Fleece: Wool is the word

Fleece, Deborah Prior

Some pedestrians spared artist/performer Deborah Prior a glance. Something odd was happening. She was sitting on a wooden chair while waiting for the pedestrian lights to change. And she was clutching what appeared to be a large bundle of knitted rope. Then the lights changed and she was off – purposeful strides taking her to the Adelaide City Council’s Art Pod on Pirie Street where various items of her Fleece project can still be found. Prior’s Walking Adelaide performance on Thursday, April 9 started at the South Australian Museum for good reason. Her Fleece project is based on research undertaken at the South Australian Museum as part of The Collections Project, which is a collaborative affair between Guildhouse and the South Australian Museum, providing artists the opportunity to reinterpret the museum’s historical collection. Polly Dance, as part of Adelaide City Council’s Emerging Curator Program, curated Fleece. Prior originally planned to respond to the string collection within the Museum’s Aboriginal Cultures Gallery. But the experience of delving into the cultural dimensions of traditional weaving held a personal lesson – that the stories she sought should be her own. Prior’s childhood memories of growing up in a pastoral community are the touchstones of an ongoing exploration of identity as well as a critique of the shadows cast by Australia’s colonial past. Wool is the word in this show. It starts with the artist’s sheep skin (Map of Home) on which she lay as a baby recast as something resembling a shearer’s sling and continues with a baby rug (The Perils of Social History: Beads and Blankets) recast as a board game on which small merino heads and a necklace are placed. The heads have been sourced from that good old game Squatter, which some may recall as a roll-the-dice board game involving players prospering or failing as pastoralists along the lines of ‘two fly strikes and you’re out’. Art Pod is a recommissioned office space (Polly Dance’s regular office in fact) open by virtue of its glass walls, to passers-by. When Prior was ‘in residence’, across April, working on her seemingly endless sock-knit tube, using unraveling wool from a previously hand-knitted dress the visual and conceptual dynamics really lined up. Maybe in the artist’s absence a video of the performance could fill the void in the same way that the Australian collaborative duo Clark Beaumont’s Coexisting performance, has a life beyond the gallery as a compressed video experience with its own (YouTube) presence. Prior’s Fleece needs the performative presence of unraveling, needle clicking, stretching, measuring, knotting and so on to come alive. To the cultural theorist within (and that may include, not only the artist but lots of hipster art history grads) it seems only natural to talk of needles as ‘civilising’ and the act of knitting and unknitting as metaphors for sociopolitical cultural ruptures and contradictions of the post colonial experience. But it isn’t the artwork’s job to illustrate ideas like this as if an obedient crayon doing a colouring-in exercise. It can do whatever the hell it likes. Prior has gone some way to avoiding this trap through attention to detail such as the honorific of silk and fine stitchery applied to a worn out old floor rug. And also in her grasp of the absurd in excavating one art work to make another and realising the visual potential of old hand shears. Plus the idea of putting things into a very large vitrine (Art Pod), as if in a museum. Such strategies have rich potential and contexts. I’m thinking of Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs’s paseos particularly his Fairy Tales, which involved him taking a walk wearing an unraveling sweater that left a lengthening thread of wool in his wake. From another perspective, more to do with the materiality of the work, the manner in which the once Adelaide-based artist Antony Hamilton nuances found materials to imply ‘on the margins of white settlement’ mindsets holds lessons that many artists, including Prior, intent on exploring the metaphysics of presence, could learn from. While at Art Pod, duck around the corner then upstairs to Town Hall’s Foyer Gallery. The exhibition, running until Friday, June 5, is Craft Anonymous (assisted by Country Arts SA, in collaboration with Visual Arts Coordinator Eleanor Scicchitano). It brings together regional South Australian and Adelaide-based artists whose practices employ traditional handicraft techniques and it’s all about extending professional development opportunities and encouraging exchange between metropolitan and regional artists and audiences. You’re the audience part of the equation. Craft Anonymous hums with creative energy. Go see it.   Fleece, Deborah Prior Continues until Friday, June 5 Art Pod, 25 Pirie Street, Adelaide Craft Anonymous Continues until Friday, June 5 Adelaide Town Hall, Main Foyer Gallery Fleece performance photograph: John Neylon

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