Every year the SALA festival offers an in-depth look at the practice of a living South Australian artist through a monograph on their work. This year sculptor Louise Haselton finds herself in the spotlight in both the book and a solo show at the Samstag Museum. In the excerpt from Gillian Brown’s essay in Louise Haselton: Act Natural, reproduced with permission below, the writer responds to the evocative materiality of the artist’s work.
‘Pre-encounter-post: thoughts after an experience’
by Gillian Brown
A clear and precise elbow bend in an acrylic rod. This hinge point, the apex of the sculpture, is the moment where a cool, heavy cube of white marble finds its balance with the marvellous curve and texture of a helmet shell. The shell itself sits on a triangular plastic riser to better meet the angle traced by the acrylic rod. This system is an entirely new thing, complete with a discernible logic and intent. It is of the natural world but not organic. The shell has been corked with rubber and the acrylic inserted at this juncture – is the rod a conduit? There is certainly a sense that something passes between the two anchors. The system is complete but unending. It has potential.
This sculpture is End to End 1, a 2018 work by Louise Haselton, debuted in a group exhibition at GAGprojects in Adelaide that same year. Conceived for a gallery context – always an important consideration of Haselton’s work, the presentation conditions often highlighting the preternatural appearance of her work – it sits on a sharp white plinth typical of contemporary art furniture but in this instance taking on the mantle of scientific significance. As a sculpture it is indicative of an artist interested in the strange perversity of the coexistence of all things, an artist who marvels at elements we cannot be a part of, at objects and organisms formed by nature or hand, complete with some sort of internal logic, at things that confound. The component parts of End to End 1 are collected, objects and materials gathered intuitively according to an affinity to form or surface, or perceived history. This gleaning of material is the genesis of all Haselton’s work, regardless of what form – paper, installation, textile or sculpture – the end result takes. But in each work there is always something noticeably ‘of the hand’, some intervention – an acute spatial awareness, an alertness to the power to be found in context and gaps. These marks of sculptural construction suggest an artist acting on something far more considered than intuition alone.
Louise Haselton’s work is not scientific but it does stem from a curiosity as to how much we can know – and articulate – about the world around us.
‘In severall places there are great stons standing up straight in ranks, some tuo or three foot thick and 10, 12 and 15 foot high,; It is left by traditione that these wer a sort of man converted into stons by ane Inchanter. Others affirme that they wer sett up in places for devotione but the places where they stand are so far from anie such sort of stons to be seen or found either above or underground that it can not but be admired how they could be carried there.’(1)
Since Neolithic times, the Callanish Standing Stones have overlooked Loch Roag on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. In a part of the world that can feel outside of time, these sentinels look not outwards to the Atlantic Ocean but inwards, attending their central monolith. Thirteen stones form its protective circle, with one long avenue of stones leading up to it and several shorter paths similarly marked out. One of the most complete prehistoric sites in the world, Callanish has withstood millennia of ever-changing theories regarding its purpose and use.(2) Anthropologic and archaeological fragments are sifted through, ordered, deciphered and debated in offices bathed in artificial light. At their physical site of origin, however, you are made aware of something complete but without end, something known but not understood.
The Callanish Stones are not art. Though academics argue over the purpose of their construction, this particular stone circle – like many others found across rural Scotland – seems to have an astronomical intention, the positioning of the stones tracking the moon’s passage over an exact 18.6-year cycle. As scholars have pointed out, however, to function as a calendar there is no need for such imposing scale. Why drag these stones into place? Why persevere with unnecessary weight and arduous construction? There is a general consensus among researchers that the site held some ritual function, that there was a communicative intent in the stones’ selection and placement.(3) The Bronze Age people who built and used this great stone stage were, it seems, striving to understand the universe they were enthralled by, yet their fascination was not purely scientific. Their assumed rituals signified a desire to commune with the phenomena of the world, to connect with the inexpressible. On the basis of this need for connection, I would argue that although the Callanish Stones are not art, an encounter with them raises parallel sensations of wonder, both at their intent and their making.
Louise Haselton has not laid claim to any reference of standing stones in her work. For me, however (and, coming from Scotland’s north-east, standing stones are perhaps a less exotic metaphor than they first appear) they elicit the same response as that to Haselton’s work – a fascination with how things came to be, an awareness of being in the presence of something just beyond comprehension, and awe of the fact of their physical and imaginative endurance. These are objects and settings that transcend the practicalities of their construction without obscuring the processes that brought them into being.
The wonder of stone circles predates their existence and instead begins with the impulse to build them, the conversations that lead to it and the almost absurd practicality of their construction. To paraphrase Julian Cope, musician, poet and author on Neolithic culture, ‘what we have to see when we see [a stone circle] is not some casual affair’.(4) They are the result of hours of conversation, conception and consideration of physical properties. They are composed of stones that have been quarried and discussed and dragged and arranged. Nothing in their construction is happenstance. These hours of work, these discussions and machinations, however, have occurred thousands of years before we as a viewer encounter them, discovering something existent but with an almost palpable history and manifest logic, all of which we feel compelled to unfold in an instant, but even after millennia haven’t collectively managed to explain. The facts of construction do not flatten our experience; conversely, taking note of them heightens it, adding more complexity to the conundrum we see in front of us.
The same awareness can be applied to Haselton’s work, and, if we are to consider this idea of the pre-encounter, End to End 1 is a useful point to return to. In its melding of the readymade (the shell, the rubber cork) with the handmade (the heat-worked acrylic, the strategic triangular riser), it is an example of the way in which the artist’s sensibility – her understanding of when and where to intervene – can enliven those inert elements corralled from the world around us. For Haselton, it is a case of noticing, of observing the qualities of each thing that passes into her hands and working out how one might relate to another. It is a collaboration of sorts between artist and materials and it calls through all her work, from her refined etching-like stitches on a utilitarian tape-roll of calico in Untitled, 1993, to the spools of thread in suspended animation and encased in sharp acrylic and concrete in Asymmetric Engagement, 2016, as part of her installation for the 2016 Adelaide Biennial Magic Object. In each of these examples the material binaries are complementary rather than competing, revealing something of each without condemning the other.
Louise Haselton: Act Natural can be purchased online through Wakefield Press.
1. This 17th-century account is that of Iain mcMhurch cAilein (anglicised as John Morrison), who composed a prose map of Lewis. It has been included in a number of publications but in this instance comes from a 2016 report detailing one of the more complete surveys and excavations of the site, carried out from 1979 until 1988. (Patrick J. Ashmore, Calanais Survey and Excavation 1979–88, Historic Environment Scotland, p. 11).
2. In 2016, Patrick J. Ashmore, a Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments with Historic Scotland, digitally published his in-depth analysis Calanais Survey and Excavation 1979–88, which provides insight to the range of opinions on this iconic site (Calanais being the Gaelic spelling). It can be accessed here.
3. See Patrick J. Ashmore, 2016, Calanais Survey and Excavation 1979–88, Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh.
4. The eccentric Julian Cope has parallel performance and antiquarian careers, having facilitated his study of ancient sites through the scheduling of his music tours. His book The Modern Antiquarianis now out of print but he maintains an active website for fellow amateur archaeologists and the documentary accompanying the book can be viewed on YouTube. His is a more idiosyncratic but no less engaged perspective than regular academic studies, and is perhaps the most entertaining way to be led through these remnants of an unknowable past.