In the Arms of Unconsciousness

'In the Arms of Unconsciousness: Women, Feminism and the Surreal' is a compelling exhibition by twenty-two contemporary Australian women artists whose creative approaches reflect elements of feminism and the surreal.

From the poetic, sensual and playful to the fantastical, uncanny, and confronting, Del Kathryn Barton, Vivienne Binns, Pat Brassington, Louisa Chircop, Lynda Draper, Deborah Kelly, Madeleine Kelly, Freya Jobbins, Juz Kitson, artist duo Honey Long and Prue Stent, Jenny Orchard, Jill Orr, Lucy O’Doherty, Patricia Piccinini, Caroline Rothwell, Julie Rrap, Marikit Santiago, Jelena Telecki, Anne Wallace, Kaylene Whiskey, and Amanda Williams collectively deliver a dynamic and thought-provoking experience. Distinguished by high quality individual installations, their works offer engagement with contemporary issues, including the female body, empowerment and celebration, motherhood, nature in peril and its capacity to regenerate, sexual appetite, and unbridled female rage.

Curated by Hazlehurst’s Carrie Kibbler, the exhibition has been developed over some six years. Kibbler has long held an interest in the relationships between surrealist aesthetics and feminist concerns, and started researching links between early, mid-career, and established artists, exploring imagery and references in their work and also current tendencies socially, politically, and globally.

In her writing for the exhibition, Kibbler notes that 2024 marks 100 years since French artist André Breton published his Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism). Breton defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express . . .  the real process of thought. It is the dictation of thought, free from any control by the reason and of any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.”

Surrealism as a movement came to prominence in the years following World War I. Its exponents, almost all men, explored the workings of the mind and championed the irrational, the poetic, and the revolutionary. Artists sought strange beauty in the unconventional and the uncanny. At the heart of their work was the desire to challenge society, moral codes, and the inhibitions of the conscious mind.

Méret Oppenheim was the only woman artist associated with the European group in the 1930s. Her renowned Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, also known in English as ‘Luncheon in Fur,’ is an enduring exemplar – simple yet powerful, sensuous, surprising, and psychologically unsettling. 

Today in Australia, seminal artists Vivienne Binns, Pat Brassington, Jenny Orchard, Jill Orr, and Julie Rrap provide foundational touchstones throughout In the Arms of Unconsciousness. Their distinguished practices offer decades of experience and commitment within the feminist canon. As the exhibition unfolds, their contributions enrich the cultural dialogue in the context of younger artists from subsequent waves of Australian feminism.

While the exhibition does not have a beginning or an end, Vivienne Binns’ Drawings of God, 1990, was one of the first works I encountered. Postcard-size sketches displayed upon a large pale blue triangle, the symbol of pride and solidarity, were made using the surrealists’ experimental “automatic drawing” technique and include studies of God’s beard drawn from historical works by William Blake and others. By proposing feminist alternatives, Binns’ strange, nuanced sketches question the dominant narrative of a male God and the prevalence of male artists throughout history.

Close by, Lynda Draper’s sinewy ceramic forms Dracaena I, 2021, and Dracaena II, 2023, reach upwards and outwards in slender, dream-like threads. Draper is interested in exploring the phenomenon of the metaphysical; she draws from her experiences of pre-dawn solitude, the environment, memory, culture, and ghosts from the past. She states her work evolves organically, often from a state of subconscious reverie: “musings leading my hands to make marks, form clay structures or reassemble fired components. The work aims to invite imagination and the contemplation of some kind of other realm.”

Environmental concern is a critical theme in Deborah Kelly’s two-channel digital animation The Gods of Tiny Things, 2019. Filling a corner space, a boisterous parade of collaged hybrid creatures prance their loud and colourful way across twin screens, as if in a Rorschach test. Goddesses with butterfly wing skirts, grasshoppers, wasps, models’ legs cut from fashion magazines, Kelly’s work is an experimental collaborative animation that considers life in peril. Mesmerising and dynamic, the spectacle seems to articulate our rapid descent from nature’s order to chaos. As the artist comments: ‘We are dancing at the end of time.’

Yankunytjatjara artist Kaylene (Imantura) Whiskey is also represented by a riotous video Ngura Pukulpa – Happy Place, 2022. Juxtaposing traditional Anangu desert imagery and popular western culture, this eight minute video combines hilarious live action with animation. We see the artist and her entourage of kungka kunpu (strong women) drive/fly/dance through the desert landscape in spectacular outfits, wigs, capes, and sequins, with live appearances of a Santa Claus and the artist as Wonder Woman. The work celebrates traditional Country and empowerment. The hip-hop lyrics declare ‘This is my Country/ this is my Land / Iwantja rising up / This is our home / Yankunytjatjara / This is special place / We’re strong together / There’s magic here hmmm.’

Ceramics is well-represented in the exhibition. Jenny Orchard’s installation of a forest of uncanny, ceramic totem creatures in Who Are We?, 2023, and a large-scale wall work in the gallery foyer Recombinant delinquent warrior wall, 2023, appear as dream-like invasions of hybrid beings from the animal and plant kingdoms. By contrast, Juz Kitson exhibits a monumental and elegant sculptural form made of blackened jingdezhen porcelain. Titled Observe the many ways, liminal spaces bordering things we already know. In memory of the wildfires., 2022, and made in her distinctive style, this work is a stark memorial to the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires that ravaged the south coast communities where the artist has her studio.

Julie Rrap’s seminal practice is represented by a series of aluminium casts of the artist’s hands. Instruments (hands), 2015, highlights the dexterity and energy of hands as they gesticulate, point, touch in space. Direct silicon casting from the artist’s own hands creates a fidelity to detail that renders them uncanny, echoing the surrealists’ technique of isolating certain parts of the human body.

Pat Brassington is another leading Australian artist whose photographic work demonstrates sustained interest in psychoanalysis and a surreal influence. Here she presents two groupings made 15 years apart – Mouse Trap, The Wedding Guest, and Pillow Talk, are all from her renowned 2005 pigment prints with light-fused legs, silky fabrics, and dream-like, sensual juxtapositions. Enveloped, Scent and Slip ,2020, are a more recent series of uncanny, solarised images. These recall the experimental work from almost a century ago by Lee Miller and surrealist photographer Man Ray.

At the opposite end of the gallery Amanda Williams’ installation Or your shadow rising to meet you, 2020-2023, comprises large-scale framed silver gelatin prints featuring arms and hands – those of the artist and her daughter – and lengths of muslin-like cloth. Formally the work relates to both Rrap’s cast hands and Brassington’s photographic suite and introduces an evocative thematic association across the gallery space.

Del Kathryn Barton is represented by a large recent painting Love Wants to Give, 2022, and an intense short film titled Red from 2017. In a shockingly raw performance, Cate Blanchett embodies a fierce, lithe female redback spider, which makes a meal of her obliging redback mate after coupling. In this brutal chronicle, the artist acknowledges ‘the poetics of female power as an inherent and, indeed, elemental force in the universe.’

All the artists in this exhibition – too many to describe in detail – have contributed unique perspectives that draw on elements of the surreal to explore, disrupt or challenge traditional representations of the female body. It is rich terrain, and as Kibbler asserts, In the arms of unconsciousness presents a groundswell of complex and intricate, personal, and political elements of the surreal, the psychoanalytic, the unconscious and the fantastical that resonate profoundly in the practices of successive generations of women artists today. The project rewards careful viewing.

In the Arms of Unconsciousness
1 July – 10 September 2023 
Hazelhurst Arts Centre, Sydney 

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