Australian National University
School or Art, Foyer Gallery
First published Imprint Magazine, autumn, Vol 41, No 1, pp. 4-5, Print Council of Australia
Pia Larsen’s previous work has often been concerned with questions of gender and the body. In her new series Larsen has trained her eye closer again, so close that the body itself is no longer visible. Under Larsen’s gaze, the body has dematerialised, as she brings the focus in ever tighter: past the body and its envelope of skin, past the matrix of cells, until under the glass lens we begin to glimpse another structure entirely – the body as idea.
Larsen offers us a fragmentary vision, one concerned not only with sign and symbol, but also with the noise of language. These works quite explicitly examine the constructive nature of discourse, and language here emerges as a controlling, homogenising force: one which pummels a malleable body into a compliant form before constraining it within the corsetry of social convention. But within this view of language, there exist multiple and contradictory discourses. Larsen looks not toward one nor the other, but rather, as though listening to a badly tuned radio, she’s drawn toward the hiss of interference as the frequencies collide.
Her wallpiece Out of Order is constructed out of three distinct layers which seem to be in the process of forming and unforming simultaneously. The foundation is a field of horizontal lines printed on five large sheets of paper, measuring 113 x 380 cm in total. The technique of drypoint has been used here, with the lines incised into a copper plate, and then printed using the process of rétirage, where a second impression is printed before re-inking the plate, adding an inconsistent broken quality. The overlaid impressions form a visual buzz of information, of background chatter, like radiowaves. But Larsen has inserted a wave of interference into this clatter: a swirling red line of paper forms the second stratum, overlaying parts of the background noise. Just like static it interferes with the informational buzz, viscerally slicing through this visual field. Red is a colour often associated with the body; with blood, lips, blushing cheeks. Its use here reminds us that living bodies underlie all this talk.
Literally spiked into these two layers, sitting just a small way out from the wall are a multitude of small, hand-cut aluminium tokens, signs of biology and symbols of gender; fallopian tubes, the penis and testes, the bladder, chromosomes. Each token, in itself seemingly rigid and immutable, is no longer definitive in this context. By dividing and casting them into this state of flux, Larsen has rendered these tokens useless as objects of biological determinism. They are now able to be reconfigured at will by the viewer. These are not stable elements. The three distinct layers - the metal tokens, the swirling red paper, and the horizontal lines - operate on discrete levels as though on different frequencies, and yet each disrupts the other, so the image oscillates before us, offering different views as we tune in at random.
Alongside this sits Mammaphone, which offers us the contradiction of the maternal and the sexualised breast. A large zinc plate ‘lp’ etched with the surface impression of an enlarged breast spins upon a modified turntable. And what are the tunes it plays? Side A has ‘Knockers’ and ‘Jubblies’ while on Side B we can hear ‘Dripping Milk’ and ‘Tender Breast’. It seems they still write them like they used to. And yet the sound which emerges from the turntable, a faint constant hiss, brings to mind something else. Again we get the sound of interference: the audio equivalent of the field of horizontal lines in the accompanying wallpiece. The turntable rests on a large black box, alluding to the unseen information which remains unexamined until the event of a crisis.
The final piece of this series, Bullrushes, is composed of a large number of metal ‘plants’ growing up from the floor. This is a collection of phallic bullrushes, each constructed from recycled zinc plate, with a steel rod and base forming the stem. Larsen here alludes to the invisibility of the phallus in society; it is both everywhere and nowhere, always in the shadows, never in the bright light of day. By contrast, her ‘bullrushes’ emerge almost timidly from the ground. Slightly sheepish, slightly vulnerable, each one bears the marks of the zinc plate’s previous uses, traces of the artist’s earlier work, which offers each an individualised history, a unique map. Some of them resemble the homunculus, the ‘little man’ once believed to be the male contribution to conception. In aligning the phallus with the bullrush, Larsen has juxtaposed signs of gender and signs of nature. But if this work is to be judged by the company it keeps, Out of Order and Mammaphone, it would seem to suggest that the notion that gender is a product of ‘nature’ is itself another construction.
So where are we left, amongst all this noise and fragmentation? In disassembling the language of bodies and gender, Larsen has offered us a glimpse of the inner workings of their operations and power. And in doing so, perhaps she has also cleared a space, one in which new identities might begin to emerge from the static and hiss of the old.
Deidre Brollo, artist and Phd candidate, Sydney College of the Arts