Louise Haselton: Material Life
by Elle Freak & Lisa Slade
Louise Haselton weaves threads between seemingly disparate materials, and operates against her own consciousness to allow them to direct their own evolution. She describes this process as one whereby her materials possess energy and her role is one of witness or agency – ‘sitting in the studio with them as they move around, group themselves, rearrange and settle into comfortable situations.’(1) Notions of animism are certainly at play. But in the hands of Haselton, animism is less a belief and more an act; less a noun and more a verb.
Haselton’s deep interest in animism motivated her travel in 2009 to India, and specifically Nagaland, where in her words it was ‘foggy, the days were short and the sky was very close to the ground, it seemed right that the natural world was living its own life.’(2) Of greatest curiosity to Haselton was the displacement of boundaries between the interior and exterior world, and between material culture and nature. The artist noted the local practice of honouring the natural world with rocks covered in silver leaf, and trees bound in woollen and cotton thread. In Nagaland, as Haselton explained ‘they give a lot of capacity to rocks and to trees – they believe they have these inner lives and that the rocks are vehicles of fertility.’(3)
The 2011 installation Scrutineers, made for the artist’s solo exhibition ‘Errand Workshop’ at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), and now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), directly explores this line of thought. In Scrutineers thirteen unique copper vessels, the kind used in India for activities sacred and profane, become the plinths for thirteen large rocks, sourced in South Australia. Scrubbed clean, the rocks are now exuberantly covered with an assortment of mirrored discs that reflect dappled light, including the viewer’s gaze and environs. The artist negotiates concepts of the gaze – specifically the idea of a work of art 'looking back at us' and, within that, us having an awareness of our own looking.
Haselton has noted the influence of American kinetic sculptor Alexander Calder and the outsider artist Judith Scott and her obsessively produced wool-bound objects. Through the manipulation of form, weight and space, these artists and Haselton endow material things with an inner life. Haselton has described her formal quest as ‘aiming for a balance between a sense of being grounded and a sense of energetic release.’(4) Like a classical Greek sculptor who balances an unnaturally weighted figure on a museum pedestal, Haselton has, in Scrutineers, inverted this idea and played with the tension between the weight of the rock and fragility of the vessel. Their arrangement also suggests a conversation and the title Scrutineers further implies that the objects are capable of human thought or even judgement.
Also in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia are Haselton’s two works on paper from a 2008 Untitled series. In Untitled #2 white correction fluid reveals an eye-like shape set against a black ground and white tendrils suggest tethered optic nerves. Butterfly wings collected by the artist from her garden over several months converge into a mottled iris. Untitled recalls Odilon Redon’s Eye-Balloon, Luis Buñuel’s moment of ‘eye foolery’ in Un chien Andalou and the late contour drawings of Louise Bourgeois. The Modernist, and specifically Surrealist, obsession with the ocular is brought into focus and, like the Surrealists, by drawing our visual attention to the act of seeing, Haselton informs us that what lies here is ultimately more than meets the eye. By choosing to call the work Untitled Haselton unleashes the beholder’s capacity for animism.
What is the act of looking at art, if not one of bringing dormant objects to life?
Louise Haselton, ‘Extracting response: Michael Newall in conversation with Louise Haselton’, Errand Workshop, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2011, p.19
Patrick McDonald, ‘Errand art has a life of its own’, The Advertiser, July 22, 2011
Louise Haselton, Lunchtime talk, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2015