Tales of the Unexpected
Aspects of contemporary Australian art
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I understand the necessary image.
I don’t understand photography.
Idea is everything.
The image exists in relation to the idea.
Beauty is useless.
It is endlessly desired and entirely useless.
When necessary – exploit beauty – to give the image that which is necessary.
Composition is crap.
When necessary – exploit composition – to trap the gaze of the viewer into the idea.
The image must live.
It must have a life beyond the problematics of the image itself.
The most inspiring image ever made is Nauman’s Failing to levitate in the studio.
It is everything to do with the crucial paradox of the artist’s intention.
It reveals that the inherent failure of all images is essential to the process,
and, that the images finished along the way never complete the necessary idea.
Flight sits in our consciousness as a kind of fantasy or dream. It is a metaphorical notion. Children dream of flying. It is a very escapist notion to be able to fly. Superheroes fly. Then you’ve got Yves Klein’s Leap into the void. I was interested in unfettering the body from the mechanics of flight.2
Rosemary Laing’s photographs are theatrical, staged, performative – suspended midway between fantasy and reality. In her work, she renders the seemingly impossible possible – not through digital manipulation but rather through deliberate, physical interventions. Her canny take on Bruce Nauman’s Failing to levitate in the studio as revealing the essential paradox of the artist’s intention, is given a witty, poignant twist in her levitating images of a bride flying, falling and floating in space, in the flight research series 1998–2000.
Here, the empowerment of flight has everything to do with the artist’s intention, informed over a period of time by intensive research into the mechanics of flight and the desire to overcome the limitations of ‘prosthetic structures’ of travel in relation to the body. It is about giving substance to the impossibility of the dream of human flight, and the enabling of the body in space. Along with the realisation of the liberated body, comes a sense of the ‘necessary incompletion’ of the idea – of flight with no landing; the images remaining forever held in time and space.
Laing’s fascination with flight began when she moved to a studio in Leichardt, Sydney under the flight path, around 1994. From the initial frustrations she felt with the omnipresence of transit above her head, she became seduced by the ideas around air travel, generating a complex body of art. The process included working with Qantas at the international flight terminal (brownwork 1997); later entering into the intricate machinations of space travel through a period of research at NASA. Subsequently in Laing’s video, spin 1997–98, we are taken into the motion of flight – as the photographer, strapped into an open-air Tiger Moth aircraft, films the action of flying, diving, stalling and spinning over the Blue Mountains.
spin is the precursor to the flight research series. Laing spent considerable time finding the right location in the Blue Mountains to stage the series. To create these images she worked closely initially with stunt coordinator, Grant Page, and then more closely with stunt performer, Gillian Statham, both of whom have long histories in the making of significant action films in Australia. Laing was interested in the limitations placed on the body in our daily lives and engaged in fruitful discussions with Page about fearlessness and the way that the stunt person’s body is brought into a direct, unmediated interaction with the world, engendering a sense of ‘euphoria, empowerment and even relief’.
I had a very interesting conversation with Grant Page (who had been helping me to work out various issues in relation to the stunt) which led me to think more about physical atrophy. The more one’s experience is mediated and enabled in another way, the more a certain defunctionalising happens. You don’t actually walk anywhere as much – so you are always experiencing the world through, for example, the screen of a car or through the television screen.3
In flight research #1 1998, a woman is suspended from a twisting ladder hanging down from an aircraft over a verdant, ‘primordial terrain’. Against the danger of falling, she gazes resolutely up towards an uncertain future. In the ensuing images she is transformed into a world beyond the everyday, dressed in a bridal gown, becoming acrobatic, leaping into the void. Her body is shown undergoing extreme motion, ‘actually suspended within “flight” itself’ – between the earth and the immensity of all that is out there’. In one of the most spectacular images, flight research #5 1999, the bride appears mesmerising, like a billowing cloud floating in the expansive blue sky. As in flight research #6 1999–2000, in which she is diving swan-like across the panoramic landscape, the bride appears paradoxically, eerily still – as if time and motion have been suspended.
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Only days before the photographic shoot, Laing decided upon the idea of a bridal gown. She recognised that to achieve what she was aiming for, she needed to enter the realms of a representational form which would provoke recognition that was outside of the ordinary. The serendipity of finding a gown that invoked Elizabethan memories was not lost on the artist. It provided a way of reclaiming the feminine image of the bride from the many male interpretations of the subject in 20th-century art history and having fun with it on her own terms. On another level the dress was a significant aspect of bringing another layer of complexity to the series: taking into account past histories in Australia and the need for ‘a symbolic new engagement in terms of how we image ourselves in this landscape at this point in time’. As opposed to previous incursions and impositions on the land, she suggests a ritualistic new ‘contract’ that is more open-ended; still precarious perhaps but one that implies, in her own words, ‘the optimism of promises that should be kept’.
Whatever ecstatic moments or tribulations may lie ahead for the bride is part of another tale or fabrication. In this poetically charged, unforgettable flight research series, we remain suspended within the imaginary world of flight – within the realms of the body liberated in space, within the flow of freewheeling possibilities and untrammelled wonder.
Alexander, post natural nature > rosemary laing Artlink, vol.21, no.4, Dec 2001, pp.18–23
French, Blair 'Rosemary Laing', in A place I've never been to (ex. cat.), Croation Photographic Union, Zagreb, 2000
Michael, Linda 'Rosemary Laing', in Das lied von der erde/the song of the earth (ex. cat.), Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany, 2000, pp.90–91
Stoops, Susan. L Staged! Contemporary Photography: Gregory Crewson, Rosemary Laing, Sharon Lockhart (ex. cat.), 2002