Writing + Curating + Projects

Anita Larkin: The Breath Within

The everyday becomes a powerful punch at contemporary society in the hands of Larkin, a master of alchemy.

Anita Larkin writes: ‘Sometimes art can suspend disbelief.’

Entering Sydney’s Defiance Gallery and encountering Larkin’s ‘improbable objects’, as she likes to call them, one hovers between the familiar presented with Duchampian rigour, and a world of nostalgia and narrative that is quite the antithesis of Duchamp’s clinical flip with his readymades.

Simply, there is a whiff of old fashioned alchemy about this show; a kind of magical transformation of the everyday into beguiling follies. Larkin calls it ‘intentional and playful disruption.’ But it is more than that. She plays with triggers, blindly sharp and often dark in their challenge of contemporary rubric.

The Breath Within is a modest exhibition of mid and small-scale sculptures, punctuated by a suite of collected paper collages and ephemera.

It’s technically luscious, and Larkin’s ability to move between materials and understand their sensibilities has a seductive quality over the viewer, that is further fueled by the quirkiness of the works.

Collectively, these objects adopt the vernacular of the social history museum, ascribed with imagined historiography or ethnography, but in the gallery setting that cast is somewhat cracked. The exhibition’s title prompts us to look beyond the surface – to life within.

Larkin described her objects as having ‘an inner breath, a potential for story and meaning’. The signature piece for the show, The Breath Within Me, fuses tubing from a vacuum cleaner – a sucking device – with a glass object that has been blown to the dimensions of Larkin’s rib cage. Is it an attempt to make the artist’s breath visible, or does it speak of more universal fragility?

Larkin casts her own lips and hand, turning herself into an object of collage; the use of bronze an interesting counterweight to the lightness of the glass. It becomes a bodily metaphor, eloquent and distilled to its most powerful gesture where reality and fiction are blurred.

Combining the artist’s cast lips with a vacuum tube: Larkin’s The Breath Within Me. Photo Pedro Altuna; courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery

This sculpture continues Larkin’s interest in instruments with the addition of a trumpet or bugle part. What is its assumed function then, if not to be played? Larkin’s celebrated sculpture in the 2nd Tamworth Textile Triennial, which is currently touring Australia, was completed through the act of playing it.

Another piece in the exhibition that continues this aural folly is Listen Up! Larkin has lined a horn with felt rendering it useless, dampening sound with a traditional insulating material.

The horn is fused with elements of a telephone and, again, Larkin has cast her own lips offering an implied kiss with the other party in this communication. However, the object’s felt cord falls free, unable to reach the power source. Her choice of materials extend the narrative, challenging the boundless portal of technology and alluding rather to contemporary miscommunication and the veracity of these networks. While the object might appear antique in the gallery setting, its landed punch is as contemporary as they come.

Larkin’s Listen Up! Photo Pedro Altuna; courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery

Felt has become a signature to Larkin’s oeuvre, a material she describes as offering a kind of ‘contemporary nomadicism’, drawing upon its long cultural history. This is, I think, the strength of Larkin’s sculptures. While they may draw us in through their humour and folly, it is the duality of narrative that gives them a conceptual edge.

Take these pairings as example: a crutch with toy soldiers and a tape measure counting time highlighting the misconception of war as sport; a felt gun pointed at the viewer with a sewing machine foot piercing the gallery’s wall at once killing and repairing the traditional (gallery) structures we know; and the skin peeled back from a tennis ball, sports stripped bare, wheeled out as the branded package over its naked truth (pictured top).

Huddle combines sporting ephemera with object that speak of war; Courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery.

The sculpture Repointing pairs a felt gun with waxed linen thread sewn into the gallery wall. Courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery.

Larkin’s sculptural unions may appear incongruous, but their intentions certainly are not.

Larkin has a pulse on humanity and an ability to bring us in to the fold of its most challenging questions in a way that reminds us of our past ​and without alienating us as viewer. She continues to surprise me through her work. She is a sculptor who should not be overlooked.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Anita Larkin: The Breath Within
Defiance Gallery, Newtown
6-30 May

Top image: Second Skin; Photo Pedro Altuna; courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery

First published on ArtsHub 20 May 2015.