Anne-Marie May and Erwin Fabian, Inside Out: Space and Process
- Giles Fielke
⬤ McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery 2 Dec 2020 - 3 Jan 2021
A state-surveyor’s accidental discovery of a gleaming silver, triangular column from a helicopter, carefully installed in a remote canyon-bed in Utah, yet apparently untouched by human hands, has sent waves of anticipation across social media networks and soft-news segments for the past few weeks. Unless it was made by aliens (or John McCracken), minimalist sculpture doesn’t often make nightly news anymore. Since its discovery, internet forum taskmasters have successfully located and facilitated the convergence of daytripper explorers to the remote site and the work has now been removed.
The surveyors were supposedly looking for sheep, yet found the monolith instead. Their surprised reactions posted to the UtahDPSAeroBureau Instagram account initiated the media event (also since removed). This nexus of art and livestock returns us promptly to our pastoral fundament. We will flock to sites of (presumed) secular significance even if that means we must destroy everything in our path to arrive there.
Yet if the case of the secret canyon monolith is now at the “just tell us what it is you want us to buy” stage of the news-cycle, its significance as a symptom of our sensitivity to “non-natural” (alien is best understood here as a synonym for colonial) incursions into the landscape means it also finds its antithesis in this week’s media coverage for an upcoming TV feature documenting of recently rediscovered pre-Columbian artwork over 10kms of rockface in the Amazonian rainforest.
Between these two extremes, the work of art is offered up as a vast domain; it is both the evidentiary and trace histories of human (and post-human) presence in formerly inhabited places, something the French anthropologist and archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan called the “curtain of objects” that form the technical tendencies of the human as a group, operating independently of any ethnic groupings. This is why sculpture remains a key for modern art—by mediating the illusory in painting and the functional in architecture it foregrounds matter in a way that is functionally divisive. Sculpture is the ruin that will distinguish our looking.
It is with this in mind that I approach Inside Out: Space and Process, the newly opened exhibition across the three interior gallery spaces at the McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery in Langwarrin. The pairing of Erwin Fabian and Anne-Marie May by curator Simon Lawrie is inspired, not least because work by the artists bridge the entire 20th century, and then duly proceed headlong into a 21st century complicated by its stuttering globalism.
The massive, rusted works in steel and wood by Fabian are offset by the entire room of May’s most recent “Drawing” series in the French Gallery, which the viewer will notice first upon entering, hanging silently and riven by nautical ropes to their right as they come into the space. An hour east by car from central Melbourne, McClelland claims to be “the first bespoke modernist gallery designed by architects Munro and Sargent to be built in regional Victoria” (in 1971, according to the commemorative plaque in the building).
It is also adjacent to the Murdoch Family’s Cruden Farm property, and Dame Elizabeth Murdoch was a major patron of the gallery. In actuality the site is the former “Studio Park” of the McClelland family, who had originally occupied property at Long Island in Frankston in 1912. The artist Harry McClelland is described today as an artist and philanthropist on the gallery’s website. I found a note on his August 1926 exhibition of over-oiled landscapes at the Athenaeum in The Herald, where the reviewer dismisses his “insufficient technique”. I can’t help but think we’re so much kinder today.
The thermally formed acrylic that establishes the base material for May’s “drawing” works (one is dedicated to the modern architect and designer Eileen Gray) look bright and commercial—a housemate of mine once had a piece of similarly coloured acrylic laying around the house and its edging always looked neon in the daylight. Meanwhile Fabian’s stretched and pulled plastic pieces—Largo, Tetrachord, Erebus and Pilgrim (all 2015)—help to tie together the otherwise wildly divergent works on display here, forming a rather long and complex narrative to the exhibition.
It is another of Fabian’s series in steel from 2015, especially Shore, that is most immediately striking. The ribbed “body” of the vertical assemblage appears at once like a transubstantiated Robert Morris felt work (a material also preferred by May), an avant-garde expression of Julio González’s welded works, and even offers sly references to the “Yard Art” practice of other contemporary artists like Lonnie Holley.
Despite the curatorial selection spanning only the past 24 years, an entire history of modernist sculpture is seemingly on display here. From figurative abstractions to minimalist and relational works, it is the setting in regional and now outer-suburban Melbourne that furthermore provides an elegiac frame for their encounter. The overwhelming sense, particularly if one visits the grounds of the park, is of ruin—even May’s careful bronze reconstructions of scrunched and discarded paper speaks to this legacy of salvage and salvation. “Space is a frame we map ourselves in,” Susan Howe writes in her auto-poetic preface to Frame Structures (1995). I see this actualised in May’s devastating, riven Scholar Stone #1 (2017).
Fabian was born in Berlin in 1915, and as one of the thousands placed on the HMS Dunera and transported here from Britain as an “enemy alien” he was placed—with both Jewish refugees alongside Nazi sympathisers—into internment camps in the Goulburn Valley in 1940. With a painter father and migrant career in print-making, which began with work for the Australia army, it was Gordon Andrews (the designer of our first decimal currency) who suggested Fabian’s practice of locating and making odd assemblages from “used” material was sculpture, which he first exhibited in 1965. Fabian died suddenly in Melbourne in January, aged 104.
May was born in Melbourne in 1965—I was fortunate to see her speak with Sue Cramer at the small opening event for the exhibition. May’s early work is associated with Store 5, the artist-run space off Chapel Street that held 150 exhibitions (sometimes only for a single day) between 1989 and 1993. Today the artists associated with that moment essentially have a stranglehold on contemporary Australian art. To look through the catalogue for the Anna Schwartz Gallery’s retrospective exhibition Store 5 is… staged in 2005, is to see an artworld machine—today’s Melbourne is unrecognisable in its localised sincerity and self-mythologisation.
From the point of view of the objects created, May’s recent works are most often meticulous exercises in translating form from flat, two-dimensional or digital planes into space and then again collapsing them back in two. The scrunched paper or torn cardboard cast in patinated bronze look organic and alien. The untitled knitted jersey wool work that cascades from the ceiling in the McClelland Room is now 15 years old, but it captures something of the transition between the centuries her work now spans.
Inspired by the metaphysics of folding, May’s practice addresses a deconstructive bent that she has called “undoing” or “unforming” to create critical effects. In their era-defining text A Thousand Plateaus (first published in 1980), Deleuze and Guattari impel their readers to substitute “forgetting for anamnesis, experimentation for interpretation. Find your body without organs”. May’s sculpture seems to take this command at face value—there is no inside or out. We are made present for an ecology of everything that can and must be collected around these formal offerings. In this sense they appear otherworldly yet organic, cybernetic or more banally mathematical. Severing the work from an artistic tradition does it a disservice, however, which is why Fabian’s presence is edifying for May’s work.
“Every piece of scrap has its own attitude”, Fabian is quoted in the catalogue for the exhibition. The brevity of the essays by curator Lawrie on May, and Jane Eckett—also a treasured Memo contributor—on Fabian’s work are rewarding in the sense that they are enlightening of it. Especially given the somewhat jarring intergenerational pairing of the artists and their totally incommensurable processes.
Looking at Fabian’s sculptures, I am imagining Harald Szeemann’s arguments towards form in art happening in reverse. With Fabian the form is already there; it merely requires an uncovering. This accords with the sense of refinement in art, and against constructivist tendencies as such. I am not completely confident in ascribing this reading to Fabian’s process, but it seems important to recognise the traditional intention behind works such as Vitrum Five (2013), a massive portal of thick, broken glass punctured by a penetrative steel arm.
On my street at home there is a rusted steel assemblage in a neighbour’s front yard that could be a Fabian work. When Fabian first exhibited his sculpture in Sydney in 1965, he was 50 years old. Yet he would continue to exhibit new work over the following five decades. It is hard not to see fragments of the misanthropic scale of industrial conflict in his work—disused farming machinery reclaimed by the ground, severed gum trunks reassembled in futility, scrap metal, like shrapnel from exploded shell casings. In this sense Fabian’s work participates in an idea of our ruinous nature. This is a fiction that separates the work out from its fundamental incommensurability with the environment. The unease with which this modernism sits in the landscape today is all too evident amongst uncut grounds and covid-dormant spaces.
Like the now removed Utah monolith, Inside Out: Space and Process proves sculpture to be a site of destruction. With the artist gone, we may only approach or withdraw from sculpture. The constructivist tendency was a false hope for a modernism that has been reduced to romantic nostalgia. Once rhythmic like our breathing, instead the static casing of the works on display all the more petrifies and reifies as mechanism what we have called nature. The ruins of McClelland Sculpture Park, one more ruin of modernity, show us this. These monuments are necessary, however, as “the museum is a place where the asymmetrical war between the ordinary human gaze and the technologically armed gaze not only takes place,” like Boris Groys has said, “but also becomes revealed.” Fabian and May’s work, unashamed of its consequence, and seen together, evidences not only our ruination of this place, but of this time.