un Projects is based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation; we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
un Projects

Responding to Marion Harper: Restless Encounter


Marion Harper: Restless Encounter
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery 
18 May – 18 August 2024
KINGS x un Projects Emerging Writers Program

The seven paintings of Marion Harper: Restless Encounter at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery (MPRG) explore containment and adaptation — they question where we as forms begin and end. Disembodied, languid figures search, long and want to touch. They also balance, perch and wait — trapped and exhausted. I long for these bodies to find each other and the connections they seek. The seven paintings occupy the front gallery, inviting viewers into the MPRG space. The paintings display an assortment of body parts coming out of holes in cardboard boxes. Three paintings hang side by side on the back wall, they depict unhurried figures interacting with stacked boxes. The central painting of the three, Great deeds piece, is a replication of Charles Ray’s 1973 installation, Plank Piece. It is bookended by boxes merging with figures in swimming suits and caps reminiscent of French New Wave cinema with its characteristic absurdity. 

The disembodied figures in the paintings, all searching, longing and wanting, left me with questions around desire. Author and psychotherapist, Charlotte Fox Weber, discusses the exploration of our deep wants and the importance of finding what it is we truly desire. It is an electric spark which propels us into action and into the realm of possibility. As Weber had said, ‘desire is possibility. Energy. Motivation. Desires are the backdrop for action.’1 Desire is part of our very essence and the very substance that drives us forward. We move towards what we want – towards our passions.

What is in the box? Endless possibilities perhaps? Desires untold? Secrets? Hands reach out and fingertips touch skin — disembodied flesh. Is it their own or another’s? The longing and desire for connection? For a sense of self? Multiple shadows feature in the backgrounds of all of Harper’s seven paintings. Strong desires repressed and pushed down. Have they been turned into shame? Is this the shadow self asking to be seen and not forgotten? Brené Brown writes about shame at length. She recalls a story where a woman beside her asks what she is researching. In a low voice Brown said, ‘women and shame’ The woman misheard ‘women in chains’ and was most disappointed with the correction. It seems shame is taboo,  yet most of us experience it. Brown explains that ‘shame unravels our connection to others,’ and brings hope as ‘courage, empathy and compassion are critical components of shame resilience.’2 Harper's artist statement for MPRG reveals her exploration into the ‘emotional, psychological, and physical shifts we have when our bodies and environment change.’ Harper goes on to reflect on a friend’s accident which left him quadriplegic – an enforced stillness and disembodiment of the once known self. 

Boxes upon boxes are like small apartments. Human bodies form connections over balconies and across laneways, with voices drifting upwards and downwards between storeys. I ponder the stories of each box holding bodily forms — how they came to be there and where they hope to go. What is in the box? 

I imagine you as everything you are, Marion Harper, 2023, 120x140cm, oil on timber panel. Image courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.

In Harper’s painting, I imagine you to be everything you are, an orange box supports two figures. Across the right side of the box, a female body drapes over its side, her head and arms flow down. To the left of her hands, two legs protrude out of circular holes. To the right, bathed in light one cutout circle lays before the draped figure like a looking glass. 

Boxes upon boxes with soft appendages sticking out reminds me of the short film, The soft space (2018) directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz and Melanie J Scheiner. This film navigates the soft spaces of the human body against the New York City subway. Harper’s essay, Painting the restless space, refers to the 1947 experimental short film, Introspection directed by Sara Kathryn ArledgeThe film uses overlapping imagery, scale, perspective, coloured filters and negative film to isolate body parts. Hands, arms and whole bodies wrapped in lycra cut between overlapping images of a slowly turning head. What is in the box?

In Harper’s A misfit choreography, five limbs hang down out of three cardboard boxes that rest on a velvet blue floor. An arm stretches out to the tip of a finger. From edge to edge, no part of this painting has been under nourished; the dark blue shadows seem so tactile and luscious. The box itself is too narrow to hold a body, adding to the mystery of the world within. I might consider them to be props or prosthetics if it wasn’t for the bruised knee and the rawness on the leg scraped by the cardboards edge.

What is in the box? On the far wall of the gallery space you will find three paintings. MPRG Curator, Dunja Rmandic, explained these works were created especially for this exhibition. They were made during Harper's artist residency at Police Point, Point Nepean, on Boon Wurrung and Bunurong Country. The painting to the left, I am turning in all directions, depicts a female figure dressed in a black mid-century style bathing suit, complete with a decorative orange cap. The figure leans to her right and rests her forehead on a tower of four boxes in the corner of the room. The middle painting, Great deeds piece, depicts a limp figure being held up off the ground; they are supported, or pinned, against a wall by a tower of boxes. On the right At the tips of her toes, a leap, the female figure is no longer leaning on the tower of boxes; her stance is upright. She peers down into the belly of the cardboard boxes, all the way to the bottom. 

At the tips of her toes, a leap, Marion Harper, 2024, 100x85.5cm, oil on timber panel. Image courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.

Harper’s Swelling at intervals depicts seven yellow boxes in three piles. To the right stands the largest stack —legs dangle and knees bend from circular openings. From the left stack, arms lean out of a box bearing an orange square on one side and a thick, teal sash around its top edge. From a yellow box above, another arm hangs down. The shadowy fingertips of all three arms touch the dark circular openings around the knees of the neighbouring legs. A connection has been made through isolated parts — what will progress is their little secret.  

Boxes upon boxes are filled with their own inner worlds. Memories and thoughts stacked on top of one another. Peering down through the layers, what is seen? Imaginary worlds? The memories of people and places gathered through our life? Continuously connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting overtime. Strangers, old friends and people we once knew. In Wayfinding: the art and science of how we find and lose our way, Michael Bond talks about ‘mind maps’ and how our memory is subjective; the more significant a place is, the more it imprints on our memory.3 There was an experiment where Bond asked Parisians to draw a map of their city from memory. Common building structures and landmarks were present in each. Beyond the buildings, pathways and streets were details of secret places that were personal to each person. After laying the maps upon each other, a significant amount of Paris was present and correct.

A Misfit Choreography, Marion Harper, 2023, 120x140cm, oil on timber panel. Image courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.

What is in the box? Memories or possibilities? Connections made and remade over again. We rediscover ourselves and our place in the world. Our emotional growth continues and our definition of self grows with it. Ever changing. The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir had put forward that  there is no fixed, concrete, essence of ‘you.’4 Beauvoir’s famous line becomes a chant of possibility as ‘existence precedes essence;’ we exist on this earth as living beings and then we create our idea of ‘self.’ In this way, we are being remade over again.

Kannitha Lim is an interdisciplinary artist living and working on Bunurong Country. Kannitha is an emerging arts writer for the KINGS 2024 Emerging Writers Program. This will be Kannitha’s first published article and would like to thank Wen-Juenn Lee (mentor) and Emily Kostos (editor), KINGS ARI, un Projects, MPRG and the Frankston library staff for all their support and patience.

[1] Charlotte fox Weber, What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires, p. 307. ↩︎
[2] Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it wasn’t): Making the Journey from “What will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”, Avery an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, 2008, p. xxv. ↩︎
[3] Michael Bond, Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way, Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2020, p. 183. 
[4] Skye Cleary, How to be you: Simone de Beauvoir and the art of authentic living, Ebury Press, London, 2022

This piece is commissioned as part of the KINGS x un Projects Emerging Writers Program.

Supported by Creative Victoria and City of Melbourne.