So, the critic says to his child, tell me about this new show.
Well, says the child, when I began the work, about a year ago now, it felt like a clean break. A poor commercial decision but a necessary artistic one. That was the intention, at least. I’d grown exhausted with painting and wanted to see what shape my expression could take in some other medium. And I’ve always been drawn to sculpture but had never felt comfortable working in it. The additional dimension seemed to introduce too many variables, generate too much uncertainty. I didn’t like the idea of someone circumnavigating my art. It leaves you vulnerable.
Yet here we are, says the critic.
The critic and his child sit on black folding chairs, angled towards but not directly facing one another, in front of an audience of several dozen, seated in identical chairs. The critic holds a Moleskine in one hand and a ball-point in the other. He is yet to use either; he leans forward. The child’s brown boots swing gently above the blonde floorboards, which reflect the gallery’s white fluorescent light.
Indeed, here we are, says the child. And while the intention was a clean break, my feeling is, although I hesitate to make this claim about my own corpus, that it’s a natural evolution.
That morning, the critic had made himself and his child the same breakfast (yoghurt, fruit, pepitas, almonds) and laid out his child’s clothes after ironing his own. He had spoken with his child about the capacity and place of words in visual art. He had signed a document that waived his right to sue in the event that harm came to her during an upcoming four-night school camp, which would include rock climbing, a ropes course, and a writing workshop.
I look around this room, continues the child, and see the problems of my previous work being effectively dealt with, resolved or even dissolved. The performative unfamiliarity, the overreliance on irony. I think those features, those crutches, are safely consigned to the past.
Each sculpture—there are ten in the gallery—is a rendering of the critic. They vary in size, abstraction, and posture (one sits, one leans, one waves, one writes in a Moleskine, two are shaking hands, etc.) but all are recognisable: the thick-framed tortoiseshell glasses, the denim jacket, the narrow nose and the sagging quiff of thinning brown hair. If you were to look at the critic, then at one of his doubles, and then return your gaze to the critic, you’d experience something like the shock of recognition you felt when you last saw a person you’d not seen in decades, their features mystically rearranging, the signs of ageing diminished so that their past and present selves could be more neatly joined. That is to say, if you were in the gallery, you’d be unsettled by the autonomy of your perception.
The critic smiles.
But it was the humour and cynicism in the self-portraits that made your name. Do you want to reject that entirely?
The child breathes in as if preparing to speak, but then stops. Behind the audience an intern drives a warm bottle of Riesling into a box of ice, crunching through the polite silence.
I mean (the child knits her fingers together and presses them into the back of her head), it’s not a matter of rejecting it. It’s simply not the kind of work I want to make now. At the time I thought it was clever to try and fail to eradicate the self, I thought palimpsest was subversive. It’s probably a phase I needed to negotiate, but today I’m more interested in what we can know about ourselves and others rather than what remains unavailable. After all, description of the latter is exhaustible.
And you think this new medium is especially compatible with this new phase?
The sculptures of the critic are made of balloons, balloons of many different shapes and colours. Somehow, the child has arranged things so that the balloons pulse gently, organically, reminding the audience of a soft breath or heartbeat. Density is used to evoke texture. The hair, for example, is comprised of the smallest balloons, tightly packed; only by standing quite close, too close even, can the viewer distinguish the true composition.
During the obligatory audience Q and A, a man asks whether the child is anxious that a balloon will pop. And, additionally, if one balloon pops, whether that might trigger a chain reaction, causing the balloons in proximity to the popped balloon to pop, and so on. One just has to imagine the terrible noise, says the man.
Outside, the light fades. The sun’s last rays make the gallery—a white concrete box— appear blush pink. Edging towards the tail end of rush hour, the sound of a siren emerges then fades like a bright red thread against the tapestry of traffic. Despite the building being only a couple of blocks back from a main road, there are few pedestrians. But those who do walk by see, through the open door, a man, his daughter, an audience, and balloons to which the context and creator have attached significant value.
Later, the critic says goodnight to his child, and leans in to kiss her on the forehead, before standing at her bedroom door, observing the artist. He wonders whether he should have spent longer talking to the woman at the gallery who’d asked him whether he was flattered by the show, by his elaborate balloon selves. He reflects on the six sculptures that sold, imagining them in living rooms and lobbies, deployed as conversation pieces, as monuments to their prodigious, promising creator. A beam of light across her face, the child closes her eyes and tries to sleep.
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney.