Photographs by James Field
The Loud Wound collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia
Dancing and dying
Essay by Dr Lisa Slade
In Corlata in northern Romania, not far from Ukraine, there lingers a new-year ritual where individuals don deer masks and antlers, and, for several days, repeat a performance of ceremonial dancing and dying. This custom to relinquish the old and induce the new, simply called Cerbul (‘stag’ in Romanian), was among the last of the European festivals documented by Charles Fréger for his Wilder Mann series of photographs published in 2012. Half-human and half-beast, the slain and surviving symbolic stag signals to an abiding atavism – a tendency to revert to archetype and to our ancestors. Artist Julia Robinson believes that this atavism can be found in us all.
Just like the conjoined human/animal Cerbul, the work and world of Julia Robinson is one where the grafting of the new and the old, the real and the imagined, the human and the animal and the dancing and the dying all coalesce. This hybridising can be readily seen in Rutting creature 1 where the uncharacteristically polite and vertical coital dance of the deer is also a dance with death, as the animals transform into a domestic apparatus complete with the adornment of a lampshade-like covering. And there is something deeply amusing and downright bawdy about all this. We respond like teens apprehending the absurdity of sex for the first time. We are amused, beguiled and left wanting more. The sateen tailored fabrics and meticulously stitched draperies render the scene a strangely papal one – this primal scene carries the scent (frankincense?) of a heavily ritualised performance.
In Rutting creature 2 we sense the quivering hind legs of the stag in spite of the partial concealment of the beasts under fabric (a clever Surrealist device). More than cloth, the golden covering is like a vestment from a sacred order, reserved it seems for a particular type of liturgical dancing. In this marriage of the carnal and the ceremonial we are reminded of Robinson’s own words when she describes her work as an attempt to ‘evoke both the domestic and the barbaric’. For Robinson it is ‘this push and pull between gentility and brutality that both spurs [her] on and stays [her] hand.’
Robinson conjures her beasts into being by shaping fine wire into a naturalistic armature over which fabric flesh is sewn. There is no casting, no mold and no model. They emerge from inchoate materials to possess their own pagan power. Sometimes the hand-crafted is conjoined with found objects, as in the case of earlier works such as Marrow and Legs Eleven, with the latter now held in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection. As Robinson explains,
The game of substituting parts becomes a process of material surgery. Using found or fabricated objects in lieu of body parts I become a sort of butcher, slicing off bits deemed irrelevant or redundant. Branches, poles or chairs may stand in for limbs, and body parts are rounded off to smooth nubs as the figurative form dissolves and is subsumed by foreign elements. These new components are in a state of material make-believe – mimicking the thing they replace yet still retaining their authority and identity as discreet objects.
This game of substitution frequently leads to visual puns, as in the case of Garland where anornamental gourd screams phallic power and virility and offers itself, somewhat suggestively, to be worn. Encircled with heavy bells (another visual quip) Garland generates sound,signaling the arrival of its wearer. Bells appear frequently in pagan rituals – protective devices thought to drive away evil with sound. But more than talismanic, this work in its perverse sexuality is gently mocking.
In Death admires you a digital clock adorned with a tiny skeleton becomes a contemporary vanitas. The appearance of this figure of death, hand carved from lime wood and complete with scythe, underscores death’s role as the inevitable counterpoint to fecundity. While reminiscent of Ricky Swallow’s 2005 life-size sculpture, The Exact Dimensions of Staying Behind (also held in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection), Robinson’s work has more in common with its sixteenth century Habsburg antecedents known as Tödlein. Meticulously crafted from pear wood and placed among other marvels in princely cabinets of curiosities, the diminutive Tödlein represented the possibility of resurrection and hope. With the name, Tödlein, translating to mean ‘little death’, the figures offer a further entendre in the allusion to a sexual or orgasmic state. Here humour returns – with the tiny grimacing figure, powerless in scale, and its incongruous steed taking the form of a plastic alarm clock, Robinson invites us to laugh back at death, at time and ultimately at ourselves. Humour, for Robinson, is another weapon in her arsenal. Like the ladders, brooms and bread, seen recently in Dark Heart, the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, humour is apotropaic, possessing the power to avert bad luck and turn away evil.
Through this now signature process of hyper-crafting creatures and animating dormant objects, Robinson exhumes our animism – and our animalism – and in doing so she resurrects our relationship with nature. This relationship, fraught and vulnerable in the twenty-first century, is also announced through the enigmatic exhibition title, One to rot and one to grow. Drawn from a mid-nineteenth century agrarian parable wherein the farmer is cautioned to allow for the exigencies of nature, the folklore cautions the farmer when sowing his seeds to allow one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, one to grow. It’s tempting to read Robinson’s work (and the attendant exhibition title) as a critique of our current abuses of nature and our failure to heed its warnings. In our self-absorption and vanity, have we failed to protect ourselves from nature, from ourselves and ultimately from annihilation? Robinson’s work avoids such doomsday declarations. By summoning the ceremonial, the arcane and perhaps most crucially, the comedic, Robinson’s rutting creatures call on us to celebrate the continuity and inevitability of both dancing and dying.