Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Deborah White's Ghosts

Deborah White's installation Ghosts of the near future is a surreal submariner’s pet shop that sets out to discuss issues of climate change and environmental dystopias. There are six pretty bird cages with a vivid green almost toxic coloured video projection shining through them. In the cages fish/humans with animal masks swim seemingly up to the viewer, perhaps looking for a buyer or perhaps just looking out of their cage/fish bowl because they are trapped. Behind the cages we see a video projection of a bay window and a fresh green garden. Through the window we initially see a young girl/woman with tight blue pants and a fresh white shirt chasing butterflies with a red butterfly net. We realise that we too are enclosed and looking out just as the swimming rabbit, horse, duck, monkey and cat are. The cages make the joyful butterfly catching more sinister.

This artwork explores our desire to own and collect. It challenges the notion that as we gather more things, and guild our own cages we somehow advance. The principal of collecting centers on a lack. It is about taking pleasure in the infinite; the impossibility of completion that makes collections so stimulating. On his death bed, novelist and passionate butterfly collector Vladimir Nabakov was said to say ‘that [a] certain butterfly was already on the wing’ and he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again. The collection stops when the collector stops, it must remain incomplete in order to inspire desire in life. Nabakov wrote his famous novel Lolita while on butterfly collecting expedition.

The image we stumble upon in the gallery is similar to Nabakov’s famous narrator Humbert (a sexual predator) seeing 'a burst of greenery' before first meeting 'this Lolita, my Lolita'. The desire to catch something or someone, own it in the way Humbert longs for ownership of Lolita can never be totally realised without a fear for its escape or loss. The insidious gaze of the collector turns the innocent green of the garden to the acidic green of waste. However, the ephemeral qualities of girl and butterfly cannot be caged or preserved. The sad, masked creatures that have been caught and caged, allude to the paradox of collecting/owning. Like touching a butterfly’s wings, once you claim to have it, the elusive beauty will be forever compromised.  

In the video, the scene of the youthful girl fades and returns as an image of the girl now a woman with glasses, reading inside. While she is still the object of our gaze, we realise she has put down her butterfly net, come inside a cage of her own and has started a book collection. She reads Australian writer George Turner’s 1988 The Sea and Summer, which opens with a couple rowing between the drowned skyscrapers of Melbourne CBD as a result of climate change. As the video goes on, the pile of book increases. All the books seem to deal with the prospect of environmental disaster. The bay window outside starts to fill with the same toxic green, the caged creatures start to appear beside the reading, aging woman. The books could symbolise a pile of accumulated knowledge on the grave fears for the environment. Ironically, the endless pursuits of book-collectors contribute to this destruction. This work seems to warn us of the destruction in collecting. The more we want may result in the more we lose.

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