Awash / Swimming With Dolphins - March 2014

Artist - Steph Fuller (Awash) & Christopher Handran (Swimming With Dolphins)

Author - Caitlin Eyre


There is something exquisite about the way in which artists invite us to share their perception of the world. This experience is made all the greater when we immerse ourselves in their vision and come away with a new way of seeing and thinking, long after we leave the gallery space. This month, FELTspace features photographic works by Adelaide artist Steph Fuller and an installation piece by Brisbane-based artist Christopher Handran. In their own way, both artists ask us to become immersed in their way of seeing, drawing us away from the busy outside world and inviting us to stand still, be quiet and let the wonder of their works wash over you.

In the front gallery, Steph Fuller's haunting photographic series Awash casts a dark and highly emotive mood over the space, the artist inviting us to become submerged in her newly discovered way of perceiving the world. The scenes are domestic, familiar and recognisable, yet inhabit a dark and mysterious world of stillness and silence where small oddities and unusual happenings gain great significance. Staged in her home and car, the photographs explore the notion that places we find comfortable and familiar can suddenly become strange and foreign when an abrupt change unsettles our way of thinking. The new qualities Steph found herself immersed in and those which she captures in her photographic works are "intense stillness, overwhelming silence and the strange sensory overload of nothingness". Her works ask to be looked at, then looked at closely again, for the fine details lurking in the soft, dark scenes: the dead mouse resting on the floor amidst broken glass, the insignificant death of a bug on the bathroom sink, the dead bird struck down mid-flight across the kitchen, the minute water droplet splashing onto the keys of an ancient piano…. The catalyst for this body of work, which has taken a year to complete, was the passing of one of the artist's relatives, who sadly took his own life in late 2012. In the three months that followed, Steph found it very difficult to reconcile her feelings regarding this sudden loss, becoming withdrawn, isolated and stuck in an emotional rut. Struggling to emerge from these overwhelming feelings, Steph decided to approach and confront them in her work, where they could readily be expressed, seen and dealt with. "I set out not to explore the topics of suicide or the grieving process," she says, "but the state of mind that I experienced during this time." The artist has captured her photographs from a low angle to force the viewer to reassess how and what we choose to see in these seemingly familiar and comfortable scenes. The unusually low angle and dramatic low lighting also help to focus our gaze on the unexpected finer details placed within the scene, creating an empathy with the artist's particular experience and perception. In addition, motifs such as the dead animals, water droplets and seed pods frozen are in time serve to enhance the sense of stillness and silence in the scenes. There is something inherently strange and disconcerting in the knowledge that objects that should be moving are not, heightening our awareness of the captured mood. The medium of photography itself serves to capture these sentiments and perceptions, with Steph herself observing that the "intensity of such a state of mind resonates in the complete stillness that photography allows." The scenes are also minimalistic in their display of familiar scenes and unusual yet everyday details, the use of vacuous space highlighting the feeling of emptiness and isolation that accompanies these perceptions. The title of the series, Awash, is astutely described by Steph as being the one word which accurately captures what she experienced during this difficult period of her life. "It was as though I was a pebble on the bottom of a river," she says. "The world continued to rush past while I remained still, most things simply washing over me." The title of the series is also relevant to the way the artist's experiences caused her to perceive things differently, with Steph suggesting that "if we step away from the surface, we can find a new way of seeing." During her withdrawal, Steph says she discovered that she had a heightened capacity to appreciate fine, previously overlooked details during this period of intense stillness and quiet. In this way, the title Awash simultaneously acknowledges the emotional burdens of Steph's previous year and her cathartic newfound insight into new ways of perceiving her surroundings.

The back gallery, separated from the main space with a black curtain, features Christopher Handran's immersive installation piece Swimming With Dolphins, a mixed media work comprised of video footage and a semi-sculptural apparatus. Upon entering the space, the viewer is immediately submerged into the unique sensory experience offered by Christopher's installation. The smooth white walls are bathed in a rippled swathe of light emanating from a mysterious silver device placed at the centre of the room beneath a network of lights and cables. The use of an intimate, curtained space heightens the immersive quality of the work, the exterior world effectively closed off while the viewer engages with the sensory wonders of the unusual device before them. Working with what he calls 'small-room immersion devices', Christopher says his practice is focused on exploring "the role of technical apparatuses in the creation and mediation of experience". To create his works, Christopher ingeniously repurposes basic and obsolete technologies, modifying existing equipment and constructing his own devices, effectively challenging our perception of the function of both traditional moving image technologies and everyday household objects. Swimming With Dolphins consists of a ceiling-mounted video projector directed towards a highly reflective silver sculptural object, the polished surface of which serves to reflect and disperse video footage across the room. The visibility of the technical apparatuses and devices is essential to the significance of the work. "The insertion of semi-sculptural objects such as the small room immersion device into the path of the projector's beam divides the spectator's attention between the object and its operations", Christopher says. In this way, the work simultaneously is and produces the immersive spectacle for the viewer to observe. It highlights the significance of perceiving the tools of the experience and not just the product.

The video footage used in the piece was created using a unique apparatus crafted from a chrome lightshade, Perspex frame and a buoy made out of a swimming inflatable. The buoy was floated in water and surrounded by a series of buoyant waterproof Dolphin torches while a small camera was suspended above to record the reflections cast onto the lightshade by the torches. Although the footage is abstracted by this process, Handran's focus is not on displaying the images per se, but instead on creating a highly atmospheric and immersive experience within the gallery space. The title of the work, Swimming With Dolphins, is a playful pun on the artist's use of Dolphin torches in the creation of the video footage, although it also seems to suggest the peace and tranquility that swimming with such creatures evokes.

Christopher employs a do-it-yourself ethos in the making and modifying of his devices, with each body of work requiring specific individual apparatuses and processes depending on the video imagery being displayed. The materials used to create the devices are often discarded, low cost items Christopher has salvaged from junk stores, flea markets and op shops. The repurposed nature of the pieces and the new immersive experiences they produce highlight the way in which the artist offers an alternative view of the seemingly familiar and ordinary. The mundane everyday objects are instead transformed into devices that create new perspectives and experiences for the viewer, completely unrelated to their prior function and beyond that which we would ordinarily expect from them. By immersing oneself in the products of Christopher's devices, the viewer is therefore forced to reassess their perception of every objects and consider how they could be used in the creative process.

Caitlin Eyre is an Adelaide-based emerging curator and arts writer who is a recent graduate of the University of Adelaide's double Master of Arts program in Art History and Museum & Curatorial Studies.