Bruce James Review Twenty-five Eyes / Eighty-four Years 2001


Bruce James

Tuesday 15/05/2001
ABC Radio National

Sometimes, the connections we make between works of art and our own experience, our feelings, are not precise, predictable or even manageable. Subjectivity intervenes to transform the work of art, which has already been subjectively transformed by the artist. Bruce James charts these tricky waters in a new exhibition in Sydney:

For her exhibition at yuill|crowley, Perth-based artist, Siné Macpherson, ranges 25 oil-on-canvas images of human eyes across three upper walls. These works are based on drawings made by her children during infancy. In the main, they're unaffected pictograms: brightly coloured, casually executed, having the jauntiness of a row of ensigns, or semaphore flags.

This maritime effect is perhaps accidental, but it bears upon the show.

In 1978, Macpherson found a number of glass eyes in a junk shop in Halifax in her native Canada. These prosthetic devices were fashioned to the scale and physical development of juveniles, an unremarkable fact in itself, save that Halifax has historical reason to be a source of false eyes.

On December 6, 1917, a French munitions carrier, the Mont Blanc, collided with a Belgian relief ship in Halifax harbour. For about 20 minutes the Mont Blanc burned, watched by swelling crowds of spectators unaware that the biggest explosion of the pre-Atomic age was about to flatten the city, kill 2000 people, wound 9,000 and leave 1000 permanently blinded.

A significant percentage of the victims, maimed and dead, were children.

The catastrophe is reasonably well known, and Macpherson's reference to it is neither overstated nor sensational. She resists exploiting the event for the psychological or even associative purposes of her show. It hangs in the field of view in the same unimpeded way her pictures hang in the gallery. Entering the space without benefit of a catalogue statement, it would not be apparent to any viewer that the row of disembodied eyes possessed a memorial connotation. And maybe it doesn't. To the limited extent of my familiarity with Macpherson's work, she's cool-headed and dispassionate, not the sort to incite emotional responses for their own sake, or for art's.

The lexicon, the way knowledge is ordered through systems of language, is more apt to engage her interest than the tonnage of exploded material in a long-ago shipping disaster - though of course, she records that accurately. Yet I find myself unusually disturbed by Twenty-Five Eyes/Eighty-Four Years. (The title typifies Macpherson's tendency to calibration.) I can't look at the painted eyes without imagining the real ones fixed in unwitting focus on the object that would so suddenly and shockingly destroy them. Instead of a suite of artlessly pretty signs I see the anthology of trauma.

Without really understanding how, the Halifax fiasco emblemises for me both the power and the peril of artistic spectatorship. And the longer I consider it, the more it comes to symbolise the second of those phenomena: the threat to vision inbuilt in the very act of vision, the danger of looking. The citizens of the Canadian port-city were made vulnerable to terrible injuries by their faith in fiery spectacle.

In believing, they were blinded.

Sensibly, we remonstrate with our children not to look at the blazing sun. You'll hurt your eyes, we say! We say, you'll go blind! But works of art aren't among the dangers we warn against. Should they be? Should we arm the incautious young with knowledge of the incendiary proposition that art can be? Should we show them the wreckage of connoisseurship, the evidence of lifetimes lost in what is called "the scopic regime" of art?

The infamous eye-slashing sequence from Bunuel's film, Un chien andalou, is the Halifax explosion of Surrealism. It is the moment when many of us lost our sight to art. For others, it is their first encounter with the David, an early Papunya dot painting, a Boccioni or the Rothko Chapel. Yet others trace the moment of their blinding to their sudden entrancement with late Degas. Himself almost blind, Degas produced masterpieces by controlled explosions of his pastel sticks connecting with the paper. To view them in the conservatorial half-darkness of the Musee d'Orsay or the Metroplitan Museum is to strain one's eager eyes to the point of quantifiable disability.

This shifts us some way from Siné Macpherson's project at yuill|crowley. Twenty-Five Eyes/Eighty-Four Years doesn't concern itself with blindness as such. But artists raise their flags of art, regardless of those they blind.