Visual Art

In the NGV Australia exhibition Found and Gathered, Rosalie Gascoigne and Lorraine Connelly-Northey reveal the richness of debris. By Tristen Harwood.

Found and Gathered

An installation view of the NGV Australia exhibition including Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s Possum-skin cloak: Blackfella road 2011-13.
Credit: Tom Ross

In the aftermath of the floods that devastated parts of Gippsland in June this year, vast sheets of filmy spiderweb blanketed kilometres of paddocks, riverbanks and roadsides. These delicate gossamer sails were made by millions of ground-dwelling vagrant hunter spiders who used them to glide to safer heights atop road signs, trees and fence posts. When a light breeze swept the sheet web it undulated like the ocean’s surface, small waves on an inland sea.

Weaving is how spiders inhabit the world. Webs are homes, traps and, in this instance, debris after a mass arachnid evacuation. They remain only momentarily but shape the landscape, changing how it is seen and understood.

Found and Gathered: Rosalie Gascoigne | Lorraine Connelly-Northey at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia is an exhibition of two artists who, in different ways, refuse to ignore the eloquence of debris. Both make art with remnants of industry, domestic architecture and civil infrastructure.

Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) was a sculptor whose assemblages are composed from simple things she collected around Canberra, such as discarded reflective road signs, torn linoleum, weathered wood, corrugated iron, thistles and feathers. Lorraine Connelly-Northey bends stubborn materials and rusted scraps such as mattress springs, sheet metal or barbed wire to make tensely sinuous sculptures. Sometimes she softens them with feathers, shells and other organic things.

Gascoigne’s Inland Sea (1986) stands in the middle of the NGV Australia foyer. It consists of 16 small squares of weathered corrugated iron – arranged in a grid, like much of Gascoigne’s work – that float just above the floor on wire frames. The corrugations of the bent, dented iron educe the inconsistency of ocean ripples. Patches of local council brown and park bench green across the squares introduce Gascoigne’s deep engagement with vernacular materiality – there are toilet blocks and horse troughs on the street outside the NGV painted in these same municipal colours, permutations of the same metals.

Hanging by wire next to Inland Sea is Connelly-Northey’s figurative Fish trap (2005-13). Connelly-Northey has woven together shreds of rusted barbed wire to make a fence-like fish trap with three fish, which dangle at the precipice of entrapment or escape. Brutality enters the scene through this pastoral material. Barbed wire is literally violent – used to enclose animal and human bodies with the threat of maiming – and symbolically violent through its association with the marking of private property, pointedly so in the case of stolen land in this country.

These two sculptures are a small overture to the moments of cohesion and incongruity, similarity and contradiction, and political difference in the practices of these two artists. Gascoigne’s work, steeped in grace and consonance, is concerned with the shape of the land, the formal qualities of things. Connelly-Northey’s work, full of ragged energy, is historically and symbolically dense, often negotiating the tension between image and object in similar Country/country materials.

This tension is evident in Connelly-Northey’s wall-mounted sculptures, Possum-skin cloak (2005-06), made from squares of rusted corrugated iron stitched together with wire, which is simultaneously a possum skin cloak and its representation in novel materials. Lap Lap #1-#15 (2011) is a collection of 15 “lap-laps”, each consisting of a wire “belt” from which hangs a rectangular “groin covering”. Lap-lap – variations of which are used in First Nations ceremony and dance – is a general term used to describe such loincloths, which are usually made from animal skins, woven plant fibres, feathers. Here, one is made from the wire innards of a mattress, one from a rusty axe head, another from a rabbit trap and another from a curtain of barbed wire.

Lap Lap #1-#15 has a visceral and specific relation to the body. As objects they threaten to lacerate flesh, materially conjuring images of the sexualised and gendered violence of colonialism and weaponised Christian notions of modesty that project shame on Indigenous bodies.

But violence isn’t all that persists. Connelly-Northey performs a semiotic subversion, wryly renaming spiky, discarded things such as barbed wire as something they’re not. She gathers these metal scraps, coloured and shaped by the air, salts and dirt of Country, from within the hundred-or-so-kilometre radius around her home town, Swan Hill in western Victoria. The tangles of barbs and hard things that Connelly-Northey twists and bends are at times brutal, anguished materials from the infrastructure of machinery and recognisable as such, but the artist’s touch and linguistic intervention make them equally lap-laps and possum skin cloaks, summoning the comforting way this clothing adorns and protects the body.

In the next room, a long L-shaped display case holds Connelly-Northey’s string bag and kooliman sculptures. She interweaves corroded coils and wires with organic things, softening the harsh industrial leftovers and introducing a level of intimacy to the tormented objects. Dirt-red calcified snail shells dangle from a stiff wire-mesh bag in Snail shell bag (2005) and magpie feathers pillow another. Echidna quills jut from one bag as if it were mimicking the animal.

String bags traditionally woven with natural fibres are made for gathering food, as body adornments in ceremony and art, and are part of ancestral story. Connelly-Northey was trained in these traditional Indigenous weaving techniques. Her “string bags” show that weaving isn’t simply method and material: it’s a frame for collectively viewing or being in the world that is handed down intergenerationally from ancestors.

Where Connelly-Northey bends and melds things, Gascoigne balances and arranges them. Gascoigne was 57 when she held her first exhibition. She had studied ikebana, and in her sculpture she looks to nature’s aesthetic qualities, collecting weathered objects that inform her astute attention to line and form. With Pink window (1975), Gascoigne deftly fixed a deformed sheet of corrugated iron to a wooden window frame with its original worn pink paint. The iron sheet looks like a curtain parted by the wind. Gascoigne has said the artwork is about the loneliness and confinement of being in what she thought of as the “emptiness of the Australian landscape”.

Knowing that the so called-Australian landscape has never been empty, because it’s inhabited and tended to by First Nations peoples across the country, it’s not loneliness I see in Pink window. Gascoigne’s harmonious assemblage studies nature’s improbable syntax: a twisted-up piece of metal in place of a curtain is a wind sculpture, the chambranle shapes light and air, infused with the rhythm of a polyvalent temporality.

Step through (1977) is a ground sculpture composed of 15 scraps of floral linoleum, each balanced on its own little wooden block and arranged in an uncertain grid. The artist collected these domestic relics from a rubbish dump. Like Angel Day, who in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria understood the dump as a place of improper abundance at the threshold of ownership and dispossession where “she could get anything her heart desired – for free”, Gascoigne sees the dump as a place where the domestic sphere emerges, to quote Lisa Robertson, “as an embodied vector that breaks open … the public–private binary”.

In Found and Gathered, Step through, Piece to walk around (1981) and Gascoigne’s other ground sculptures have been installed on white platforms, rather than directly on the floor. In Gascoigne’s work the grid, as a perspectival device, is there to be interrupted, made unstable and permeable by daring the viewer to “step through” it or to “walk around” it. Instead, the false floor creates a hard border around the work, reinforcing the grid.

The exhibition includes a collection of Gascoigne’s iconic yellow and orange sculptures that use old road signs and soft drink boxes, where text such as “Schweppes” interrupts the composition, recalling Robert Rauschenberg’s pre-pop assemblages.

Found and Gathered is a subtly arranged exhibition of two artists who shape eloquent and rigorous bodies of work from encounters and experience with materials, places and histories. Mostly it lets you drift and sway, perambulating through how materials become objects and images. It shows that sculpture made by land and hand can offer a different way of understanding the land, an otherwise way of knowing Country/country.

Found and Gathered is at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia until February 20, 2022.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 27, 2021 as "Barbed eloquence".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.