Michelle Day

Michelle Day’s current solo exhibition 'What Remains' at A.N.C.A (Australian National Capital Artists) Gallery, Canberra, explores the beauty of life on a microcellular level, concentrating on the traces of debris that are left behind. It’s an immersive show that tenderly plays with memory and remnants of the past. Her installations unveil an enigmatic world where the thresholds between real and imagined experiences drift away to reveal the splendour of life. 

Day’s two bodies of work, What Remains (2016) and Disturbed Air (2017), were created as part of her Master of Fine Arts Degree at Chiang Mai University, Thailand, 2015–2017. Both works engage with the notion of debris in different aspects. Their peculiar forms appear familiar and evoke a strong sense of memory, reminiscent of the cellular parts of plants, animals, microbes and other living organisms. But at the same time they are not completely derivative and evade identification. A delicacy is present in all of Day’s works, highlighting the allure of natural elements not traditionally considered attractive.

In the installation What Remains, the viewer is surrounded by six curious, egg-shaped sculptures installed upon various covered forms. It was originally conceived and exhibited as a series of seven works, however the piece Night Remains succumbed to the elements in Thailand and was destroyed. The spherical shapes of these works are at once beautiful and slightly unsettling. The grey texture of the external body evokes the rough surface of worn concrete, marred by discoloured cracks and crevices. They are also reminiscent of something more unnerving that defies identification, perhaps with origins in the natural world like a struvite stone formed within the kidneys or a spider’s egg sac.

Their illuminated openings beckon the viewer peer inside, demanding a level of vulnerability as the viewer moves closer and relinquishes control to look into the unknown. The openings vary between each work. The edges around the hollow of Sweat & Suds recall the white, crystalline boundaries of a dried salt flat. In Trace the mouth evokes the phaneritic texture of granite as it shimmers like iridescent mica imbedded within stone. Others such as Afterglow and Dusty Light have a smooth aperture with a thickened, raised edge, reminiscent of scar tissue that forms around the borders of an ulcer.

These orifices act as windows into another world. An unidentifiable light source illuminates what would otherwise remain hidden, functioning as a sensory device to reveal the ethereal spaces of wonder. The growths within the cavities are ambiguous and recall the organic forms of coral, polyps, cilium, stone, and flakes of shed skin. Because of their resistance to identification, the debris retains a sense of uncanniness. There’s something about these works that deeply resonate with familiar yet intangible memories, and it’s perhaps this obscure nature that makes them so unnerving. They are transient windows into created worlds, presenting us with questions about presence in absence and the perseverance of life.

Day describes the inner growths of her What Remains series as ‘detritus’. It initially presents as something that is static, non-developing, and left behind, but on closer inspection subtle aspects of growth and movement become apparent. A selection of the works can be experienced though the most basic human senses as they elicit scent, light and sound. Small tufts of hair grow from skin-like surfaces and inner tubular structures glow with warmth. Almost imperceptible motions reverberate from the element Warm Coals, enhancing the perception that life resonates within. The viewer also becomes an active participant as their body generates a gentle breeze, leading to the delicate movement of hair, thread and fabric.

An important aspect of Day’s work is the repetitive layering of debris, and en masse these offcuts create their own entity. The artist is incredibly observant and spots ethereal coverings in the everyday. She describes such an occurrence from a classroom in Chiang Mai, ‘there was this chalkboard at the front of the class with a little tray underneath … the little rubber filaments from the chalkboard duster, rubber bands and bits of chalk all settled in there and it looked luscious to me’. On its own these vestiges are insignificant and sometimes even unidentifiable. But continual deposits form layers over time, moving from the singular to a mass and becoming a being of its own.

The concept of life in empty spaces is a constant thread throughout these two bodies of work. Stepping into Disturbed Air is like entering into a living, breathing room, marked by memories of what has come before. Greasy fingerprints and other impressions retained on the wall are echoes of past habitation. They are the physical remembrances that capture the feeling of a place, an echo of lapsed moments. The microscopic forms within the work feel like the debris of a past presence. It’s as though the detritus has developed a lifeblood of its own, persevering in the absence of the original host.

Mounted on the wall are ambiguous shapes that resemble the smooth texture of a membrane or perhaps the unshelled form of a mollusc. Sprouting within is an equally enigmatic dense blanket of soft polyps. They evoke the floating translucent forms of coral as well as the microvilli of the lumen in equal measure. Eluding identification, they are both hauntingly beautiful and discomforting. These semi-corporeal beings, flesh-like and touchable, are oddly removed from their surrounds and appear as a vital entity within their own right. Like nature itself, the work retains an aspect of temporality as it is constantly in a state of flux.

Ideas of impermanence and the temporal qualities of nature developed following the artist’s move to Thailand in 2015. Day said that ‘temporality had a huge effect on my thinking and changed how I thought about life in general, but it took a while to sink in.’ She found herself in a new country where the urban and natural environments were in a constant state of flux, and the boundary between nature and built areas was increasingly fluid. She recalled, ‘they have a lot of rampant plants that grow into the building and rubble on the side of the road … you’re always seeing this kind of decay and regrowth … it made me very aware of life in spaces when they are empty.’

The shifting border between nature, the human body and organic forms continues to fascinate Day. The 2009 publication The Invisible Kingdom by Idan Ben-Barak – which showed how microscopic germs, bacteria and viruses have a massive effect on humankind –had a profound impact on Day. She is drawn to the tiny things we cannot see, the microscopic growths that can ultimately affect our lives in dramatic ways.

Day engages with a wide calibre of materials including silicone, salt, hair, sawdust, rice, thread, fabric and light, which pave the creation of her ideas. The techniques and materials that she employs are carefully selected for their malleability as well as their ability to evoke memories and emotional connotations. Day initially studied textiles at the ANU School of Art, before studying sculpture during her Honours year, graduating in 2009. Unsurprisingly a number of her sculptural works include textiles and aspects of sewing. Disturbed Air features fabric, thread, and embroidery conjuring an ethereal feel. Needlework is traditionally seen as a domestic craft with connotations of maternal care and nurture, however in the context of Disturbed Air this gentle image is shadowed with visceral connotations of surgery and sutured skin.

Beds of salt are scattered underneath two of the sculptural objects. Their patterns are reminiscent of the crystalline debris left behind from the evaporation of salt water. Day explains the osmotic occurrence as ‘moisture causes the salt to move across the floor, to ebb and flow. The salt preserves and holds onto things, memories; it comes and goes melting with moisture then reappearing when dry.’ Sodium Chloride has a close relationship to the human body as it’s integral to movement of water across cell walls. It had a number of important uses in the history of medicine and is still used as a disinfectant today.

Day is interested in our ability to sense life in a space where there is no physical thing. The idea of presence in absence is a key aspect of the installation Disturbed Air. She is particularly interested in the un-quantifiable sensation elicited when you enter a space that another person has recently occupied. ‘I started to think about spaces that I have walked into over life and felt that someone had been there’, she explains, ‘that can be a very uncomfortable feeling … like your space is being invaded’.

Her work encapsulates this feeling of entering a liminal space that retains vestiges of someone else. Like an echo or trace of a memory, the presence of another can be detected within a space. Although these sensations can at times appear spiritual and intangible, they are still grounded within science. The change in temperature of a recently caressed object, crumbs of food, and traces of soil are all indicators that are left behind.  Our innate sensory capabilities are no longer fully realised in this modern world. Through these installations Day invites us to re-discover the sensory awareness that we all are capable of, if we simply slow-down and become aware of these remarkable occurrences that happen everyday on a microcellular level. The traces are omnipresent; it is up to us to pick-up on the vestiges that remain.

The exhibition ‘What Remains’ does not aim to challenge or confront; instead it delicately reveals the beautiful complexities of the ‘essence of life.’ Anchored in exploration, these two installations uncover the regenerative abilities of organisms, germinating from debris and persevering in vacated spaces.

Rebecca Blake is the 2019 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra

Michelle Day: What Remains
20 March – 7 April 2019
ANCA Gallery, Canberra


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