Lap : an installation view. Keitha Phelps Five Different Homes. Louise Haselton Contemporary Art Centre 19 November- 12 December 1993
Both Phelps and Haselton, working in installation and assemblage respectively, address contradictions, conflicts and ambiguities around the meanings accorded to private, in this instance domestic, space. Both are intent on interrogating and shifting the meanings through which notions of 'home' are constructed (or deconstructed) by contemporary women and both to a certain extent draw upon condensed and displaced imagery from childhood and from dreams.
Phelps' installation Lap is a three-dimensional sketch, in transparent polypropylene film, butterfly-clipped to wire frames, of a child's bedroom. Suspended above the bed is an intricately constructed wire-frame horse in full gallop. It turns (spins) on a single thread, covered in the charred remnants of paper-covered twist-ties.
Dreams serve us well as boundary phenomena, in that they occur where intentions are in opposition, where bodily desires have to come to terms with society. According to Freud, the energizing force of dreams springs from the unconscious impulse seeking fulfilment, a desire not fulfilled in waking life. The force of repression (censorship) between unconscious and preconscious will not allow powerfully charged infantile sexual wishes to reach representation in their original form. The material is transformed into a series of disguised (distorted) images. Freud is not interested in the same old primal wish, however, but the forms taken by the language of desire. This representation is a strange language, divested of logical and syntactical relations. It is closer to a series of ideograms or pictographs, in which the syntactical connections are left to be made by the dreamer, and in the case of a work of art by the artist, spectator or critic.
Representations also make use of symbols that are independent of the individual dreamer, deriving from a variety of cultural sources: they either have a conventional meaning or, like the horse, are 'typical symbols'; some like the horse, are overloaded with meanings.
Phelps' installation as a whole is an intricate, yet fragile, system of framework(s), horribly transparent, without privacy for the girl-child, accessible and penetrable (in suspense). The Thing is suspended, in tension between a palpable poignancy and a terrible fragility. Phelps' strength is in drawing, literally and figuratively, as in drawing the threads of childhood dramas from the back of the psyche.
Haselton works, on the other hand, with running familial and domestic 'jokes', turning the all-too-familiar into the mildly sinister, situations which are at the same time both disturbing and re-assuring. She puns ironically, condensing and displacing simultaneously the meaning of the Family Tree into and onto 'Family Tree', a tree-like assemblage of 50s low-rent wood veneer furniture legs, unscrewed, and seemingly growing from a floral fabric-lined fruit box. Everyone knows that families don't grow on trees.
Jokes and the unconscious (and hence the uncanny) go together, for the uncanny works like a joke, and the joke partakes of the uncanny. On the one hand, both can appear to be a reassurance that desires will be satisfied; on the other, both can be an unexpected denial of what was hoped for. Haselton's jokes are tendentious, jokes with a purpose, rather than innocent jokes of pure pleasure. Tendentious jokes take the form of challenging either a person or social inhibitions of all kinds. There are two forms, the hostile, giving opportunity to express aggressiveness, satire or defence; and the obscene, serving the purpose of exposure.
The 'body' of Haselton's familial world is cracked and broken - split apart and dismembered into its constituent parts - then re-assembled, through condensation into 'uncanny' (familiar and yet unfamiliar) (art) objects. The objects accumulate into a kind of (sub)urban grunge home environment, ambivalently signifying as reassuringly tactile and ironically 'broken.' Backbone, a spine-like set of towelling-covered plaster pieces is without vertebrae, and Cubby Tables features torn plastic supermarket bags covered in shattered eggshells affording fragile shelter in a metal frame planter with a missing leg. Bedhead wittily condenses bed, head, pillow and brain into one ensemblic piece. The brain is etched in glass beads (pearls of wisdom?) onto an excruciatingly ordinary grey padded blanket.