ALCHEMY REVISITED

BY GINA FAIRLEY

Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Art Centre

 

Is marble dead? While the success of Alexander Seton’s practice over the past decade is testament that it is not, in his hands this question is alluring bait for consideration. Our collective perceptions assign marble to the hallowed halls of art history; Greek and Roman Classical sculpture and architecture as endowments of wealth, establishment and refined taste. Mythology even sells us the idea that marble, so pure and flesh-like, can steal a man’s heart, described by Roman poet Ovid’s tale of transformation Metamorphoses X (AD 8), more commonly known as Pygmallion.  

How then do we read a 1970s styled T-shirt emblazoned with the retro text ‘Marble is dead’ hung on a clothes rack within the exhibition We’ve Got to Get Out of this Place (2005, Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane)? Seton offers a suggestion through the exhibition’s title, but furthermore, through the very materiality of this meticulously recreated T-shirt, the synthetic material CaesarStone®. Seton stacks pun upon pun, loading the banal with conceptual rigor and elevating it to marble’s historic position of esteem.

Growing up in the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales, Seton’s fascination with marble was seeded by the location of a quarry down the road from his home, situating the material more within the realm of the everyday than the revered. It is this elemental foundation of familiarity, paired with a degree in Art Theory and History from the College of Fine Arts (2005), that places Seton’s practice foremost within the realm of the conceptual, his phenomenal skill translating those ideas. 

It is the very transformation of marble as a material, physically and metaphorically, that continues to challenge Seton today and is the nexus of Roughing Out. A hint is in marble’s geological structure: sedimentary carbonate rock (aka limestone) that changes state into crystalline interlocking mosaics giving the rock its gleam, its sensual sheen. Some might even describe it as a kind of alchemy. Seton’s breaking down and reconstructing of matter is not merely conceptual play; it is the most natural translation of the material. So as one scans across this new body of work, from dust drawings to refined blocks, to a process-based performative lab, these objects are totally at home within the origins of the material’s inherent transformation. It is our perception that begs redefinition.

Seton turns to process itself to offer that shift: material as an expression of ephemerality; material as a meter for time, material as performance. Are they such new ideas for Seton? When we remove the element of awe of his earlier works and start to map his trajectory to this current exhibition there is a persistence of ideas and objects that assure us of a well considered premise, the use of text, for example, repetition, draped objects, and a theatrically in the staging of his sculptures. 

Consider the statement I was here (2013, Sullivan & Stumpf, Sydney), strewn graffiti-like across the gallery floor in Carrara marble. Viewers are forced to alter their perspective, their path physically interrupted and their eyes grounded. Is it a celebration of the irreverent intervention or simply a delight in banality? It is not the image one immediately conjures when we think of marble sculptures, along with worn mattresses, traffic barricades, and blow up toys, objects that have defined Seton’s oeuvre. What Seton allows is ‘a lightness’ to the material that history denies.

This compulsion to tag generic philosophies finds a connection with a suite of new dust works, where Seton has scribed into settled marble dust ‘ditties’ that resonate white-on-white placard style. He flirts with the idea of permanency / impermanency of a message, interested in the slow reveal. I am reminded of Seton’s outdoor couch The Modern Panopticon (2004) on a picturesque outcrop along a jogging path at Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea. Its worn cushions impregnated with the text ‘this is no time to sit around’ and ‘get up and enjoy the day’, directives that interrupt out cognitive patterns. While our compulsion is to sit we are repealed by a sense of guilt or collective adherence to rules.

It relates to an earlier piece, Panopticon (2003), an elegant designer bench in Carrara marble with stainless steel legs. Its cushion surface carried the impression of an invisible viewer. Seton captured that fleeting transition between stasis and action. While our first trigger is to read Seton’s dust series within his lineage of artworks that have used text, it is this other layer that explores the concepts of time and intervention that is a more intriguing leap between the viewer and the material object. 

The Accursed White Whale (2010) extended this idea, teasing the viewer through contradiction. A deflated pool toy, it was presented leaning against the gallery wall in the exhibition Infinitely Near (2010, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney) defying any rational explanation of gravity, its rigid ‘objectness’ worked against its soft reality. Like Seton’s glass half full in Roughing Out we wonder whether it possessed hope, pregnant with life waiting to be inflated, or was it an expression of deflated dreams?

This was not the first time Seton worked with the idea of the residual. His ‘On Hold’ series (2008, Jan Murphy Gallery, Melbourne Art Fair) was based on marble dustsheets that covered iconic forms, objects such as a pram, grand piano, and lawn mower. The objects were unmistakable, strongly gender based or the embodiment societal stereotypes and, yet, by veiling them Seton charged them with emotion – a personally triggered recognition. It was the residual of an object that was defined, not the object itself.

There was further historical play going on here. On the one hand there was the reference to Man Ray’s The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), an ambiguous form wrapped in a blanket and twine, its truth in its intrigue. On the other was Seton’s cadaver My Concerns Will Outlive Yours (2011) poignantly draped by a body-bag carved from Wombeyan marble, its truth in its concealment. Seton’s prowess at carving fabric pulls our collective memory back to the Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC) or the lesser known The West Wind (1876) by American Thomas R. Gould, a young maiden whose skirt billows with life, the fabric clinging to her body almost lifting her from her feet. The contrast is stark. Where for Man Ray invisibility was a metaphor for ‘enigma’, for Seton it was a malleable tool at once melancholic, political, provocative, and playful. He was able to move marble beyond allegory using its potency to connect with viewers in their contemporary reality. This invisibility is a subject Seton approached with great sensitivity in the installations that followed As of Today (2011), twenty-three folded flags tied with rope in a ceremonial fashion, and Six More (since 22/05/2011) (2011). Carved in Queensland marble subtly toned a skin-like pink, they ‘stood-in’ for soldiers killed during Australia’s engagement in the war in Afghanistan. Marble has long been the material of gravestones, and through this ongoing critique Seton updates this tradition with a more current reminder.

What is apparent in all these works discussed is Seton’s use of theatrics and the implied protagonist to the narrative. Central to this exhibition sits a clear acrylic structure, a hermetically sealed stage, if you like, within which Seton uses a salvaged Pantograph machine to duplicate a digital resin print of his own hand. Writer Andrew Frost hits it when he described, ‘Seton’s practice is about engaging with the analogue in a digital world.’ (2012) Seton has placed this antiquated piece of technology at the heart of his current work. The idea of banal repetition strikes a chord with Seton’s past penchant for carving collections, groupings of mass-produced objects that garner a presence or element of monumentality through their replication. The link is best illustrated by his Bean Bag Suite (2004), miniature versions of the iconic 1970s lounging furniture examined through a trilogy of photography, video, and sculpture.

Seton sketched a grid on his studio floor, a drawing device not unlike the Dürer Grid, a 16th century tool named after Albert Dürer and used by Renaissance artists to replicate a composition. It was a stage upon which he arbitrarily kicked around a beanbag, sending it into flight then free fall, recording its random sequence of landings frozen in Bianco marble and scattered across the gallery. It was an action further suspended in time, a video loop of the spinning bag seeming levitating in space and caught between the performative gesture and snapped stasis of a photograph. Time was key to this piece.

Marble traditionally removes time, immortalizing the object. What, then, was the function and speed of this repetition? Was it an attempt by Seton to slow how we engage with the world around us? In both Seton’s Pantograph and beanbag works we only ever see part of the action, part of the narrative. While Seton appears in his photographs as the protagonist of this game, he is rendered invisible in his video and installation, although his ‘hand’ in the action was implied. It is a delightful conundrum, and oscillates between that invisibility, mentioned earlier, and a broader idea of performance within installation art. 

Repetition and performance  are constants in Seton’s work. As he explains, ‘I want to hit the perceptual reset button so I can engage the critical and conceptual faculties that allow concepts to flow back and forth between the art object and its audience.’ (2012) Performance predicates the notion of being watched, of surveillance, topics well explored by Seton. His videos and photographs of police containment made during the APEC Summit (Sydney, 2007) and sporting titles such as Water Canon, Line Up and Bus moved beyond the object to the theatre of the moment. The most recent act in this play was witnessed by Asia’s collecting circles at ArtHK12, where Seton’s installation Elegy On Resistance (2012, Sullivan+Strumpf, Art Basel, Hong Kong) comprised marble CCTV cameras, Quartet 1 – 4, surveying a crowd gathering around a seated hooded figure, Soloist. The audience was integral to the work.

The foundation of performance is storytelling. That blur of storytelling and reality is a persistent protagonist in Seton’s work, and is superbly illustrated in his sculpture Reverse Garbage (2005), a garbage bag carved from highly polished black Belgian marble, reflecting the plasticity of the mass produced item. Its plastic yellow Polyethlene ties made ‘real’ the scenario, just as Seton’s pantograph replicas or the contents of this exhibition’s oversized bags of marble rubble are testament to their reality. Seton challenges our cognitive processes, what we see, and our compulsion to construct meaning. It moves beyond mere facsimile or technical efficiency.

Seton’s outdoor installation Unsettled (2006) used that same confrontational handle. Made for the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award and presented in the grounds of the opulent Werribee Mansion Hotel, its anonymous figure in a sleeping bag could be confused with the homeless who populate our city’s parks by night.

What this exhibition does is provide a kind of ‘release valve’, reinstating materiality and humour through the unexpected. The tone of Unsettled defined a kind of politically alert evolution that was becoming more prominent in Seton’s work. Security Blanket (2007), and the subsequent exhibitions Panoply (2007), Flags (2011) and Elegy of Resistance (2011) engaged contentious themes of national security, border control, conflict and institutional force. Simply, the work was turning from the wow-factor of a soft object drawn from a hard material, to the hard line foundation of ideas within the object. While the sedentary block Glory Hole (2013) has a direct lineage to Seton’s earlier barricades, its scale and physicality, obstructive and confrontational, is also sexually overt; its orifice at waist height undeniably charged. Like My Concerns Will Outlive Yours and Unsettled it presents an emotional challenge to those who encounter it, but one that is fed by wry humour rather than moral positioning. 

This subtly laced sexuality again is not a new to Seton’s work. One only has to recall his earliest sculptures of women’s stiletto boots Wear Me (Eve) (2004) or his ‘humping’ Lego Building Blocks (2005), white on black, the letter ‘L’ removed from their branding. For many of us they offer a visual double-take. What are we looking at? In these works, Seton has broken down the hierarchy attached to marble, demystifying or de-heroicising it. He has done this through the replication of unexpected objects, by challenging logic, and now turns to the ‘alchemy of video’ to document its mystery.

Working with the geological structure of marble, Seton has used its metamorphism as the narrator of his new video The Alchemic Cycle (2013). Part still life, part documentary we witness the breaking down of a block of marble and its reconstitution in a continual loop. The very action overrides the object itself. One is reminded of Seton’s long interest in time as an architect of the object and his casting of the viewer in the role of witness, exemplified through Elegy of Resistance.

It returns us to our opening proposition: is marble dead? Simply no, the video loop is infinite. Marble, even in its most obscure derivative in the hands of Seton, sustains contemporary dialogue. As he has said, ‘The transformation of material becomes a fascinating way to engage the audience.’ (2013) Roughing Out presents an opportunity to review, remember and deepen our experience and understanding of Seton’s practice and to bear in mind its potential future. We can only expect to be further surprised.