which becomes the transistor of meaning. Repeated images or small objects imbricate the outer layers suggesting experience, wisdom and purpose. An absence of pedestals activates the space, on the floor they vie for attention, insidiously avoiding our stares. Scale is crucial; life size would seem less important, more ordinary. Little figures with a large knowledge unnerve us and engage our curiosity. We want to know more about them, where they come from, what they are doing, why they are here in front of us, who shaped them.
The knowledge these objects suggest and the questions they raise are indicative of the artist’s inquisition. Jackie McNamee filters information from a wide array of sources to inform her work. Often the estranged protagonists in film, novels and history are transformed and transposed. Wittily self-ironic comparisons are drawn between personal experience and inherited ‘truths’ and fictions. Status and the symbols and language we use to classify and identify it are investigated and analysed. From international fashion houses to local angling, the ambit is far ranging but edited and merged to convey a condensed quirk of character in each object. Self-referential themes appear not as portraiture or expression, more as defiant statements about the fickle and frail nature of human condition and existence.
The figures, upright, unique and questioning in the exhibition space, become metaphors for the social, economic and creative position of the artist in our current climate. Jackie McNamee understands where the work sits historically and in the context of current art practice but is not hampered by contemporary trends. There is an international feel to these objects, many having been developed in ‘foreign’ countries using stories and materials unique to each place, but despite the deliberate and pragmatic appearance they are non-identifiable, unclassifiable and evade the pigeon holing language can imply. The reasoning for this visual and theoretical ambivalence is important but not didactic, leaving us imaginative space to make our own assumptions about their origins. As these figures gaze into space we turn to them, fix our stares, look and wonder.
From the exhibition catalogue Chairs and Spinsters, Sogn og Fjordane Kunstnarsenter and Kystmuseet Florø,