S.A. ADAIR AND MEREDITH HUGHES
Dark Euphoria is an installation of poetic, domestic objects cast from ground charcoal; remnants of the 2019-20 mega-fires. The artists sought to bring into play the trauma of the fires with rich aesthetic traditions; vessels as stilled life, evocative materiality and Buddhism’s endless Sunyata. Void-like, against a shimmering, endless surface, the objects invite contemplation and solace.
Over a period of 12-months, moving between the sites of a shared studio space and warm kitchen tables, Adair and Hughes created the works by casting domestic items using two-part latex molds. The artists methodically painted the open molds with a mixture of ground charcoal and adhesive binder medium to replicate everyday objects from around the house. The process provided the artists with a reflective way to navigate their intense, personal responses to this extraordinary time in Australia.
“En masse, these objects speak to the everyday collection of things that fill our intimate spaces- the shower bringing renewal or the busy family cluster of plates around a dinner table. Whilst they are a collective, like a shadowed still life, each object resonates with the individual moments of itself. Through repetition and multitude, the sense of loss is amplified moving in and out of the small vignettes of domesticity…” Ros Lemoh
“Clustered and apart, the objects in the installation are singular and collective. The crushed dry black of the compacted charcoal sucks out the light and forces our eyes to read the stark outlines. We see the bottled shoulders of shampoo and hand cream, thinned books, cups, plates, children’s toys, and scissors. Some are easily recognisable and others change…” Ros Lemoh
“Vases, irons, pots, hammers, coat hangers, shampoo bottles: this the familiar made strange. The artists move from salvage, to repair, to re-casting, peeling, drying, and then re-display. These are transformative acts, the journey from recovery through contemplation to conjecture; from ashen remains, to exhibition. And the heart-wrenching question: what is left? What have we now?” Zsuzsi Soboslay
“The glistening fractured eggshells, whilst representing death, also hint to new life, a kind of return. Adair and Hughes talk about the careful tread across the ashen ground, the cups of tea, their conversations, the ironing-out of their intentions, and their hope-full call out to members of the community to also share their responses and their stories.” Zsuzsi Soboslay
ESSAY BY ROSALIND LEMOH
‘Dark Euphoria’ Rising Through the Ashes
There’s a pulse in Dark Euphoria. It runs through an exquisite ruin of blackened objects, cast from charcoal salvaged from the bushfires that raged over summer and grimly greeted the new year of 2020. This exhibition at TAC is a conversational collaboration between two female artists, S.A Adair and Meredith Hughes. Having worked together over the past 12 months, they draw from their sculpture and textiles based practices to create a new large scale installation that explores the emotional impacts of trauma from an environment in emergency.
The idea began as a response to the notion of ‘Solastalgia’, a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe the psychological distress experienced by environmental change. Albrecht combined the words of ‘solace’ with ‘algia’ (meaning pain, suffering or sickness) to explain the experience of loss or dislocation impacted by change, “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.” Much in the way that Albrecht parallels ecological distress with a psychological manifestation, so too do the artists materialise the overwhelming sense of devastation left by the fires. This experience of emptiness is embodied in found objects and physicalised through art; or as Adair reflects, by ‘casting the void’.
Moving between the sites of a shared studio space and warm kitchen tables, the works are created by casting domestic items using two part latex moulds. The artists methodically paint the open moulds with a mixture of ground charcoal and adhesive binder medium to replicate everyday objects from around the house. Hughes collected the charcoal from sites near her father’s home on the south coast, which had been left stricken after sweeping flames and blood red skies. Hughes speaks of digging through this landscape over a period of time, as she travelled back and forth from Canberra, working to collect the remains. With each trip, the charcoal sunk deeper, and she describes how ‘the landscape tells the story of the fires through its layering.’ The heavy torrents of rain that came after the blaze, soaked the cold embers, burying the burnt husks deeper into the earth. As the rush of green growth struck quickly, the intensity of rejuvenation sparked another anxiety. ‘Suddenly, there was all of this potential fuel now just sitting there’ recalls Hughes. This lush undergrowth, euphoric with new life, now harboured a menacing omen. Is the trap set? Is this the cruel cyclical loop of extremes that scientists continue to warn us about? 24-hour news channels had shown walls of flame, burning ruins and faces etched with fear and now, another panic arose- a desperate scrambling to fight against a tide of floods. Was this the strange new reckoning of a climate in crisis, so unrecognisably polarised and out of control?
Working with the volatility of an organic material has posed some challenges as the artists reflect on how the charcoal reacted to the changing temperatures, from a hot summer through to the wet cold winter. During the cooler months, Adair and Hughes speak of ‘the bloom’, a white crystalline patch that begins to mark the black surfaces, much like a white star of frost. These natural variations are as much a part of the work, an embodiment of the material’s reaction to the atmosphere. This sensitive porousness is so reflective of the cyclical, interconnected nature of things – of plants, animals and ourselves breathing and adapting in and out of unison to changing climatic conditions.
Clustered and apart, the objects in this installation are singular and collective. The crushed dry black of the compacted charcoal sucks out the light and forces our eyes to read the stark outlines. We see the bottled shoulders of shampoo and hand cream, thinned books, cups, plates, children’s toys and scissors. Some are easily recognisable and others change. The bottom of a bucket reads like an old chopping board and a phone case beguiles us and assumes as the phone itself. Much like the distance we feel between that which is left behind or remembered and the thing itself, these objects are both curiously familiar and foreign. A cast dustpan contains broken windows where the surface of the material is needle thin. These delicate, disintegrated cut outs are like an inversion of the ragged shapes of floating embers. It captures that unsettling moment, when you look up and witness ash circling, carried like black silk on the breath of the sky.
En masse, these objects speak to the everyday collection of things that fill our intimate spaces- the shower bringing renewal or the busy family cluster of plates around a dinner table. Whilst they are a collective, like a shadowed still life, each object resonates with the individual moments of itself. Through repetition and multitude, the sense of loss is amplified moving in and out of the small vignettes of domesticity. In a sense, the sheer volume of objects creates a forest, connecting to Gaston Bachelard’s discussion of ‘intimate immensity’- the internal sense of boundlessness and permeability that we experience when we are immersed in nature. It’s a sense of oneness and of complete dissolution, or as Rilke says, ‘the world is large , but in us it is deep as the sea’. As a viewer, we become part of this collection of everyday objects cast from ash. Much like standing surrounded in a forest, we are now surrounded in the fragility of ourselves. Like a trip wire, or a simultaneous fast forward and rewind, we are aware of this intimate expansion where we move from viewing the object, to becoming immersed in the poetry of a shared internal space.’
Dark Euphoria presents a dramatic installation of new work by artists S.A Adair and Meredith Hughes. It embodies the sense of vulnerability, loss and uncertainty from a year unlike any other. It is bleak and arresting, but with an undeniable beauty that lures and captivates. The idea of the void penetrates this strange collection of everyday objects and asks us to contemplate the shadows cradled in the hollows. We remember the importance of art to give us these moments of ritual, in coming to terms with the past and contemplating the future by sitting in the balance of the present. It is a materialisation of psychological ache, in a time that feels upside down and impenetrable, as we fumble along what seems a teetering edge. We are reminded of the charcoal sinking into the earth after the fires. It tells us that our depths are elemental and encompass an impulsive demand for life drawn from a dark reservoir to thrive.
S.A. Adair attained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from UNSW Art and Design and a Bachelor of Visual Arts (honours) from the School of Art, ANU. Adair has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions locally and interstate including; Sculpture by the Sea (2009,2017,2021), Strand Ephemera, Townsville and her site-specific work ‘Encasement’ at Canberra Museum and Gallery (Enlighten, 2018).
Adair has received several grants and awards including; an Australia Council Artstart Grant, The Goulburn Art Prize, the North Sydney Art Prize Emerging Artist Award, the Perrier-Jouet and University of New South Wales sponsorship awards for her participation in Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi and the Major Award at the North Sydney Art Prize(2019) for her installation ‘Secrete’.
Meredith Hughes is an artist with a practice that moves between contemporary art, textiles and installation work. She is fascinated by the materiality and multiplicity of things and in deconstructing ideas that inform our experience. She completed her PhD at the School of Art, Australian National University in 2015, in which she investigated disruption and interrogation in the nexus between contemporary art, Surrealism and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. She has presented her work within Australia and internationally and has been the recipient of numerous grants, including from the Australia Council, NAVA and ArtsACT.
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
Dark Euphoria: an exhibition in homage to the Black Summer bushfires. An exhibition by SA Adair and Meredith Hughes
Euphoria (n.), a physicians term for “condition of feeling healthy and comfortable (especially when sick), “medical Latin, from Greek euphoria” power of enduring easily,” from euphoros, literally “bearing well”.
A room of objects spread across pearlescent ground. The vessels hold the darkness of the void; the black of old man crow, portal to the spirit world. As in the work of Anish Kapoor, to look at these objects is almost to look through them, into the vastness of time. The Carpet of broken eggshells illuminates the life of each cast, but also pays respect to the original object’s demise. The casts are activated mnemonics of events that ravaged the New South Wales south coast, during the Black Summer bushfires.
The exhibition is an experience of contrasts: vases, irons, cooking vessels, coat hangers, hammers, scissors, shampoo bottles: the familiar made strange, the artists moving from salvaging, to repair, to casting, peeling, drying, and then re-display. These are transformative acts that journey from recovery through contemplation to conjecture; from domestic space, the exhibition, what have we now?
The exhibition rests on/in several oxymora: the yoking of ‘dark’ with ‘euphoria’, of solace and comfort with nostalgia and loss. This is the work: of our endurance. If archaeology is usually thought of as an uncovering of stories buried in time, then the current exhibition is a kind if reverse archelogy, and enacts uncovering, re-covering, replicating and in the end, transformation via restorying.
The term Solastalgia — a term important to both artists—was first coined by the Australian environmental researcher Glenn A. Albrecht, and refers to the “pain or distress caused by the loss of a comforting place”. It connects us to Hippocrates’ notion that human health is closely connected to a healthy environment, and to conceptions of the interrelatedness of land, health and heart. The exhibition celebrates these interconnections but also asks, what are we left with when almost nothing remains?
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of the Heart Sutra, a prayer on emptiness that is yet a prayer to the fulness of things:
Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty.
As with meditation, the process by which Adair and Hughes have created the exhibition has been a labour, paying attention to the fragility of shape, the emptiness of form and how we touch it; and an homage to our passions, our need for comfort, the stories in our soils, and the warmth of the hearth that once cooked dinners in our homes. The work stretches across eighteen months of time, but also retains a kitchen-sink intimacy. Here now, remembering a bowl of food, a pot of tea, a shared activity, a back-fence yarn. The artists invite re-growth in the process of attending.
Writer: Zsuzsi Soboslay, 8 August 2021. References: www.etymonline.com/word/euphoria/ Heart Sutra, translated from sgrub thabs kunbtus (Vol 6), pp 134-36, by Tsharpa Lochen Choedak Rinpoche, Canberra, October 2005.