Art, Featured

Catherine Ryan: From Where Territories Crumble and Structures Collapse

March 4, 2017

Feature Image Credit: Zan Wimberley

Fitzroy’s Gertrude Contemporary offers something for the lovers this March with their latest exhibition: This is Not A Love Song. Running until the 11th of March and curated by Artistic Director Mark Feary, this adults-only exhibition assembles a selection of works with a focus on all things lascivious. Whilst paying respect to historical representations of the carnal and more modern advances in sexual/gender politics, Feary has assembled pieces from six contemporary artists who offer meditations on the ephemeral nature of desire, yearning and physical intimacy. Free from moralization or judgment, the works here offer a celebration of sexuality that is honest, universal, and above all, deeply human. Along with video installations from Justine Pluvange (France), Pipilotti Rist (Swiss stalwart of David Walsh’s MONA), Young-Hae Chang Industries (Korea) and William E. Jones (USA), the exhibit also presents textile and sculptural installations from Australian artists Sarah Contos and Catherine Ryan. It is Ryan’s piece Why, Why Can’t This Moment Last Forever More? that stands as the true highlight of this stimulating collection of modern artworks.

Hailing from Melbourne, Ryan is both a prodigious and polymathic artist. Concentrating on multimedia pieces, she also engages in performance, sound, text, and installation art. With a background in academia, Ryan began her studies at Monash University in 2002, majoring in philosophy and critical theory, with a particular interest in the work of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, whose theories still impel her practice to this day.

In 2012 Ryan began to produce a series of artworks in an ongoing collaborative practice with artist Amy Spiers. Together, they have worked on site-specific installation and live/participatory performance, often employing aesthetics both overtly disruptive and absurd to intelligently explore the control and policing of what is visible and invisible in public spaces. In their piece Closed to the Public (Protecting Space), for instance, Ryan and Spiers satirically hired real-life security guards to protect farcically small, demarcated sections of public space (see more at: https://thefuturesofthepast.wordpress.com). Creating art of the highest standard, their works have been exhibited both locally and at the Vienna Biennale (Austria), the Royal College of Art (London) and the Museum für Neue Kunst (Freiburg, Germany). In 2014, Ryan began postgraduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts and turned her attention to further developing her own artistic practice. This has seen a shift in her solo work towards video and sound-based mediums, in which she regularly examines motifs of repetition, rhythm and musicality. Such work has been incorporated into live performances, such as Human-Powered Karaoke at the Next Wave Festival Club.

Image Credit: Zan Wimberley

Walking into Gertrude Contemporary, a disembodied, sultry voice quickly grabs one’s attention. Bleeding in from the gallery’s main space, the opening lyrics to an EDM hit drift sorrowfully across the room. Follow the tune to its source and you’ll find Ryan’s latest installation. Here, a Technics record player and speaker system has been programmed to play a singular line (a wistful female vocal pleading: “why, why can’t this moment last forever more?”) and retract its needle to its armrest before starting the processes all over again, in perpetuity. Standing before the work, it is both auditorily transfixing and its reiterative motion hypnotises, bringing to mind a number of intriguing paradoxes. The song is at once a trashy dance chart-topper but is also imbued with a melancholy and heartache that speaks to the exhibition’s larger themes of the impermanence of lust. Speaking of her influence, Ryan explains, “I am a great lover of cheesy commercial pop songs – the sort of thing that you would hear being played at 4am on the dancefloor of The Peel Hotel or at the Eurovision Song Contest.”

For Ryan, this physical repetition is ultimately associated with how someone might listen to a particular love song (or a break-up song) on repeat during pleasurable or devastating moments in the course of his or her romantic life. As Ryan elucidates: “I find it fascinating when, in the lyrics of these songs (which are usually sung by women, are always autotuned and very plasticky-sounding), you can find these moments of existential, philosophical angst. Here is the ultimate human quandary: why can’t a beautiful moment last forever? I like the fact that this ‘big’ question comes from a ‘low culture’ source.” The wry vocal and mechanical repetition both of the arm, and the ceaselessly spinning vinyl disc, however, also seem to suggest metaphysical questions about technology’s role in modern romance and its potential capacity to transform the transient into the eternal.

Ryan admits the work was actually born out of the more general, existential question: “why does time have to pass?” She initially describes the piece as a sort of “labour-saving device for existential angst” – an apparatus one could employ to have their existential crisis for them, in the same way as a dishwasher might save one from having to handwash one’s dishes – a fictive step towards the commodification and outsourcing of emotion. Interestingly, Ryan explains that exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary has allowed the reading of the piece to shift: only when viewed through the prism of the show in its totality, does it begin to reflect specifically on the fleeting nature of amorous encounters. It is also one of the few pieces in the entire show not to directly represent lust in a corporeal sense, jettisoning the somatic for the mechanical and setting itself apart with an ethereal, ghostly quality that demands to be both seen and heard in person.

If you’re not already a lover of Ryan’s work, a trip to Gertrude Contemporary will surely see you converted. For those keen to see more, Ryan has penned a thematic continuation of the piece, an essay entitled “Manifesto for the New, Political Pop Song” that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Canadian arts journal Public  This will present a tongue-in-cheek polemic about the need for a new sort of pop song that would combat the atomized way in which suffering is experienced under neoliberal capitalism. For more visit: http://catherineryan.com.au

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