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Un Magazine 7.2

Memory is not a recording device: on Eliza Hutchison’s Hair in the Gate, a biograph

Helen Johnson

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2/27

Article

Eliza Hutchison, <em>Senna’s death, Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrai, 1994</em>, 2012–3, inkjet print, 36.5 × 54.8 cm, courtesy the artist and Murray White Room

A decision can be comprised of a series of moments over a stretch of time, without any of those moments in themselves constituting the decision as such. A month might pass, and at the end of it you find yourself feeling sure of something, a turn in the path hitherto unconceived. To look back through time after such a shift is to see another side to certainty, realising later that something was long ago lost, or that you underwent a betrayal without even realising it. I once heard Betty Churcher speaking about the lace in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656, questioning whether people from cultures other than that which produced the lace would themselves be able to perceive, from looking at Velázquez’s painting, the particular qualities of that lace, which for the Spanish reside so confidently in the economy of the brush marks. This question, or at least its form, is a hallmark of Australia’s cultural condition. We are the ones who don’t apprehend the lace, but what we see instead has a different sort of meaning. We bring things in, embrace them, attach them to our idea of ourselves, not able to know how much or how little we truly perceive or understand, like an embrace of one’s teenage child. There is room for meaning to be made there. The slippage, the misapprehension is a very important form of cultural production on this continent, a reshaping force.

How often does one’s imagination step in to furnish the nuances of a moment that occurred in another place or time, such that it might be mulled over, interpreted, responded to? In part it requires the mind to manufacture a sense of conviction that all the details are there if you only choose to look, the way you can flick through a novel in a dream and believe that its content is available in full.

I heard a woman on the radio, talking about how memory is not a recording device, but a series of narrative strands, for which ‘truth’ is not the priority. Where does experience lie then: in the occurrence or in its recollection, the residue that is retained? Things get levelled out. Did I experience that, or dream it? Or see it in a film?

Eliza Hutchison’s photographs engage narratives, but their entry into those narratives is not linear. Their rule of narrative is not linearity but displacement. There is a fragment of a metaphor for Hutchison’s images in the fact that most digital cameras fake the sound of the analogue shutter release, even on smart phones where there can be no illusion of such a mechanism being physically contained within the apparatus. It doesn’t matter that there is no actual mechanism behind the sound, its function has migrated from the mechanistic to the psychological. I suppose we require the sense of closure it offers. It is a welcome illusion, an anachronism translated that it might be brought along. Hutchison’s images are not so friendly or welcome, but they inhabit a similar form of representation, an extraction and displacement, a new housing that gestures towards a prior one. The sound of the shutter release is a form detached from content, but Hutchison’s images, if they perform a similar formal procedure, do so for the sake of their content. Frozen out of the morass and taken beyond what they seek to represent, they repeat for us a process of at once separating out and blurring as a means of coming tangentially at the unspeakable.

Hutchison picks up tangles through time in Hair in the Gate, a biograph, a body of photographic work that has been ongoing since 2012. She coaxes, draws out moments from the knots, though what is drawn out is not presented baldly but allowed to retain uncertainty, encouraged into distortion. It is not a matter of undoing in order to fix, but of opening spaces of evocation, a testimony to ungraspability and the importance of keeping it alongside, of not presuming that things can be so easily resolved.

Hutchison’s photographs offer up punctured moments, wrested from long and complex threads and contained in abstraction the way an ocean fish might be contained in a bucket of salt water: they might appear at rest but they are brooding, straining quietly towards the expanse that completes them. Hutchison’s work is not about the character of the subject, but about seeking to contain moments whose complexity is uncapturable, that we might on some level encounter them. The subject of a given photograph is not so much present as engulfed or injected. These photographs do not constitute a platform for the exploration of subjecthood.

Though the work is intensely visual, the apprehension to be derived from it is not observed but felt. It is felt in the slipperiness of the moments held, in their refusal to settle into isolation. It does not concern identity, but is about a means by which identity can be thrown into crisis. We require such crises at times, to crack open the veneer of public presentation to which we grow accustomed through saturation. At other times the crisis descends unwanted.

Eliza Hutchison, <em>Helter Skelter No 1, August 8, 1969</em>, 2012, pigment print, 36.5 × 64.6 cm, courtesy the artist and Murray White Room

In Australia, we struggle to insist on identity even as we are engulfed by the unrepresentable. I feel that this is a condition of being Australian. The moment we believe we have defeated the unrepresentable is the moment we have once again failed, retreating into construct only to await the next encroachment. Hutchison’s work is a reminder that consciousness is a brittle mantle, beneath which rests a leaden mass, beneath which swims the unconscious, a mercurial promise unable and unwilling to be perceived, yet determining our apprehension of the world, and our actions.

Azaria Chamberlain disappeared in 1980, but the press was gnawing on the story again in 1986 when her matinee jacket was found. The ABC had dropped the Majestic Fanfare theme from the TV news by then, though they still play it on Radio National hourly, reassuringly. A transport device back to childhood. ‘Lindy Free’ read the news headline, above a headshot of the young mother, brow furrowed, squinting in the Northern Territory sunlight as she is led from prison. There remains an air of suspicion in the newsreader’s tenor, reluctant to let go of the murder myth because it still has power. The evil angel, coming once more to light. Lindy had been 32 years old when she lost Azaria, and it was not until 32 years after the disappearance that the coroner finally ruled that Azaria’s death was due to a dingo. Somehow Australia felt uglier than usual that day. All the grief and shame of the misaccusation seemed to bubble up to the surface.

Hutchison has given her photograph of Chamberlain, drawn from a 1980 press image, its subject’s full name. Alice Lynne Chamberlain, as she would have been referred to in the court proceedings. Half of her face emerges, a young mother, blunt fringe and downcast eyes. We are given enough to recognise, and the rest is swept away in a loose gesture by a distorting force that does not pretend to be anything other, in contradistinction to the insinuating strategies of the media. Hutchison’s image of Chamberlain is sombre, though other photographs in the series sweep you into the romance of their aesthetic, rich and seductive and ambiguous, until the title tells you: Senna’s death; The Mourners, Culver City; Helter Skelter.

The mode of presentation is crucial to the production of meaning in this body of work: juxtaposed with Chamberlain’s accusation and Tate’s murder are images of Hutchison’s own children, including one of a howling newborn, 57 seconds old. In another, Somers, a child wags her finger through the slipped lens that mediates this whole body of work to varying degrees, the image remaining clear enough in this instance to discern an expression of impish intent. The images shift places and proximities with each successive hang, those loaded with intensity interspersed with others that are more quiet and oblique: a thicket of bamboo in Darlinghurst, a blue spruce in Montrose. The body of work does not come to rest in presentation, but is continually reiterated from space to space, growing all the while. To date it has been presented at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Murray White Room.

Eliza Hutchison, <em>Polanski and Tate, Saintes Maries-de-la-mer No 2, 1969</em>, 2012, pigment print, 36.5 × 64.6 cm, courtesy the artist and Murray White Room

Sometimes one has the sense of something having happened as a series of fragments, rather than holding it in one’s mind as a narrative. No pretense of coherency. I am thinking about this as I loop and sweep down Benedict Canyon Drive in Los Angeles, in the ridiculous Cadillac SUV that the hire car company has given me. Rihanna’s Diamonds is pumping through the speakers, 100.9 The Heat has it on heavy rotation. Diamonds normalises narrative incongruity as a representational form. Shattered residues and consequences of unknown events flit in and out of the timeline. The filmclip has its own flow but is not sequentially logical: Rihanna smoking up diamonds. A hand floating in water. Running down a highway into the night. Close-ups and fleeting glimpses, an emphatic resistance of overview. A Zabriskie Point-esque dispersal of matter. A horse rears, in the next scene it lies on the ground. A burning rose. Posed like Billie Holliday, Rihanna squeezes out a single tear. A vast body of water, a raging fire. We feel as though we are being led, but not along a narrative continuum; rather there is a sense of being irrigated with spurts of affect. I feel a similar sense in Eliza’s work, though it does not force itself upon the viewer in the same way. It does comprise a collision of experiences and apprehensions that, when turned back out into the world, resists narrative reconciliation. The fundamental difference is that in Diamonds the collision takes place in a reified subject that becomes its teleology, where Hutchison’s photographs slip the net of such a rationalisation. They come out of the artist, but they don’t lead insistently back to her.

Back in the SUV, I recall Hutchison’s nauseating images of Sharon Tate’s murdered, pregnant body as I turn into Cielo Drive, cruising part of the way towards the site where Tate and Polanski’s house once stood, the house where Tate was stabbed to death. Vertiginously distorted, but still discernible, Tate’s limbs, her fresh red blood. What are they doing here, these images, in amongst the personal, the local of this artist’s life experience? And why, in trying to make sense of this, am I coming as close as I can to the actual site of the occurrence? It is not as though this is a place for homage. It is a private road, inaccessible to the public. Trent Reznor, the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, owned the Polanski/Tate house for a while. You get the impression he thought it was pretty cool at first, like he inhabited a piece of something real. Then he realised how much heavier the whole thing was than his fickle fantasy. He moved out, taking the front door with him. The next owner had the house demolished, and built a new one with a different street number. The only remaining trace of the house is the electricity pole where Charlie’s brother cut the wires. I suppose events like the Manson murders persist in image as much as they persist in space. More so. People all over the place swim around in their horror and intensity.

When we encounter media representations of occurrences that are both outside, and affective upon our lived experience, we are accustomed to being fed a narrative about the actions of the individuals involved, a reconciled dramatisation. This is a dangerous mechanism insofar as it furnishes an illusion of resolve and containment. Hutchison, conversely, uses photography, the medium most closely associated with representation today, to deal with unrepresentability. In the process she complicates our understanding of what representation actually means, making available to the viewer a littoral zone from whence the abyss of the unspeakable becomes discernible, not as something defined and able to be contemplated, but as something that threatens to grab hold.

Helen Johnson is a visual artist and a writer. Based in Melbourne, she is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University.