Mikala Dwyer by Helen Hughes

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Square cloud compound 2010 is a meditation on themes of imprisonment and escape. Mikala Dwyer developed the work during a six‑month residency on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. Dwyer didn’t simply research Cockatoo Island at a distance, by Googling it or reading books. Rather, she spent these months on the island absorbing its histories through different channels—opening herself up, as it were, to ‘all the ghosts of Cockatoo’.(1)

The Eora people travelled to Cockatoo Island over millennia for ceremonial, hunting and fishing purposes. In the mid‑nineteenth century, as part of the violent project of colonisation, the island was transformed into a dockyard and site of punishment for recidivist convicts. In 1869, when these convicts were removed to Darlinghurst Gaol, the penal settlement was turned into an industrial school for orphaned girls and a reformatory for female juvenile law offenders. The inmates were deprived of food and water, locked in cells for long hours, forced to sleep on the raw earth, and subject to a range of other abuses. These young and rebellious female ghosts in particular haunt Square cloud compound, along with the tale of Mary Ann Bugg, the Indigenous bushranger who, it is said, helped her lover Frederick Ward escape his confines on the Island in 1863.

The ‘prison’ of Square cloud compound is an impossible, imaginary architecture: interconnecting sewn‑fabric cubes in a range of colours of varying opacities and sheens. Sometimes slack and sagging, other times taut and retaining some structural integrity, the cubes meet at unlikely angles, hovering above the ground. This heavy cloud is encircled by wooden posts (perhaps lampposts or, just as easily, gallows), lacquered red or with black‑and‑white stripes (a common symbol of imprisonment). From these posts dangle and perch an assortment of ceramic and glass ornaments, lights, empty bird boxes and plants. According to the artist, these outlying objects signify the possibility of escape—a means of ‘unimagining’ the prison.(2)

Tent‑like, the installation is tethered to the surrounding posts and gallery walls and ceiling by pantyhose. Stretched from toe to toe, they almost tear at the crotch—that swatch of fabric that creates a barrier between the inside and outside of a woman’s body. Much of Dwyer’s work actively concerns barriers and borders, hence why a prison and reformatory make for apposite subject matter. Yet Dwyer only ever seems to construct a fortress to permeate it. She gravitates towards materials that are ‘porous’ and which can ‘breathe’ (such as the organza fabrics and the pantyhose in this work).(3) Death is also an important spectre in much of Dwyer’s work, as it is in Square cloud compound, which meditates on the lives of so many incarcerated souls, long since departed. But here—and this is the work’s destabilising force—life and death, like imprisonment and escape, are experienced as a continuum rather than a binary.

(1) Mikala Dwyer, ‘Mikala Dwyer explains the background of Square cloud compound’, 18 December 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, at soundcloud.com/mca-australia/mikala-dwyer-explains-the-background-ofsquare-cloud-compound, accessed 15 November 2019.

(2) Dwyer, email correspondence with Helen Hughes, 26 November 2019.

(3) Dwyer interviewed by Wayne Tunicliffe in Mikala Dwyer: Shape of thought, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2018, p 100.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Hughes, Helen. "Mikala Dwyer" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 114–115.

HELEN HUGHES is is a Lecturer in Art History, Theory and Curatorial Practice, Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, Monash University, Melbourne.