This retrospective raises questions about how consciousness affects memory and experience
Jenny Watson’s retrospective The Fabric of Fantasy – which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and is now showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, in Bulleen, Victoria, until 4 March – displays a preoccupation with suburban girlhood. Flecked throughout her works are madeleine-like motifs of bottled messages, miniaturised suburban homes, and blacked-out faces redacted through memory loss. These motifs create an atmosphere of being trapped within a displaced future–past. Here is Watson reminiscing about her suburban childhood, her 1970s involvement in the Melbourne punk and feminist scenes, her beloved pet horses and international travels from a vantage of reminiscing about her almost half-century long career. Like Watson gazing at her Reflection in a Muddy Puddle (2013), The Fabric of Fantasy is not so much a retrospective as it is a reflection on a reflection. Along with Watson’s practice of accompanying her image paintings with paintings of expository text, this long, refracted contemplation raises questions about how consciousness affects memory and experience.
In a room labelled “Alice and Friends”, girls and young women with strawberry-blonde hair find themselves buffeted by unseen winds, propelled through vortexes to places unknown. They grow and shrink, being-girl and becoming-woman. These Alicious girl–women – portraits of the artist as an alter ego – recall not just Wonderland, but also Hamlet’s ill-fated Ophelia, archetypal fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty or Little Red Riding Hood, and the ever-ambiguous Lolita:
I think as a woman you draw on your background as a girl growing up, as well as these sort of fairytale-type characters, or characters in stories and in fiction that affect you, they’re part of your psyche.
These archetypal girls – or girlish archetypes – have long been features of Watson’s work. For Watson, Alice especially has long held a fascination as a figure who mirrors the “topsy-turvy” of the woman artist. In Watson’s own words, “As in the Alice story, things get curiouser and curiouser.” Watson’s work attempts to “filter the life of a suburban girl through a conceptual lens”. Using Alice’s travails in an uncanny yet familiar world whose rules and allusions she is not yet sure of is perhaps an instinctively familiar metaphor for the process of being-girl and becoming-woman: “[D]espite all her mind-bending transformations, [Alice] remains the same passive participant.” Like the suburban girl, like the woman artist, Alice’s externally provoked physical alterations belie a world in which the protagonist is absolutely not the director. And while Ophelia, Sleeping Beauty et al are confined to the “Alice and Friends” room, Alice ranges much further over the collection. We sense her influence in the five-part 1988 series The Bottled Memories, in the dream talismans that Watson pulls from “The Jewel Box” room, and in random images spattered throughout the exhibition – such as 1991's Sleeping in New York – which portray the artist at her most wistful. Like the “Drink Me” and “Eat Me” morsels that Alice finds along her way, Watson’s metaphoric madeleines explode upon consumption, tasting of bittersweet nostalgia.
Until fairly recently, nostalgia was considered a disease. It was associated with soldiers and understood as a manic melancholia directed towards a specific object. Until the 19th century, nostalgia was unequivocally understood as a negative. More recently, however, psychologists have suggested that nostalgia can have positive impacts on individuals and societies. It encourages empathy and kindness in children, can help trauma victims reorient themselves towards positive memories, and can instil within an individual a profound, if fleeting, feeling of joy. At the same time, nostalgia on a larger scale is prone to tribalism and is often the driving force of nationalist narratives. A volatile element, nostalgia must be properly bottled, served and consumed: too much of it can lead one awry. In The Fabric of Fantasy, it is not easy to identify nostalgia as a positive or negative force.
At times, Watson’s nostalgic treats have a bite to them. The Pretty Face of Domesticity (2014) shows a red-haired woman in a yellow sundress on all fours, gazing at the viewer from a cage-like ruddy veil of vertical burgundy stripes. Reminiscent of the eerie prisoner of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the piece contrasts its nostalgic recall title with a visual recoil at the sight of a seemingly terrified woman bound by an externally imposed situation. Yet other images are effervescent bubbles of girlhood, tasting of nothing but sickly sweet plain white sugar. Girls adorned with horsehair ponytails, girls in pink pinafores and white bobby socks, girls lounging in bedrooms amid the envoys of popular culture, sequined bedclothes, and record players. And while the domestic scene and internal life of women artists has long served as inspiration for emotionally powerful and subversively feminist art, framed by Watson’s understanding of feminism as standing “toe to toe with any man as long as I can wear my fishnet stockings”, these images fall silent. They remain ambiguous as to whether they are commentary on or support for the experience of girlhood as remembered by the artist. If feminism’s only offering to girlhood, as the assumed precursor to womanhood, is that women can do anything they want without sacrificing their femininity, then culturally conditioned femininity becomes the uncritiqued constant, and the notion that one should internalise and perform it, implicitly condoned. Alice is still passive subject borne by others’ winds and paths, she just gets a few more speaking lines.
In a 2016 conversation at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre titled Hey Girl, writers and feminists Jennifer Down, Marlee Jane Ward, Abigail Ulman and Jax Jacki Brown suggested that one experiences girlhood only on reflection. That, at the time, one experiences childhood. Girlhood, then, is always an already nostalgic position: a state that is only understood or experienced after the fact, only ever seen through the obscured mirror of hindsight. In looking back over the course of her impressive career, this is possibly what Watson and curator Anna Davis wanted to explore. But these images – from all stages of Watson’s career – weren’t, necessarily, themselves reflexive of such issues at the time they were made. Some are certainly critical, some are deliberately fun and frivolous, some are diaristic. And it is in this contrast – this reflection of one individual’s experience of both suburban girlhood and urban young womanhood – that these images find their strength. But, framed as subversive from the vantage of a decades-long retrospective, they lose their ability to be critical. And they lose whatever it was that made them meaningful for the artist and audience at the time of their creation. They become themselves manically melancholic objects directed towards a memory of what the artist meant at the time they were made.
Watson’s “post-conceptual” art, sitting at the intersection and interplay of language and text, is a delight to view, and a source of contemplation for anyone interested in how experiences become meanings become words become images. Walking through the seven or so rooms that make up the retrospective is similarly a magnificent experience indebted to the atmosphere Watson’s work has the power to create. A display of more than 100 works from an internationally exhibited artist, an artist who represented Australia at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, who has built a half-century career without ever, as most Australian artists feel they must do, relocating overseas, The Fabric of Fantasy is both fascinating and impressive on a number of levels. But, as an exhibition framed around the themes of suburban girlhood and feminism, The Fabric of Fantasy shows that personal reflections and explorations of girlhood caught up within their present cannot be easily redirected towards contemporary meanings or uses. You can’t bottle a memory like girlhood – it overspills and colours everything.
Jenny Watson’s retrospective The Fabric of Fantasy – which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and is now showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, in Bulleen, Victoria, until 4 March – displays a preoccupation with suburban girlhood. Flecked throughout her works are madeleine-like motifs of bottled messages, miniaturised suburban homes, and blacked-out faces redacted through memory loss. These motifs create an atmosphere of being trapped within a displaced future–past. Here is Watson reminiscing about her suburban childhood, her 1970s involvement in the Melbourne punk and feminist scenes, her beloved pet horses and international travels from a vantage of reminiscing about her almost half-century long career. Like Watson gazing at her Reflection in a Muddy Puddle (2013), The Fabric of Fantasy is not so much a retrospective as it is a...