The Age

Bestiaries evoke the cycles of life

Date: 20/04/2011
Words: 680
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 21
BONE Heather B. Swann, Karen Woodbury Gallery, 4 Albert Street, Richmond, until April 30 ERLOSUNG: THE ANIMAL GAZE Adriane Strampp, dianne tanzer gallery + projects, 108-110 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, until April 23

AS YOU enter Karen Woodbury Gallery, you're confronted by a giant black erection. The high salute to male potency is as tall as a human and presents like the lost member from an ancient colossal fertility statue. As you approach, however, you find that the dark icon dissolves into mere padding upon a wooden horse; and then, as you circumnavigate the propped-up upholstery, it turns into a large pair of bones. From the side, the joints at either end simulate respectively the glans and anchorage to the groin.

Heather B. Swann gives the title of Bone to her exhibition, which consists not only of this stiff visual pun but numerous animals, each one of which has a bizarre orthopaedic condition. A male dog has a tail that sticks up at right-angles to the spine; a monkey sports a sinuous tail in an arabesque five times longer than its body; and, horrifically, a female human balances upon a gymnastic horse as nothing but a torso with rounded stumps.

Writing of Equestrienne in a catalogue essay, David Hansen describes this "torso racked over a wooden wedge" as something "between a vaulting horse, an anvil, the pommel of a saddle and a Chinese foot-binding shoe".

Swann's motifs recall earlier traditions of symbolic images in which images are combined poetically, with extended moral significance induced upon them by learned mottoes. Images are built up to allegorise home truths, life cycles, appetites and the control of desire towards intellect.

Swann is steeped in this tradition, to which she gives several spinal twists. An example is a split hoop that ends in two bicycle seats that face one another. In this tense conversation, the saddles look remarkably like birds about to peck. The animal form induced upon the circle recalls the ancient ouroboros, a snake devouring its tail, a symbol of eternity.

It's a key image in Swann's work: the end feeds the beginning and the principle returns to the end. Upstairs at Karen Woodbury, a ring of females lying on their backs hoist arms, head and legs in the air. All extremities, however, have become beaks. You imagine them squawking in their gaggle of entrapment, prattling endlessly of their common root in the nubile trunk.

Just so, the ornithological bicycle seats confront one another across the void formed by their common origin in the circle. For Swann, the front is the same as the back, because a unity of returning cycles equates them. She even makes a preposterous figure that has two backs on a spring, as if there's no need for a front, because it would in any case refer to the back: the missing front would only create a need for the back; it ends at the back before it begins to become the front.

Swann uses the natural forms of animals to create a perversely circular ontology, where a face or purpose is twisted in a repeating loop, as if an allegory of biological determinism. It's a counterintuitive way of imagining a bestiary, where normally we think of the great diversity of animals as a spreading tree of zoological categories.

Adriane Strampp mirrors a similar scientific view of animals in fine analytical drawings at dianne tanzer gallery + projects. Her large drawings of a Malayan tapir, a giant turtle and a pygmy hippopotamus are beautifully crafted pieces of observation; and, though without Swann's distortions, their breathy snouts and slime also seem anomalous and out of place on the paper.

The reason could be that Strampp has worked in Taronga Zoo in Sydney, where the exotic creatures enjoy an artificial habitat, abstracted from nature. In the controlled conditions of the enclosure, the beasts form part of another cycle, the human rituals of spectacle and consumption, crowds and tickets, management, education and veterinary care that are all afforded by niche economies. Nothing is so odd that it doesn't fit into something yet odder.

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