Talking with people in galleries

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Rebekah Pryor, Cathedral, Installation (St Paul’s Cathedral), Melbourne, 2015.

I have been noticing lately how much I like talking to people in galleries.  I have also been noticing how each different gallery experience promotes different opportunities to for connection and conversation.

I recently visited Rebekah Pryor’s new exhibition ‘Cathedral’,  with two friends and I am still intrigued by what I saw and experienced. As I walked the length of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne to approach this exhibition, there was a sense in which the exhibition reached out to approach me too – with reverence and respect.   Whilst each piece has the strength to stand alone and speak of an aspect of the presence of matter, or the maternal within the sacred space of the Cathedral, there is strength in the message that finds its voice as the individual pieces become a body of work holding the viewer within a deeply sensory encounter.  Pryor offers a material invitation for the viewer to participate in seeing not only what is there, but what has been missing for so long.  

I was most profoundly aware of the tension between presence and absence in the work ‘Swaddle’. This installation is made from muslin, fabric paint, brass rings and fishing lines. Over 600cm of fabric Rebekah has embodied the wisdom of Julian of Norwich that, in spite of the inescapable suffering we will encounter in life, ‘All will be well’.  She notes that whilst Julian’s account is one of divine care, grounded and experienced through the body, the green and blue paint on muslin almost shouts discontent with whomever/whatever is not ‘well’. She adds however, that the protest rests in the swaddle, and the swaddle persists: holding, binding, swaddling… 

Pryor’s description of the work and then a conversation I shared with another viewer, were an encouragement for me to step inside the shape that had been created with the swathes of muslin. The fabric itself echoes the tenderness and attention required when swaddling a newborn, whilst alluding to a shroud that protects the body in the hours and days after the moment of death.  Once I was standing inside Swaddling I was overwhelmed by relief, a sense of safety and surprising comfort. I was held. From this place I could see the strength in the binding that enabled this breath of life to surround me. There was space to move, air to breath and a sense of hope and possibility waiting just beyond the boundary.  

In 1972, Brett Whiteley wrote in his journal that “The curve is the most beautiful of all forces”. As I stood within the muslin that curved and swept around me proclaiming that all will be well, I knew in a material sense, why this is so true. In this current exhibition, Pryor has created  what she describes as “a contemplative space that is also an equitable space, where singularity is held always in relation to another. The image, the icon, the sculpture, the art object is not merely something to observe but, like (St Paul’s) Cathedral, to inhabit.”  

Taking the time to talk about the exhibition we were seeing, stimulated the thought that I might be able to move and stand inside this installation. The conversation with other viewers, extended the possibilities for the way in which I was able to engage in the material conversation that Rebekah has begun in the exhibition Cathedral. It will be interesting to see how these experiences continue speak in my own material practice…