Artists: Grace Ferguson, Emma Phillips, Trevor Santos and Annika Koops
Curator: Josephine Mead
Coming to Naarm/Melbourne from Western Australia, a trip to the ocean does not feel like an item to tick off a list of things to savour; instead, it became a marginally experienced activity during the warmer months. Victorians have their park picnics, while for those in Boorloo/Perth, ocean dips are entwined in their social fabric. Living in the inner suburbs of Naarm, a trip to a local pool or creek that doesn’t involve a hair-pulling and traffic-fuelled road trip will suffice rather than a dip into the cheerful crystal waters of west coast beaches, experiences that I certainly took for granted.
At the time of writing, I have not experienced the pull of the ocean in over nine months. It was just before the start of the year that I immersed myself in a body of water that wasn’t a bath. As my partner has moved away to take up an international job opportunity, writing an exhibition review revolving around salt and love – two subjects, one material and one immaterial – seems quite fitting during a period of personal change.
Both love and salt – reminders of home and cherished individuals that live far away from me – wistfully intertwine in Salt + Loving; Halophile, a virtual exhibition that Naarm-based curator, writer and artist Josephine Mead has curated as part of BLINDSIDE’s online exhibition program, BLINDSIDE Mobile.
Salt + Loving; Halophile is a poetic examination of relationships that include and transcend the hegemony of romantic love between a human to (one other) human. We are presented with a deep dive into the intimacies of relationships between bodies and phenomena. Mead tenderly weaves a lyrical essay, a love letter to the ocean, about the intricacies of love between two beings. The essay sifts through gelatin silver prints by Emma Phillips, a score by composer Grace Ferguson, a dance film by artist Trevor Santos, and a digital video by artist Annika Koops.
The webpage format of the exhibition displays Mead’s writing as an immutable component that must be read chronologically, documenting an enmeshed relationship amongst two entities where its beauty lies in its unintelligibility. Mead references the tangibility of salt through sensory perception in relation to the immeasurable limits of the ocean to map out trajectories in the relationship, placed between the intentionally curated works in the exhibition. In opposition to the imperceivable vastness of the ocean floor and surface, salt is an indispensable item on most kitchen shelves, granules of salt are separated individually by one’s fingers, and salt is a central component of many cultural rites and rituals.
The lyrical journey of the experience of love that Mead crafts acquaints the reader with the conflicting emotions and feelings that love provides when it sweeps one up in its limitless expanse. These feelings are sometimes narrowed down to the stinging sensation of salt when rubbed on a wound. We read about the beginnings, tensions, triumphs, and the relationship’s incision into the memory of another from the narrator’s point of view.
As I read through Mead’s writing, again and again, I enter a relationship between myself and the omniscient narrator. This relationship begins with a description of a crush: “There is something comforting in the notion that part of me dies”; obsession and resulting feelings of embarrassment surrounding it: “(…) just scrub it off; coalesce love with salt; just scrub it off” and acceptance: “I cast aside my greatest fears and welcomed you in my life”. Mead then embarks on an elegiac reflection on how love manifests through various forms.
I am drawn to Grace Ferguson’s ‘poikilos’, a multi-instrumental piano and electronic melody that plays for four minutes and forty-one seconds. The tune starts with the pensive sound of piano keys aurally illustrating the placid movements of surf repeatably caressing the shore. Like the turbulence of choppy water, the tune increases in intensity and then ebbs to an almost silence. The trills crescendo into sonorous bursts of energy that repeat themselves, reverberating from soft to energetic and back again. The tune fluctuates between sounding thunderous, reminiscent of an angry swell, and subtle, concluding with a dulcet and lingering coda. The choice for Mead to curate Ferguson’s tune in the exhibition is appropriate, as the tune’s billowing harmonies compare to a common experience that people in relationships have trouble admitting – that sometimes one’s love for their significant other may fluctuate in intensity over time. The undulating rhythms of Ferguson’s tune serve as a bittersweet reminder that these feelings are natural, like the cycles of the tide.
The title of the track, poikilos, is a biblical-origin Greek word meaning ‘variegated’ or ‘varied’. In tune with Mead’s interlacing of biological terminologies into her essay, a poikilotherm is an organism with a body temperature that cannot be self-regulated. A poikilotherm, or a cold-blooded animal, are at constant risk of suffering from changes in temperature as their metabolisms are wholly dependent on environmental stability. Their body temperatures oscillate considerably and are passive in relation to their surroundings. In contrast, the halophile – the microorganism listed in the exhibition title – exhibits resilience by surviving in exclusively hypersaline environments. Mead’s following passage, in similarity with the extreme adaptability of the halophile, reflects on how devotion in relationships between humans and higher powers are used as coping mechanisms to remain resilient in difficult situations.
Annika Koops’s Torrent (2021) follows Mead’s next passage centring on love in the form of religious devotion. Torrent and Mead’s passage preceding it both feature the same lyric from a religious hymn. Koops’s video features a slowed-down edit of two lines from the same hymn. We see a beaker, shrouded in darkness, attached to a ring stand that Koops has rendered in front of a black screen. The screen illuminates to show the movements of a rhythmic gymnast. Her movements are obscured by the refraction of the glass while the tune of a hum, plays in the background. We do not see details of the gymnast’s body, seeing her face in the reflection of the video on the beaker stand for a split second. A light switches off, and we see the darkened beaker again before the screen fades to black.
The devotion to one’s craft of gymnastics and the devotion to knowledge is shown through Koops’s superimposition of a scientific instrument on the gymnast’s body. Both the beaker and the gymnast are homages to passion, where in resemblance to religious worship, both require heightened amounts of discipline. Like love, a deity is an abstract and intangible concept that has been historically relied upon to provide sustenance. Yet, love can lead someone to look the other way – as referred to in Mead’s text down the page about how relationships can be damaged by wandering eyes: “…gaze beyond the gymnast’s body, I am more than just mere trickery”. Koops’s and Phillips’s works both feature the bodies of athletes engaged in the spirit of dance. Untitled (Synchronised Dancers) shows two dancers, side-by-side in motion, their faces obscured by movement. The portrait documents a rhythmic relationship between these dancers, based on mutual trust in order to achieve the task of performing identical movements. Their relationship as synchronic movement consumes the physical space around their bodies.
One’s immediate relationship with space can also imply the presence of another, seen in Trevor Santos’s dance film In Other Words (2021), The film features Santos’s muscular body in rhythmic motion, his sensual stop-start movements illuminated against a dimly lit backdrop resembling the moon’s soft yellow tinges, sound-tracked by a pleasant lo-fi beat. Santos’s movements vary from tender to frenzied, mirroring the cacophony of emotional states one encounters when in love. To quote Aotearoa-based academic Peter Murphy in his essay The Dance of Love (2003): “Dance is a synthesis of the intimate and the public. The dance brings lovers (who only have eyes for each other) together in a public realm.” 1 Murphy’s quote encapsulates the many gestures Santos forms towards the invisible being that is depicted as existing in the space that Santos invites us to share with him. The gesturing towards another presence reveals moments of surrender and tension, excellently captured in Mead’s preceding paragraph. Santos’s movements teeter towards the edge of completion yet remain incomplete - indicating the presence of secrets that only himself and his lover know of.
Scrolling down the page, we view more images by photographer Emma Phillips. All of Phillips’s monochromatic images in the exhibition ruminate on the multifaceted nature of relationships. The exhibition’s haunting header image, Untitled (Seascape), pictures an image of the ocean from above, reflecting the ambiguities of what shared futures can hold. Phillips’s images bear hints of mystery where context is unexplained, leaving the viewer inquisitive for more information. Mead has intentionally placed these images in order to give context to her writing, providing a visual narrative to the impalpable character of the meta-relationship that is the exhibition’s backbone.
Untitled (family portraits in living room) captures the depth and sensitivity of familial love. This pictured loungeroom scene presents a domestic portrait of generational memory, where an eclectic array of framed images, some hung neatly and some hung crookedly, reveals fragments of unconditional love that close-knit families have for one another. The longevity of coupledom is captured in the matching armchairs, which gives strength to Mead’s paragraph below. The paragraph details schisms between two entities regarding the pushes and pulls of their love for one another while touching on longing, lust and mutual understanding.
Untitled (cave pillar) depicts a log jutting into a pillar of stone, presenting a stark snapshot of existing relationships between humans and nature. Mead hints at notions of human control over nature in the following paragraph, where she alludes to the manipulation of nature in relation to mania, or obsessive love. The relationship that humanity holds with nature, in reference to the capitalistic Western exploitation of the natural world for profit, is explored as a type of obsessive love with dangerous consequences: “Nourish me and corrode me. Wrap me in excess and tell me nothing. Confuse me with your image.” However, as love and salt are intertwined in Mead’s poetical world, nature has the upper hand – where it can sustain or deplete the ability of humans to survive: “Salt can be used for nourishment or punishment. It gives and takes away.”
Phillips’s Untitled (Kid with broken arm at Frankston Pier) depicts a bandaged youth squinting as the sun hits his face. Acts of care, reflective of Mead’s wider artistic practice exploring conceptions of support, are present within the documented interpersonal relationships in Phillips’s images of the gymnasts and the salon-hang-styled portraits in her portrait of the living room. The writing on the cast is unclear, yet the tender act of wrapping a wound is indicative of notions of care, whether it be a parent-child or doctor-patient relationship. Untitled (black eye) touches upon what may occur when relationship dynamics turn abusive. A man with a black eye casts a solemn stare into the camera lens. This unforgiving portrait of violence presents a much more sinister narrative that us, as viewers, will never know. The man’s gaze, with one eye open and one eye shrouded by a bruise, weaves effortlessly into Mead’s narrative in the following paragraph through her metaphorical depictions of conflict and resolution, encouraging reflection on the viewer’s behalf on how inflicted harm is portrayed on an exterior level, and what is left unsaid.
The solitary experience of reading Mead’s affectionate ode to the rolling seas leaves me feeling poignant. I am simultaneously contemplating the next time where I too can experience the ocean’s brackish kisses and when I am able to be reunited my partner. The reality of this exhibition is only possible through the mediated encounter between the eyes and a screen, where Mead’s passage concludes with a meditation of the cyclical nature of love and remembrance. Our experiences of love, no matter how big or small, pleasant or painful, are etched in our memories for perpetuity. It is obvious, but Mead’s writing rings true: love is remembered forever, and relationships take time, effort and work to last.
As the world’s largest ocean separates me from my partner, I am comforted in my swaying melancholic moods through Mead’s reflection on how love engraves lasting sensations within the crevices of one’s consciousness, to quote: “I cannot always locate the meeting points of our desire, but can feel the imprint of your skin on mine”. A card from my partner is blu-tacked on the wardrobe to my left, and a dazzling display of pastel flowers that he delivered to me sits in a mason jar on my desk to my right. The card reads: “Stay strong, my baby.” I then imagine my body being embraced by a breaker wave, allowing the heaviness of my feelings to wash all over me. It will all be okay.
Matthew (Matt) Siddall is a writer, emerging curator and arts worker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Matt has published essays for Caliper Journal, Moana Project Space, the Duldig Studio, the University of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne and more.
In 2018, he became a co-founder and co-director of Cool Change Contemporary, a multi-gallery artist-run-initiative in Perth. Previously, Siddall was a co-director of Moana Project Space from 2017 until 2019, where he co-curated ‘It Is a Long Time Since This Moment’ as part of the Unhallowed Arts Festival. He co-curated ‘silences between ticks of a clock’, with Karl Halliday at George Paton Gallery, the University of Melbourne in February 2020. Matt completed an MA in Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne in 2020. Matt lives and works on the stolen land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. Sovereignty was never ceded.
This text was commissioned through the Emerging Writers’ Program. An annual collaborative project, from KINGS and un Projects, that supports critical arts writing, fiction, poetry, experimental, cross-genre and digital text forms. The Emerging Writers’ Program provides professional publishing opportunities and fosters dialogue between artists and arts writers. Each emerging writer in the program receives critical feedback and editorial assistance from KINGS and un Projects personnel.
In 2022, the KINGS Artist-Run Emerging Writer’s Program is supported by Creative Victoria through their Sustaining Creative Workers initiative.