February 26th – March 12th
Rue is for Remembrance – by Katie Paine
“I’m so fascinated by ruptures, moments in your history, how they can linger, even though they’ve passed physically…” Jennifer Whitten’s exhibition Negative Space uses the languages of painting and music to address the physicality of absence, of memory, the way that we respond to certain moments, our anxiety when they pass.
Event Horizon, 2015, Oil on Perspex, Steel
A girl turns her head, her arms raised and legs tense, as if startled, as if she is about to rise and leave the expanse of glass on which she is painted. Who does she look towards? Is she afraid or excited? -The moment is indecipherable, as we cannot see her face- on either side of the glass. The incorporeal stairs she sits upon are mounted onto a plinth of steel, like an immense headstone or obelisk. Hanging from an immense loop of steel mounted on the gallery ceiling is another sheet of glass, this time the size of a standing mirror. If you lie on the gallery floor and look up however, you do not see your reflection, but that of a woman who seems to be rising from the glass-Or is she descending? Rose printed fabric clings to her body-while we can only see glass, it is clear she lies in water; it swirls through her hair, and creeps over her face.
Rosemary, Pansies, Fennel, Columbines, Rue, Daisy and Violets, 2015, Oil on Perspex, Steel
Negative Space is like a mysterious cypher: there is something impenetrable about these paintings of minute precision, their cold glassy surfaces, the seemingly arbitrary cello music. But it is this music that acts as a key to the exhibition, to Whitten’s practice. Upon understanding the cello concerto, Fermata Suite-In Four Movements, it is as if we look at entirely new artworks, an entirely new exhibition.
Initially when visiting Negative Space and listening to the cello, I thought the music was merely playing to create a heightened atmosphere for the paintings -something that I dismissed as a little contrived. But upon talking to Whitten, I learnt that the true function of the music was something else entirely.
When Whitten was 18, her stepfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War, committed suicide. Four police witnessed his death, and Whitten was able to gain access to each individual report. She then put the reports through a computer program that generated music notes to correspond to each letter-an eerie requiem. At first Fermata Suite sounds grating and chaotic: a random assortment of notes. After learning its context, the longer you listen, an inherent logic becomes apparent; one becomes aware of a throbbing melody of haunting melancholy.
Whitten says of the work, “For the last ten years I’ve skirted around the issue… then one day I was reading this article… on the moment the Titanic sank- When the ship went down the band was playing, right until the end. These sound waves, from that moment when they hit that water-they are trapped- these pulses are still in the water now, they continue to radiate out from that point… After reading about the Titanic, I felt like music would be the only way to truly convey time…to convey what happened… It’s constantly evolving-it’s not something fixed.”
19th Century Reverse Glass Painting, Artist Unknown, Italy
Whitten’s paintings mislead you, they’re seductive in their beauty, but it is through the lense of Fermata Suite that they are provided with an alternate reading. Responding to 19th Century reverse glass paintings that she saw whilst visiting a villa on Lake Como, Whitten has used her paintings to evoke a certain romanticism. Her submerged self-portrait as Ophelia: Rosemary, Pansies, Fennel, Columbines, Rue, Daisies and Violets shares more with the Pre-Raphaelites than just subject matter. Sweeping hair, flushed cheeks, a rising iridescent pallor, Whitten’s fragmented portrait embodies a Victorian ideal of beauty. The exhibition not only borrows from Victorian aesthetics, but also from the era’s restrained eroticism and obsession with mortality-paintings as eulogies. The portrait’s loquacious title is also reminiscent of Victorian customs, evoking The Language of Flowers: the Victorians’ fascination with cryptological communication through the arrangement of flowers. Rue, is for remembrance. To rue: to regret.
When asked of the association between her self-portrait and Ophelia, Whitten muses that she initially was drawn to the character because of the tragic way Hamlet had “fractured” her, but years later she remembered that Ophelia’s suicide was preluded by the death of her father, Polonius, who is killed days before she dies. Whitten goes on to talk of research in which she came upon an account of the L’Inconnue de la Seine, The Unknown Woman of the Seine. “A young girl threw herself into the Seine. The policeman who found her was incredibly taken with her beauty when he saw her in the mortuary. It wasn’t like she was dead, more frozen in time. And that’s just it-I’m not interested in death exactly, more the suspension of time.”
Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that the moments captured by photographs are “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.” Perhaps it is so for painting also. Whitten’s paintings are points of stasis, attempts to cling to moments in time. Indeed in her self-portrait Whitten is creating for herself a pause- a painted version of herself that might exist forever: a possible future in which she neither ascends or descends into the water. Interested in theories of space-time, Whitten fuses music and painting out of a desire to collapse time, to resurrect, to reconnect past and present.
Negative Space is a temporal map, pulling apart the structure of events, playing with the slippery relationship between memory and reality. Haunted by his memories, Whitten’s stepfather was consumed and ultimately eclipsed by his past-his death reduced to cold empirical accounts. By its transformation into music, the reports become something more poetic and abstract. – It is if he can live on in this music; within the stark prose of the reports the moment of death is unavoidable fact, yet in music, the outcome is more elusive. In Whitten’s own words: “I’m taking these retrospective documents and extending them, through music into the present and future.” Negative Space ultimately concerns chronophobia, the fear of losing time and the anxiety that we are going to fade and forget.
Jennifer Whitten is a Melbourne based artist.