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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


The ring is an object of ritual

12 April 2020
A response by Paul Boyé to The Long Kiss Goodbye, an exhibition curated by Gemma Weston featuring Sarah Contos, Penny Coss, Iain Dean, Brent Harris, Clare Peake, and Michele Elliot with Tender Funerals
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth Festival

The ring is an object of ritual, ceremony and contract. Somewhat unlike other forms of jewellery, the ring joins the body when worn; they become bone, joint or tendon. The band runs adjacent to the cylindrical form of the finger, and the jewel juts out like a swollen knuckle. As the subject of fantasy, rings are often rendered magical. They offer powerful modifications to their wearers, like a binding curse that leaves the wearer unable to remove the ring without harm. Or, some kind of new capacity, afforded by the magic ring’s intimate place on the body. The ring comes to represent a way to connect the body to an outside magical source: protection, power or health.

In Plato’s The Republic, Glaucon tells the tale of the Ring of Gyges, a magical artifact owned by a Lydian king that grants the wearer the ability to become invisible. The myth of this ring is invoked to ask whether or not a person could remain virtuous despite their access to such power. It is eventually settled that if someone wanted to remain virtuous and happy, they would refuse the power of the ring, and that any person—just or unjust in character—would be bound to ‘fall to their appetites’ if the ring was used.

The Long Kiss Goodbye composes a similar structure of fable and myth, question and wonder. The fantasy of this exhibition poses several questions, all intersecting on three main themes—inspiration, catharsis and mourning. And like many other worlds of fantasy, there exists magical rings. Clare Peake’s Things are never ending: 7 rings for 7 days are silver rings, set with the concentrated remains of burnt visual diaries. These rings are the product of cathartic ritual: the burning of diagrams, scribblings, words, renderings and ideas. The ashes sit inside a pyramid tomb built from hessonite garnet, containing the act and celebrating the destructive ritual. Lacking uniformity, each ring stares back up at the viewer from within their glass cabinet, communicating a modest process of transformation, renewal and closure.

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^^^ above Penny Coss (left) and Brent Harris (right); below Sarah Contos;
installation images by Lyle Branson

Sarah Contos’ The Long Kiss Goodbye (from which the exhibition takes its name) continues the fabled stories perforating the gallery space, albeit at a different scale. In a parallel, yet materially distinct manner the gigantic patchwork quilt is an outward expansion of scraps, memories and traces conjured across a career of artistic practice. Compared to Peake’s rings, the cathartic ritual here is grandiloquent, gaudy and generous. It is an epic fable in and of itself, one told through dance, bombast, fireworks and cinematic drama. An inherently heroic effort, spurring the artistic spirit in want of freedom, expression and manifestation.

Faces and bodies contort in all sorts of manners when waylaid by inspiration. The figure of Brent Harris’ The Other Side seems to be caught somewhere between a demi plié and a picturesque expression of awe. Stunned before a vista of colour, shape, heavenly vapours and ghastly apparitions. The smoke parts, and our figure walks forward into the tragicomical realm of Iain Dean’s work. As a focal point, the installation work There’s no escape, burn it down/give up on me introduces humility to the inspiring sense of the epic present in Harris’ work. In this sense, Harris and Dean’s work act dialectically, creating worlds within worlds through shared protagonists and mutual antagonisms.

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   ^^^ above and below Iain Dean; installation images by Lyle Branson

Strangely, the fable can often anticipate convention, law and ritual; story and fantasy are never totally un-real, but are often pre-real. Tender Funerals, through an artistic residency program, develops new stories and material practices relating to death and mourning. Toward a cultivation of ‘holistic death care’, Michele Elliot’s work commemorates the materials of funeral ritual: muslin cloth, flowers, written memories, eulogy, photographs and other mementos. Mourning is a meeting between material and memory, and in the context of this exhibition, Elliot’s work situates mourning sincerely between catharsis, inspiration, fable and myth.

Penny Coss’ ANXIOUS SPACES is the apotheosis of this exhibition. It is a large scale installation imitating a work mid-installation (I can easily imagine blue masking tape, wooden crates and felt gloves scattered amongst the space). Like many of the other works in the exhibition, ANXIOUS SPACES is a story caught in the telling. Through performative modifications to the installation, Coss rarefies the intersecting themes and vast fables of the entire exhibition. And in doing so, the unending story of artistic practice, ritual, inspired figures and spaces of mourning comes to its culminative moment.

The Long Kiss Goodbye offers a modest, yet clear and critical set of lessons to its visitor. We learn that traces can appear in all kinds of ways, and that materials can tell all kinds of stories. And that fantasy, far from being an inconsequential exercise in fiction (as if storytelling could ever not have consequence), comes to shape and influence our very real practices of caring and catharsis; coping and being inspired.

^^^ above Penny Coss; below Michele Elliot; installation images by Lyle Branson

The Long Kiss Goodbye
Sarah Contos, Penny Coss, Iain Dean, Brent Harris, Clare Peake, and Michele Elliot with Tender Funerals
Curated by Gemma Weston

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

Initial exhibition dates: 8 February - 9 May 2020 (closed early due to COVID-19)

Watch a recording of Penny Coss’ Pendulum Acts, recorded 18 March 2020, on YouTube here.

Image credits: Photography by Lyle Branson. Courtesy of Perth Festival, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, and the artists.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.