review: speak uneasy and flood
In the front window of Smith’s Alternative, a person is being eaten – or coughed out – by typewriters of varied vintage. I recognise the face of artist Nicci Haynes, eyes closed, contorted into expressions of fear or outrage. She spits binary code as she is rolled into existence by these machines. Uneasy indeed, these works tread a fine balance of playfulness and disturbance.
I am heading in for the opening of Speak Uneasy, an exhibition by Caren Florance, Nicci Haynes, Jane Rawson and Shags. This show is part of the Noted writers’ festival, and these artists are fascinated by text: letters, fonts and words – ‘the difficulty of making ourselves understood using their beautifully clumsy forms’.
Inside Smiths, the theme continues with large format monochrome digital prints. These works have a filmy, layered appearance, like washes of diluted ink. Binary code stutters across howling faces, this time generic – they could be anyone. Binary looks like the ultimate in precise, rational communication, but we have no key for the code, so the meaning of these images is felt with the emotions rather than understood with the mind. I have a gestalt moment and the faces shift suddenly from expressions of distress to sleepy yawns. I look away and back – and they are howling again.
Towards the back of the space, sheets of stiff brown paper swing lightly in the draft. A stray handle betrays them as repurposed shopping bags. Strung vertically, they twist back and forth revealing bold block words or phrases on each side. My impulse is to blow across them to make them spin and shift into new combinations. They contain the text of two poems by Angela Gardner from her Notes to an Architect – ‘Pleasure Ground’ and ‘Demolition’. Here they become an air-driven random poetry generator, forming and reforming into hybrid works somewhere between the two. Angela Gardner reads her poems and we now know the two poles between which the installation oscillates.
The final installation in place when I arrive is an array of bottles, jars and glasses on a set of bookshelves. Some hold liquid – specimens? Vases waiting for flowers? Some have writing on them in black or white marker pen, a counterpoint to the neat commercial text of remnant labels.
The exhibition opens with Flood, a performance. Dressed in a white surgical coverall, Nicci Haynes reads an excerpt of Jane Rawson’s story ‘The Lake’. She is accompanied by Shags, also suited up in pristine white – but not for long. With sleepless dark-circled eyes and disheveled hair hanging over her face, Shags starts to write the story on her body. She moves to a low glass display case and climbs in. Like an insomniac sleeping beauty in her crystal coffin, she shifts and twists inside the box, writing furiously on the glass. Silent but not silenced. Impressively, she writes backwards so we the observers on the outside can read the text. She writes in different weights, in black and white, building up a dense palimpsest. We catch glimpses of her moving hands and eyes in the spaces between words. She stops short of blacking out the glass altogether. The glass box has become a cage of letters.
Nicci also adds text from ‘The Lake’ to her assortment of glass containers. The specimens are of lake water, in this story the element of the cold and the dead. I look back across to the large prints – perhaps the pale faces in their watery puddles are also at the bottom of the lake, bubbling their binary warnings? ‘If you’ve seen us entire, then you are no longer alive to read this story so never mind you’.
I slip a tiny zine with an excerpt of ‘The Lake’ into my pocket as I leave. I hope it doesn’t leak