The Enigmatic Body of Heather B. Swann
by Elspeth Pitt
It is difficult to write of Heather Swann’s work and this is largely because she writes so well of it herself. In preparation for this article she has sent me several emails, which, when printed out onto paper, resemble a not-so-slender book. What I like about Heather’s writing is that it often sounds archaic, as though the works of art and events she describes occurred in the distant past as opposed to the weeks or days prior. This quality of her writing has to do with the words she selects, and the way she arranges them, ensuring a soft if not solemn metre, that coalesces statement and description before blooming, unexpectedly, as poetry. The writing she has sent to me, however, is not to be shared, and herein lies one of many disjunctures – of disclosure and concealment, of form and formlessness – that for me, define her practice, and account for the fluctuating space in which my thoughts about it circle.
When I last saw Heather she was at work on a new ‘performance tool’ for her forthcoming exhibition I let my body fall into a rhythm. A bolt of black material splayed out on her workbench was being recast as a set of sleeves that she envisaged ballooning, voluminously, from the wearer’s shoulder to the floor. These vast limbs were covered with pockets in which a profusion of little heads nested, forthright and staring out, each distinctive in feature, and ingeniously modelled over champagne corks. There are several images that struck me that evening and which stay with me now: the black fabric deepening as it absorbed the wavering pink and grey of the London twilight; the artist bowing over her workbench intently, her white hair hovering over the absurd black mass; and a picture born from her lightly made comment that this new work must be pliant so as to be packed down and hand-carried from London to Tokyo. I imagined the great sleeves swiftly diminished. The body parts transfigured into an opaque and impenetrable fold.
In his 1995 translation of essays by the philosopher and theorist Jean Louis Schefer, Paul Smith described a phenomenon or ‘fantasy’ of Schefer’s readings that he called ‘the enigmatic body’. Smith describes this body as the ‘construct’ that emerges from ‘the encounter between object and subject, or between a painting and its viewing, a text and its reading’.(1) The enigmatic body is not autonomous but relational, summoned when a viewer and a work of art come into meaningful proximity. This idea resonates with me as it gives form to the energy I feel when I am close to Heather’s work. My encounters with it generate a presence, one that is inscrutable, beyond my influence, and often, frustratingly, my understanding.
I am unsure how to write about the work of Heather Swann but she says that she sometimes feels uncertain too, and that it took her many years of being an artist before she realised that feeling uncertain was okay. In fact, she implies that uncertainty is useful in that it helps engender work that is layered and open to manifold readings. I think about this word, uncertain, which also means indefinite, and I think of these words in relation to a body described by the poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub in his essay Shedding life. In this work he recounts the story of an animal, shot dead by a man, its blood dispersing into water, its ‘secret life forced out’ beyond its body.(2) As I come to know Heather’s work I discover that the enigmatic body becomes more indefinite over time, accumulating and intensifying after the initial physical encounter. For me, this phenomenon is encapsulated by a work included in her exhibition, Luna, held at Michael Bugelli Gallery last year – a film and soundscape in which glasses struck by spoons issued very pure sounds that rang unceasingly through the space. It is a work I think of often, and at times I feel the clear notes ring high in my ears and roll soft along my back.
At some point I begin to think of Heather Swann’s art and performance tools as enigmatic bodies in and of themselves – as animate forms not invisible constructs. Heather sends me an image of an actor wearing the billowing sleeves I saw earlier in London. What I had not realised then was that the work was made for the Japanese theatre designer, Noriaki Ueda, a material manifestation of his ‘warm embrace’ and striking presence.(3) The work then, is not only a performance tool, but a prosthesis that enhances a perceived or implicit attribute as opposed to replacing a lack. There are other works made for individuals, like Rag for a blind girl, a dress embroidered with glass eyes for the soprano Astrid Connelly, who is unable to see, and Unforgettable (introversion vehicle for Timothy Hill) which offers a secret, sympathetic confidant and a trunk for storing memories. I will not remember your name, a collection of walking sticks along which small personages are dispersed ‘like spring-time buds’ was not made for me, yet it speaks to me, resonating acutely with my deep fear of forgetting.(4) At points like these, the enigmatic body evaporates, and I feel my anxiety matched with that of the artist, the fear struck so perfectly into form.
Jean Louis Schefer, The enigmatic body, trans. Paul Smith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), ix.
Miroslav Holub in Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, “Revising Miroslav Holub,” Southwest Review V 88, N 4 (2003), 525.
Heather Swann, email to author, 21 June 2018.
Heather Swann, email to author, 21 June 2018.
Elspeth Pitt is Curator, Australian Painting & Sculpture (20, 21 centuries) at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.