One foot on the ground, one foot in the water

Vita e morte, life and death; alpha and omega, beginning and the end.

The inevitable proximity of death is one of the few certainties of human life, yet our living experiences with grief are often concealed by an invisible barrier, deemed too private or too personal, deterring open discussions.

‘One foot on the ground, one foot in the water’ presented by La Trobe Art Institute explores the universal subject of death and our concern with loss of life. The artworks by 10 leading artists and collectives – including Nell, Richard Lewer, Catherine Bell and Mabel Juli – mount art making as a means to face mortality, collectively and individually. A departure from vanitas and memento mori paintings, these artists view death with a contemporary lens, challenging us to reckon with dying as an inherent part of life and addressing a range of grief narratives through paintings, sculptures, installations and sound work which explore our shared mortal condition.

Richard Lewer, Crucifixes, from the series ‘There is light and dark in us all’ (detail), 2018, fired stoneware, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, Hugo Michell Gallery, South Australia and La Trobe Art Institute, Victoria

The show is staged across both galleries and two courtyards, offering a tranquil environment that encourages contemplation – both self reflection and social discussion – on experiences with loss, grief, impermanence, transcendence, remembrance and memorialisation. Curator Travis Curtin shares, ‘My hope was to produce an exhibition that echoes and reverberates in a poetic way within, much like the way someone remains with you even after they are gone – echoes in memory and objects that somehow carry the mark of their being.’

Medium, scale and colour – fragile and weighty, vast and minute, dark and light – these dualities carry through the exhibition, referencing the relationship between the eternal and the finite. Paintings in charcoal and earth pigments, ceramics and glasswork, igusa tatami mats, and sculptural works made from dental plaster and cast iron create an interplay between organic and permanent materials. A 3.3 metre cast iron and steel work by Michael Needham towers over the diminutive phenolic foam vessels, crafted by participants in Catherine Bell’s Facing Death Creatively workshops. Black and white, gold and natural shades feature exclusively throughout the works.

As Nell describes with reference to her installation With things being as they are (2017), ‘The white and black are supposed to symbolise everything that’s diametrically opposed and then the gold is everything in between and that nothing is actually white and black, nothing is that extreme, like when does day become night or life become death?’

In Mother of the Dry Tree (2017) the artist draws on the biblical coupling of the Madonna and Child, refracted but referencing the mother and son’s love and loss. Nell’s egg-shaped figures, recurring through the various works she has exhibited, suggest creation and the potential for life – fragile and robust at the same time. Curtin explains that his ‘attraction towards Nell’s work [was] the sheer directness of a visual language that speaks to everyone.’

Nell, Mother of the Dry Tree (detail), 2017, acrylic paint and mixed media on linen, wood, 296.5 x 223cm. Courtesy the artist, STATION, Melbourne and Sydney and La Trobe Art Institute, Victoria

Grey granular fist (2017), a sonic work by artist duo French & Mottershead, embodies this sense of ephemerality, transformation and the life cycle. The work from their series ‘Afterlife’ features a sound recording, delineating what would happen to the listener’s body if they were to die in this very moment, at this very spot in the gallery – described by the artists ‘as an opportunity ‘to experience the afterlife of your body’. There is a productive tension in the work; between the sensations of life and the calm, quiet knowledge of death.

An image universally synonymous with death, or for practicing Christians a symbol of redemption, the crucifix fills the gallery’s wall in Richard Lewer’s 2018 work of the same name. ‘The crucifix, to me,’ Lewer states, ‘is an unmistakeable visual representation of absolute vulnerability, with its twisted human form evidence of extreme physical suffering, whereas for others, it offers a beacon of hope, as with death there is always the opportunity to transcend this life to a better place.’

While death is universal, rituals and ways in which to remember and celebrate the departed varies. The e-catalogue accompanying the exhibition features commissioned texts by six First Nations authors, voicing their insight on mortality and customs relating to the deceased. A publication of importance not only to share experiences and broaden our perception of death, but to call for action from the legislative bodies of Australia’s States and Territories who do not currently recognise the kinship structures and death customs of First Nations communities in their Succession Laws.

La Trobe Art Institute
3 November 2020 to 17 January 2021