“There are many elements in all, each an individual but also a member of the group, sharing common characteristics that define it and its heritage. Regardless of where it faces, it dances and greets – that’s what each must do – a responsibility to itself and to the group. The fragility of the entire system is mirrored in the individual and each layer of its being. To fit in requires effort – balancing – and a certain understanding of the space one inhabits and of those sharing it.” – Luff
When we think of exotic species it is within a biological context: animals, microorganisms, and plants alien, unpredictable in their proliferation, and insidious – simply ‘different’. It is synonymous with non-native. This factor-driven classification is sadly mirrored in our 21st century desire for neat box-ticking and a plague of fear with its subtext of boarder control, asylum seekers, quarantine and removal. The exotic slowly takes on an unpalatable tone that creeps into a collective conscious like weeds or vines with their complex entanglements. The rubric of control sits duplicitous with the expectation of social assimilation. The metaphor splits. The exotic species must become hybrid, grafted to its new environment to survive.
Living in regional New South Wales, Tracy Luff is like that exotic species transplanted from tropical Malaysia to the cold arid climate of Goulburn – the different one – constantly existing within parenthesis. While Luff does not subscribe to cultural politics as a platform for her artmaking, she is however interested in exploring the boundaries of physical and psychological space and to question her own sense of displacement through the metaphor of recycled cardboard, her chosen material.
These ideas come together in her installation, Tip-toe-tip-toe where can I go? (2011), 22 cardboard forms sprouting in the lower gallery of 4A, observed from the street like a specimen rare and somewhat contagious, controlled in its room-sized vitrine. One is witness to something emerging.
An interesting precursor to this piece was the outdoor work, The Different Ones (2009). Taking its cue from carnivorous plants, this small group of vertical forms sat ‘introduced’ to the Wollondilly planes like wild grasses with a resilience to survive. The physicality of the landscape posed a great challenge to the cardboard: Would it hold up? How would its character be altered? While clearly out of place, there was a beauty, a synergy in Luff’s cardboard forms as they sat in conversation with the rural setting. She is also of this place.
Artists have long inserted artworks into the landscape, artists such as Walter De Maria, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson who during the 1960s and 70s co-joined the environment and human activity by employing non-indigenous, man-made materials as an interruption, questioning the definition of what is ‘natural’ and acceptable practice. Bringing materials unfamiliar to the museum, piles of dirt, sticks, gravel, grass into its venerated space, ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ were ascribed to these materials outside aesthetic conventions. While such practices have become de rigueur, one might consider Smithson in relation to Luff. “His was an art which engaged the natural in an intimate, physical way but only to bring us closer to a disclosure of our always unstable, always mediated relation to it. This was an important realization, an understanding of nature would require a reflection on the nature of understanding.” 1.
Luff’s use of cardboard is more than mere visceral seduction or crafty obsession. As a recycled material its layered histories are inscribed and spatially extended. To paraphrase: an understanding of the material would require our material engagement to understand. A level of subterfuge is at play, like fashion-wear that uses combat camouflage in varying shades of pink we register the language – the material – but it has become feral, ascribing its own parameters of definition. Placed in the gallery Luff’s cardboard environments, deeply sophisticated in their rendering, are convincing in their rightful place.
Luff overloads the viewer with textural stimuli but denies the physical experience of walking through Tip-toe-tip-toe where can I go?, once removed by its island platform. It’s a restricted zone. Luff plays out the complexity of prescribed boundaries, the island’s sombre black maintaining an officious backdrop. The rogue exotic has been contained. Corralled and clustered, the top-heavy forms teeter on turned-wood stilettos, reaching, looking for their place. Its very title alludes to the egg-shell navigation required by a non-local.
“I have lived in Australia longer than any other country. I am not so aware of it here, but whenever I travel back the changes in me become more apparent and in some cases conflict with the norms of my birth culture. I have the feeling of not belonging there either. Even in Malaysia I am alien. I am still Chinese. This constant switching becomes a burden and heavy responsibility, and as time pass, I became the other, loosing myself, my own heritage.”
Does ‘identity’ still take precedence? As the production and consumption of ‘difference’ has become increasingly mainstream, the ‘exotic species’ has become domesticated. Cardboard plays out that role for Luff. The utilitarian sheet-character of the cardboard becomes whimsical, sensual, almost ethereal in her hands, casting shadows and gently moving, grasping at life. Tip-toe-tip-toe where can I go?, in that respect, had a performative role, a flirtation that masked a longing. The forms had a precariousness seemingly defying gravity, tenuously rooted. It underlined their impermanence.
“They stand up and sway – they are alive – they take charge. When something stands up, it is conscious and aware. The material has become part of me. I feel how it felt and they move how I move.”
Luff’s sculptures sit at the edges of realty, not unlike John Wyndham’s carnivorous mobile Triffids ever encroaching, exotic, menacing, entering our collective visual vocabulary. The denial of reality is necessary if form is to emerge as a meaningful symbol. Our compulsion to filter meaning wants us to read Luff’s use of recycled cardboard for its environmental calculability, its fragility, its supply, reuse – Its meaningful message.
That idea of renewal for Luff, however, rests more within Buddhist underpinnings of the cycle of birth and rebirth. It takes us full circle to the introduced exotic species and notions of passage, albeit the ‘new beginnings’ of migration or enlightenment through meditative mechanical repetition of making practiced by Luff. Tip-toe-tip-toe where can I go? then can only describe an elegant evolution, assured and firm footed in its spatial inhabitation.
All quotes take from email conversation with the artist while in Malaysia, 16 September 2011.
1. David Campany, “Survey”, introductory essay “Art and Photography”, published by Phaidon 2003, pg. 39
Gina Fairley is an independent writer and curator based across Sydney and Manila, Philippines. She is the Regional Contributing Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News (Hong Kong), and writes essays and reviews for international magazines. She has a special interest in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia. Her latest book Effective Art Writing will be published in 2012 with Ateneo de Manila University Press