The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver transforms the TarraWarra galleries as though light were cast upon them for the first time. Visiting this exhibition rewards as an architectural as well an artistic experience, creating an abundant space of precise shadows that invite exploration.
Across three decades, Bronwyn Oliver (1959-2006) created a highly disciplined body of work. Her early pieces prefer materials that diffuse light and slow movements, softening the gaze with paper, fibreglass, tissue, resin and cane. Her latter pieces, the bulk of her oeuvre, work with copper, a highly pliable material that’s rewarding to the maker’s touch, and whose oxidation and patination can take many forms. These sculptures – open vessels, mathematically precise yet recognisably natural – are containers of light and air, reconfiguring the space around them.
Each work, seemingly inert, draws you near and around and beside: the sculpture as moving image. Installed with great care, observing the artist’s intention that each work present as lit only by the one source of light, casting a clearly defined shadow whose form is no afterthought and whose value is inseparable from that of the work.
The language Oliver uses to describe her own work is formal, yet adventurous. She describes the structure of her work as linguistic, as crafting sentences, as writing poetry. She speaks of structure as subject, structure in nature, and order in chaos. In her own analysis of the artist’s approach, exhibition curator Julie Ewington extends Oliver’s account to one of the movements of her own body at work: the artist’s body at work as both energy and structure. For me, however, it is the body of the viewer – my own body – whose movement animates the work and the space.
Oliver’s Siren (1986) draws me close in all of these ways. Siren greets me as I enter the gallery: its chalky shell of curling folds catching my eye, inviting me to walk around the form and towards the darkness of its opening. Ostensibly a gigantic shellform crafted from paper, fibreglass and cane, the work’s gentle curves gape ever so slightly yet ever so deeply. As I bend at the waist to peer inside, white becomes pink, light becomes diffuse, and then, arousing my imagination further, at the gaping form’s internal fold little follicles stand delicately on end, and I gasp.
Along the museum’s narrow gallery, set with slender long windows emulating the human form gazing out across the valley, small works capture the light in beautiful series: Oliver’s maquette for a Centenary of Women’s Suffrage piece (2002, never realised); her maquette for the Owen Dixon Chambers work (2002); her maquette for Seed (1997). Unlike the larger pieces which are professionally fabricated to the artist’s specifications, it is in each of these models that we see the hand of the maker, and it is through each of these that we see the local landscape anew. Structure in nature: on oblong plinths at eye level, each work reconfigures the window’s view with the intense magnification of a crystal ball, a detective’s glass, a Theremin of light. Across from these pieces, majestic in its form, Two Rings (2006) sits outside the gallery and peers back in at us, reminding us that the museum’s walls are themselves containers of light and air, open to the world.
It is the thought of what the gallery is, does and makes possible that occupies my mind in the hours that follow my first experience of the show. My critique tends towards the structural and post-structural, with a focus on the body that is decidedly feminist. The sensing body, the listening body, the inert body, the active body. The body – the entire body – as the site of reception for the impact of the work of art. And yet, after experiencing this show, my response feels spatial, casting the body as just one element in the complexity of relationships that makes for a most glorious simplicity.
In the same way that the performance space is a demanding engineering challenge, the gallery is a demanding architectural challenge. The architect of the performance space designs a darkness for the inert body: a space of silence that will focus the body with great acoustic and visual clarity on that one space defined as the stage. The nature of performance is of course more complex than that, with live art and other experimental practices demanding more and more of the audience body, yet always against the familiar tradition of the black box.
The gallery, on the other hand, presents objects for moving bodies, accommodating a constantly changing choreography of slowly receptive curiosity, confusion and delight. As we explore each work, we ourselves inhabit the space with our own temporary exhibition of facial expression and involuntary gesture. Rather than being seated in the dark, our bodies perform those explorations and their responses. And just like the black box, the white cube persuades us, in being present, to observe a silence.
Oliver’s forms refuse to sit still, animating their spaces with light, shadow and movement. In guiding our movements across their space, they transform TarraWarra Museum of Art into a performance space – and one that rewards return visits.
All works ©Estate of Bronwyn Oliver. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. All photography by Esther Anatolitis.
HEADER IMAGE: Bronwyn Oliver, Women’s Suffrage maquette (2002)