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Bones Brigade

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Ricky Swallow, b.1974, Australia, The exact dimensions of staying behind, 2004-05, laminated lime wood, Art Gallery of South Australia, courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

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The passage of time is at the heart of Ricky Swallow’s The exact dimensions of staying behind (2004-2005).  Meticulously carved out of a single piece of lime wood, a lone skeleton sits on a chair. It holds a staff in one hand and a carving knife in the other.  Its skull balances precariously from its neck, raised upward to the heavens awaiting spiritual enlightenment, like a saint. A hooded jumper, strewn across the chair’s back, cushions the shoulder and spine, while the left foot rests on a mound that protrudes from the base of the wooden surface.  

The skull and skeleton are quintessential signifiers and constant reminders of death.  They appear throughout the course of history in classical memento mori images surrounded by fruit, time pieces and extinguished candles, and cross over and saturate contemporary culture, appearing in abundance in heavy metal posters through to Powell-Peralta skateboards.  By drawing on all these influences The exact dimensions of staying behind becomes a life-sized vanitas, announcing that everything in life is transient and perishable. The work reminds us of our mortality.  

This preoccupation with time is not only a universal statement, but a personal one looming over Swallow.  Merged together with the classical symbols, of the skull and skeleton, is reference to the artist’s personal items, the hooded jumper and the carving knife. This work is a self-portrait. It presents a moment in time, Ricky Swallow’s time. By placing himself into the work, Swallow reflects on his own existence as well as our collective presence.

Reinforcing this fleeting nature of life is Swallow’s careful and painstaking method of creation. Intricate woodcarving takes time. Lots of time and ultimately, time is not on our side.  The sands of time pass quickly by.  We are born, we live, and we die. As we know it, death is finite. Even the word death, with one syllable, sounds abrupt and final.  The end.