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 Sarah-Jane Norman, The River’s Children (2013), Unsettling Suite Sarah-Jane Norman, The River’s Children (2013), Unsettling Suite
photo Heidrun Löhr
IN CARRIAGEWORKS BAY 19, A SERIES OF ROOMS, ENTERED VIA A SMALL SANDY HALLWAY, HAS BEEN CREATED BY DIVIDING THE SPACE WITH BARELY TRANSPARENT, PLASTIC WALLS. THE EVOCATION IS OF AN EPHEMERAL SPACE IN WHICH ARE FOUND QUITE SUBSTANTIAL ACTIONS AND OBJECTS, LARGELY DOMESTIC, FEMININE AND HISTORICAL IN CHARACTER—WITH A DISTINCTIVE EDWARDIAN FEEL.

Washed white clothing hangs outside the ‘house’ on one side, and on another is a laundry—a bathtub, basket, Sunlight soap, signs of recent washing and more clothes, this time providing a screen for projections of labels (eg “1849, hospital”). Other suggestions of a lived-in abode include a functioning kitchen and dining space, with an oven and signs of recent cooking. A sideboard displays hand-painted crockery.

 Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullius/Blood Country (2013), Unsettling Suite Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullius/Blood Country (2013), Unsettling Suite
photo Heidrun Löhr
The house ambiguously connotes ownership, servitude and artistic creativity. Replete with a boudoir, it implies the presence of the ‘lady of the house.’ On the other hand the labour suggested in the kitchen and laundry conjures images of young Aboriginal women in the 19th and 20th centuries taken from their families and forced into the role of maids. It also evokes the home of an artist with scholarly inclinations and is suffused with her blood—in the paint on the crockery (Heirloom Dinner Set), in the scones the gallery-goers are invited to have with their tea after witnessing their making (Take this for it is my body), and in the handiwork of the woman of the house (Corpus Nullius/Blood Country). The word ‘Terra’ (as one part of ‘nullius’) is partly embroidered with thread and blood onto shaved sheepskin. Among more sheepskins, a negligee hangs from the ceiling, a crinkled, shiny cast, like the discarded shell of an insect, a relic of the owner and the artist’s embodiment.

Less obviously domestic is a room with a museum case containing a sugar cast of the artist’s leg—on a white mattress over red soil—being slowly devoured by native ants. Another room is a genteel workspace where words from Aboriginal languages have been meticulously carved onto sheep and cattle bones. Some of these are also displayed in a museum case.

Sarah-Jane Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body (2013); Unsettling Suite Sarah-Jane Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body (2013); Unsettling Suite
photo Heidrun Löhr
The house comes alive when Norman appears, brusquely inviting visitors to take tea and scones, emptying drops of her blood from a vial into the scone mix, cooking, serving and issuing orders to her guests. Here she embodies at once householder, maid and artist. This is one of several performances (another is the ‘embroidery’ of “nullius” onto the artist’s chest with pins in the lady’s parlour) built into Unsettling Suite—and unsettling they are in a work already disturbingly resonant. As Norman explains in a realtimetv video interview, “each part of the work has a material element and a bodily part or gesture.” Wool, meat, cotton and sugar found in homes also represented the economic power of colonialism and the displacement of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands.

Sarah-Jane Norman, Bone Library (2013), Unsettling Suite Sarah-Jane Norman, Bone Library (2013), Unsettling Suite
photo Heidrun Löhr
The bones (engraved, dated and catalogued) in Bone Library comprise a dictionary of extinct Aboriginal languages; pieces can be taken in trusteeship by visitors. They may also participate by offering white clothes to be washed in water from the Hawkesbury River, “which runs through my grandmother’s country,” says Norman, “country with a dark history.” The projections onto the clothes list the dates and places of recorded massacres of Indigenous people. As Norman says, contributors’ clothes are returned, “imbued with this trace of a very violent history.”

Unsettling Suite, finely curated by Performance Space, comprises installations and performances created over a number of years as Sarah-Jane Norman has steadily built her practice. They have evolved into a single creation of great power at once subtle and necessarily confronting. As she says, these works “add up to a lot of heavy, heavy shit and very complicated shit. There’s a lot of rage…in a very quiet meditative space...[T]he unreconciled miasma of our collective history is filtered through my body into this work.”

realtime tv interview


See Sarah-Jane Norman’s article, “Blood is such clever stuff,” in the RealTime RealBlak edition (RT111) and the video interview on realtime tv.

Performance Space, Matters of Life and Death: Unsettling Suite, artist Sarah-Jane Norman; Carriageworks, Sydney, Feb 22-March 10

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 52

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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