Hand to Mouth at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

October 2014
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The IMA is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Dublin-based artist Sarah Browne. Her ongoing research into informal and subsistence economies forms the basis of this new body of work, Hand to Mouth. With a particular sensitivity to the historical relationship between the production of perishable textiles and invisible digital code, Browne's point of departure is a series of iconic images of early-twentieth-century women from the Shetland Islands, knitting as they walk, carrying baskets of turf on their backs. These photographs are an unexpected antecedent to contemporary images of the multitasking, precarious labourer: hands knitting are now typically replaced by fingers typing or swiping touchscreens of mobile devices; surplus time is ruthlessly exploited, mentally and physically.

Using a smartphone as a kind of 'participant-observer' filming device, Browne worked in Shetland with cinematographer Kate McCullough and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir to explore these ideas with a selection of women who work on the islands now. This film, titled Something from nothing (18 minutes, 2014), forms the central focus of the exhibition, and features a number of women, including a knitter (the fastest in the world), a photographer, a sex worker, a member of the youth parliament, and the artist herself. These individuals are variously self-employed, in education, working a number of different part-time jobs or have zero-hour contracts. They all actively cultivate an internet presence through personal and professional websites, blogs, and social media profiles, and this labour of managing the self online is key to their autonomy and ability to manage their work effectively. The film is monochrome, deliberately stylised, and moves from conventional observation into apparently more abstract passages, following the increasingly intangible tasks the women are engaged in, such as the labour of making representation (textual, imagistic, and political). The soundtrack to the film, composed by Alma Kelliher, uses techniques of pouring and knitting different sounds together to create the embodied rhythm of a contemporary 'work song'.

Other works in the exhibition are made with a comparable modesty of means, including Hand to Mouth, a series of woven laser prints that materially combine archival images with online stock photographs, generating glitchy herringbone patterns. Reproductions are a new group of sculptural works, all of which involve latex casts of the walls, floor and cracks of the artist's studio. These latex skins are peeled off and mounted on simple steel armatures, recalling washing lines, drying racks or stretchers. The uncanny materiality of these works implicitly evokes a connection or an equivalence between artistic and bodily (re)production.

This exhibition also includes the new film, The Invisible Limb, (2014). The Invisible Limb responds to the artistic practice of German artist Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985) who is known for her rigorous development of a minimalist formal language. Posenenske stopped working as an artist in 1968 to study the social sciences and engage in direct social action. Irish artist Cynthia Moran – also born in 1930 – is a sculptor at the other end of the spectrum: continuing to work as an artist well into old age, against all odds. She appears as an unexpected doppelgänger for the deceased artist, one of a series of doubles in the film. A spoken text addresses Posenenske directly, questioning some of the mysterious aspects of artistic labour and the magical qualities of supposedly costless production. The film was shot in part on location at the Giant’s Causeway, a coastal area of Northern Ireland formed by volcanic activity and consisting of tens of thousands of interlocking hexagonal basalt columns. As Moran observes of this remarkable natural landscape, “It’s very mysterious how it’s so thought out, so designed.” Images of replication and artistic production abound in the film, in the absence of reproductive labour.

Exhibition runs 11 October – 30 November 2014

Institute of Modern Art
420 Brunswick Street
Fortitude Valley
Brisbane QLD 4006