why must a gown either creep or caress & not slip into both
These words, rendered delicately in pink and barely visible atop exposed aggregate and polished concrete flooring, graze my soles as I enter Hannah Gartside’s Fantasies at Ararat Gallery TAMA. Autumn Royal’s poetic response references a tag from a vintage nightie that Gartside has transformed:
Adorable Diamond Cut never creeps but caresses your body like a whispering breeze.
The artist undercuts this idealised claim through slashes, pricks, knots and points, transforming undergarments into bodily installations that expose the complexities of the feminine experience. Ghostly nighties celebrating sensual pleasure and tenderness become laced with traces of vulnerability.
Originally studying fashion and working in the costume department at the Queensland Ballet, Gartside has long been fascinated by the creative possibilities of garments, observing how ‘your hands become like ears; asking what is the potentiality in the material? What can I do with it physically, technically, emotionally?’ Her answer is to breathe new life into found garments, with care for their physical condition, lived memories and for the environment (by minimising the consumerist footprint of her studio practice). Her pieces are at home in the newly rebranded Ararat Gallery TAMA, which boasts the largest collection of textile art in regional Australia.
Upon entering the space, the eye is cast upwards from Royal’s words towards Ascension III (Peach, pink, lemon, yellow) (2019), a site-specific tower of dissected and re-formed nightgowns that traverse the height of the ceiling alongside a concrete pillar in the Gallery foyer. In doing so, Gartside reimagines the solid structural features of this institution as a soft space of comfort.
Further into the space, visitors encounter New Terrain (2016), a billowing sheath of 1960s pink petticoat lace trim spliced together into hexagonal shapes. Reminiscent of bed quilts, this tessellated work evokes comfort, warmth, intimacy and subconscious longings. The pointed cones at each hexagon’s centre reference breasts, as symbols of nurturing and queer desire, yet their spikey tips curving up to meet the viewer hesitate advancing caresses, creating an abrupt harshness protecting these delicate lacy forms.
Visitors are invited to retreat into The Sleepover (2018), a nearby mass of ascending pastel slip dresses shredded at the waist to form ethereal portals of colour that dissolve into each other when walked through. This act is delightfully sensorial yet unsettling; an intrusive navigation of absent bodies. The garments create spectral shadows across the walls, emphasising their ephemeral state of being. Reciprocate care is entrusted to visitors entering this intimate space of bodily undergarments, recognising the respect expected in relationships between friends, lovers and between viewer and artwork. Indeed, Gartside supports her internal well-being through these tangible installations of sensation:
Offering physical spaces that re-frame the physical world in a way that makes sense for me is deeply comforting.
In contrast to free-flowing tendrils in The Sleepover, Ascension I (Angels) (2018–2019) features three nighties cut into strips from hem to bust, each strip splayed out and individually knotted to the ground, emphasising the fullness of the fabric. About to relinquish their bonds and take flight towards the light streaming through the window, the angels draw the visitor’s gaze skyward. Throughout Fantasies the artist encourages this hopeful body posture, invoking a wishful openness to transcendental powers, whether they be godly, or through connecting with oneself or others.
Michaela Bear is a Naarm-based emerging arts writer and curator interested in interdisciplinary forms of exhibition-making that coalesce art, design, architecture, fashion, music and dance.