Anne Ferran’s solo show at Stills Gallery, Sydney partnered her most recent body of work, Box of Birds, with her 1986 series Scenes on the Death of Nature. The two sets of photographs gazed at one another from opposite ends of the room. Their quiet exchange unveiled the poetic logic and thematic motifs that echoed across more than 20 years of artistic practice.
In Scenes on the Death of Nature, groups of young women are arranged in discrete narrative scenes and draped in layers of fabric, their gestures borrowed from the compositions of classical painting and sculpture. At first it is hard to tell where their robes end and their skin begins. The texture and tone of each surface folds into the other. As the fabric drapes, so do the limbs.
Scene II 1986 gelatin silver photograph 58.5 x 79.5cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney
This is not the heavy brocaded silk velvet of the Baroque. In these photographed tableaux vivants, Ferran’s figures are swaddled in cheap cotton with visible seams and un-hemmed edges. And yet the scenes possess an opulent grandeur, commanding a dramatic force worthy of a higher thread count.
This dramatic force — an anticipation of action — is written into the posture and poise of each figure. The bodies hang, suspended on the point of collapse. The curvature of each limb, the hands placed just so and the fold of the skin against the fold of the fabric all translates into a play of line and composition. The face of each figure is quickly forgotten. All that remains is the form.
On the other side of the gallery, Box of Birds recalibrated the dynamic interplay between fabric and figure. Once again, textiles caress the body but this is a profoundly different kind of embrace. The figures are swallowed whole, leaving behind only their hands and feet. The form of the body is no longer legible. It has been veiled and masked.
The fabric that enfolds and conceals these bodies is dyed felt, not cotton. It falls differently, dragging its weight. Felt resists creases and folds. It is a stubborn, slow fabric that drapes reluctantly. Undeterred, Ferran treats felt as a performative agent. In Chorus, 38 portraits arranged in a grid, female performers hold rectangular pieces of felt in front of their bodies. Extended towards the camera, the felt is offered up to us as a substitute body. We read the contours of its bulky drapery as an animated physiognomy. Its stiff pleats become gestures; its surface becomes skin.
The other photographs in the series unravel the compositional code of this taxonomy, subverting the uniformity of the mug shots in Chorus. In these images, the felted figures do not stand upright facing the camera but convulse and contort. With their twisted physiques they resemble birds (an unsurprising association given the title of the series). Their beaks and their wings take shape through the improvised gestures of the performers who dance with the fabric, sculpting it through movement.
Felt is made from matted woollen fibres. Its threads are not woven into one another but are compressed like a sharp intake of breath. The same centripetal force penetrates the knotted forms of these dancing birds. The fabric is gathered and drawn in, devouring itself.
There is a tangible sense of unease buried between the folds of this felt that speaks to the lingering presence of the subjects Ferran immortalized in INSULA and 1-38 (both 2003). Cropping and layering archival photographs of 38 unidentified female patients of a Sydney psychiatric hospital in the 1940s, Ferran composed studies of institutionalized suffering. The isolated torsos in 1-38 are portraits of voiceless torment. We recognize the trauma in the hands of each woman; the clenched fists, splayed fingers and white knuckles.
These hands are mirrored in the crumpled felt figures of Box of Birds. Here, Ferran gives the unknown women new bodies and new names. There is the Slender-throated warbler, the Pale-headed flycatcher and the Night whistler. By recasting these women as imaginary birds Ferran allows them the freedom they were denied. In Chorus, the flock is granted its swansong.
Box of Birds stands as an epilogue to INSULA and 1-38 but the ending it offers is neither neat nor absolute. Exhibited alongside the limp, draped bodies in Scenes on the Death of Nature, Ferran’s felt birds transcend the contextual specificity of their personal narratives. They become metaphoric agents, the allegorical surrogates for generations of forgotten and erased women. Together with the nondescript bodies of her earlier work — more form than figure — they weave a narrative of the unnoticed and the invisible. As articulate as it is aesthetically captivating, this work mobilizes a discourse of the veil. Camouflaged and hidden from view, Ferran’s figures play out a poetics of anonymity.
Box of Birds: Anne Ferran
Stills Gallery, Sydney Australia