In considering the narrative arc of Odysseus and his struggle against looking back and listening to the song of the sirens, Sirens proposes the idea of backwardness as directional impulse; a tradition in queer representation and as a negative association. The work draws on existing research on a group of non-heterosexual historical figures (architect Eileen Gray, writer Natalie Barney, and artist Djuna Barnes) to gather minor feelings, such as refusal, as a backward repository of making. These histories become conduits to think through the impulse of queer practices to feel backward to histories – which despite often being marked by disconnection, loss and shame – maintain a significance that has been long subsumed by modern art’s relentless drive to propel culture forward.
The forms depicted in Sirens are based on letter fragments from books in Sutherland’s library related to Gray, Barney, and Barnes. This strategy recalls Anne Carson’s description of the fragment in relation to the translation of Sappho: “A fragment releases us from time and space, from rectilinear complacency, from the noise of our own expectations into a different dark lacuna, a stillness of study that is possibly fathomless.” The splicing of these narratives with historical figures-as-fragment teases out the possibilities of a queer historical structure and reflects on what it means for an artist to embrace a legacy of damaged or refused agency.
The City Gallery installation reflects on traces and echoes of the previous life of this gallery as the ‘The New Zealand Room’ of the Wellington Central Library. Scrambling these different modes of knowledge exchange, the works draw out the ways that marginalised histories travel through time via both typographic fragments and built space. The wall painting, History at Night, calls forth one of the generous windows designed to pour light into the space, now subsumed by the gallery walls.
As with previous work, Gloss continues a suspicion of stable legacies. Nestled into one of the Library’s few remaining original desks is a broken lock found outside Sutherland’s Sydney studio, confidently positioned as a leitmotif for the wider investigation. The lock sits in a green wax panel, cast from the door of the desk, suggestive of a wax tablet, an early technology of written communication.
History at Night, 2021
Every Artist (curated by Aaron Lister)
City Gallery Wellington
27 March – 1 August 2021