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Fine monkey magic

Zsuzsanna Soboslay

Monkey Show, Paul Webb
Monkey Show, Paul Webb

In 1997, on the eve of departure first time for New York, I had a dream which turned my idea of this cultural mecca on its head. In place of my imagined skyscrapers, clogged, cold-hearted, shadowed streets, claustrophobia amongst the crowds, I dreamt of quite a human-scaled city, 6 to 8-storeyed buildings, wide streets, not too many people, comfortably humane stonework details. The dream proved more accurate than my daylight fears. Formed from book reviews, arts, criticism, and probably something extracted from Big Apple vocal twang, my imagined city had been constructed by proxy from armchairs and chattings, mental glimmers becoming architectures and a too-sombre picture of others’ lives.

Elizabeth Paterson’s work has long been concerned with how stories of other places are both transported—and not—in pictures, postures, fabrics, foods, musics, physiognomies. The Monkey Show (what is that little monkey, dancing beside the hurdy-gurdy, pulling [tamed] jungles into tapestries and paintings from Roman to Medieval times), formed from a 10-year obsession, is a questioning of the relation of the glimpsed ‘exotic’ to Western culture, and of what is both treasured and ignored in the juxtapositions of memory within the contexts of experience.

To European-descendant Australians, we perhaps have our ‘normal’ exotic (Paris; a winter Santa Claus), and then what surprises us in our own backyards: frilled-neck lizards, the vibrant-red shock of galahs in dusty gums—still visitors to our picture of ourselves, still a surprise in the mixed history of our Australian lives. Paterson’s work teases at the cusp of these cross-relationships.

There is immense fullness and richness in this installation: the gorgeous blood-orange tapestry-work armchair (a copy of the 1500 Flemish tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn); bead-cloaked monkey-parrots bent over bright cotoneaster buds; the coconut-textured fur, veined faces and dreamy eyes of the 5 monkeys themselves, drawn together in a life-size installation entirely constructed out of paper and cardboard—walls, chimney, animals, bush scrub, French doors, images of both solidity and delicacy, an environment inviting habitation and yet not up to normal domestic bruising. The installation space, roughly 4m x 8m, is housed within 3 glassed walls tucked to the side of quiet, downbeat Civic Square, its fountains of water and passers-by reflecting in the glass, both veiling and revealing the image.

There are other strong elements of ostraneia (‘making stramge’): a dry sclerophyll landscape rolling out of the fireplace; a Santa-monkey descending and ascending the chimney; little journeying cars like an animated cartoon riding a small section of picture-rail, disappearing left to right into an architrave. A floating armada of sailing ships impale white clouds with their masts; and all the while, the centrepiece (although this piece has no ‘centre’), the armchair on which perch the monkey-parrots and in which lounges a relaxed naked monkey. A gramophone (the end-shape of a meandering bend of paper-water flowing into the room from one of the doors) bends towards his ear, carrying music from yet another landscape of memory.

I find myself falling into some, and ignoring other details, such as the dry eucalypts shedding their leaves: a small and peripheral worrying at the edges of my preferred attention.

What is astonishing is the relationship between the density of the craftwork—beading, embroidery, the mechanics of the Santa-monkey’s descent and the little travelling cars, so seductive and alluring, so attractive and preoccupying—and the spaciousness between each of these elements. There is a vastness circulating within and between the elements of this immensely ornate work. This should be a room crowded with furniture, a dense population. Instead, we have enough space between armchair and fireplace as between 2 desert spinifex; as much distance and disparate meaning between cloud-skewering armada and monkey as 2 separate journeys by different people in different lifetimes.

So where am I? Everywhere. Nowhere. Here. As much in-place, my pregnant belly bulging and breath puffing in the still heat, as I am anywhere else, eating strudel, pizza, swimming in Lake Burley Griffin, cleaning renovation dust from my home. I want to ‘have’ one of the monkeys for my daughter’s room; yet I would be dismantling an entity, my aesthetic lust colonising an entire landscape and history of negotations (each element already threaded through to its own invisible past time). A quandary of aesthetics and ethics; settling, thence unsettling. A strong, subtle, alluring work that leaves me tempted, teased and tantalised.

The Monkey Show, installation by Elizabeth Paterson, Car & Santa mechanised by Michael James & Mike MacGregor, Canberra Museum & Gallery window space, Civic Square, Canberra, Dec 15-Jan 27

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 27

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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