Kathy Temin by Geraldine Barlow

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

We build monuments to stand for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. Reliably solid and durable they speak through time as markers of memory. The child of European emigrants, her father a Holocaust survivor, the monument is a key focus of Kathy Temin’s artistic practice. What can be remembered and what cannot, what is personal and what is shared, how solid and certain must they be, and can they offer comfort?

Temin’s installation My Monument: White Forest 2008 draws us into her own personal language of memory and memorial. Like an attachment object, or a child’s security blanket, the surfaces here are soft and furry, not hard. We walk into a wondrous white ‘forest’ of abstract trees, surrounded by the landscape rather than looking up to a solid, single sculptural statement on a plinth. As well as beauty, there is a sense of fun, play and humour: we can take the left path or the right, we can explore. This is a very different kind of monument.

Since the 1990s Temin has worked with synthetic fur, creating sculptures that bring softer, more feminine qualities to the heroic, masculine languages of commemoration in art and architecture. Hoping to ‘reinscribe modernist work with what it so obviously denied—history, memory and decoration’,(1) she subverts the cool seriousness of modernist aesthetic strategies, the use of serial repetition or monochrome colour, adding bulbous protuberances and playing with juxtapositions of texture. Her work creates unexpected links between high and low culture, art history and feminine craft, kitsch and mourning.

My Monument: White Forest scales up Temin’s earlier works, offering an opportunity to enter a fantastical, abstracted space. Her monument is an enclosed garden, of sorts. Nothing is natural here, the characters in this Wedgwood landscape each have their own quixotic personality—stacked roly‑poly blobs stand to attention beside shaggy cones and tall ribbed fingers. They might seem an unruly cast, but together conform to a larger order.

If we could view Temin’s work from above, we would recognise the form of a cross. As visitors, we can choose to walk the path between the trees or sit quietly at the periphery and glimpse others as they pass through the forest. Medieval mazes were built to similar designs; to walk the path was both a puzzle and an invitation to metaphysical thought. Temin looks to a much darker point in her personal family history. Before making the work, she visited a number of former Nazi concentration camps and was surprised at the beauty of their surrounding landscapes.

My Monument: White Forest is a memorial that beckons inwards, rather than projecting histories outwards. One feels encapsulated in white fur and protected within the clean, modern spaces of the gallery; there is a pleasure in being caught in the maze, hidden from the world beyond. Temin’s installation seeks to honour past traumas while caring for those who must remember them.

(1) Natalie King, ‘Interview with Kathy Temin: October 1997’, in The Seppelt Contemporary Art Award 1997, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1997, p 28.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Barlow, Geraldine. "Kathy Temin" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 342-343

GERALDINE KIRRIHI BARLOW is Curatorial Manager, International Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Kathy Temin appears in