American author Adrienne Rich wrote in her 1976 book Of Woman Born: On Motherhood as an Experience and Institution, ‘All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body.’ The unfolding that new life precipitates, at first hidden and private, then propulsive and visceral, is captured in the material exploration of Stevie Fieldsend’s new series hereafter.
A series of wall-based sculptural works of varying sizes and formats draw the viewer to closely observe their making. Tightly folded pleats of fabric strain and droop, creating kinks and fissures that reveal white beneath oxblood red. The fabric resists containment, spilling over the frame, fanning outwards like a flower. The material’s autonomy implies the porousness of the borders of the human body, the female body, vulnerable to the effects of time and gravity. The unfolding feels intrinsic and fated.
As Fieldsend says, ‘Integral to my work is a sense of movement, a feeling of falling, the gravitational pull of weight, of arriving, going to, coming from, letting go, cycles of leaving and returning and leaving again.’ In their succumbing, these works also imply the collapse and decay of the human body after death. The show’s title implies an event horizon, a ‘from-now-on’ that casts off the past but forever bears the marks of its passing.
Fieldsend’s practice is process driven and intuitive, entrusting materials with freedom to do what they need to do. As she explains, ‘Any material I use needs to capture my wonder, it has to keep surprising me.’ Her 2016 series mira mira, also at Artereal, similarly used warped and ruptured fabric to reveal a shock of cobalt blue beneath gold. In this context, the textile implied the magic of sumptuous theatre drapes or the psychedelic gills of a mushroom. Fieldsend received her training in glass at Sydney College of the Arts and JamFactory Craft and Design Centre; perhaps as a result her approach to materials is decidedly sensual and mercurial. In her 2014 exhibition ‘Umbra’, which explored the potency of Malu, the Samoan ritual tattoo which covers women’s upper legs, viscous molten glass shapes interplayed with the swish of fringe and the dignified bearing of charred tree trunks.
More recent sculptural work has used black and flesh-toned pantyhose, another container for women’s bodies. Also exhibited in ‘Umbra’, bulbous masses of tinted glass weigh down the pantyhose, testing their strength and stretch. A more recent work, The Lingers, included in a group exhibition at Artereal Gallery in April 2018, is stuffed with masses of polyester fabric. The pantyhose are sewn together into fleshy tubes, spilling every which way. Their abundance feels excessive, almost defiant. Fieldsend writes that this work is ‘about how feelings can become overwhelming and take on a life of their own, how we can be hijacked by our physiological sensations which then spark into thought which then becomes our perceived reality.’ This work renders those dark thoughts as a physical presence, a literal elephant in the room.
A new freestanding sculptural work in hereafter (2018) further explores the physical properties of this material. Stuffed with the same tinted pleated fabric as the wall works, the dense mass of flesh-coloured stockings twists and binds itself together. Prolapsing forms bulge and worm towards a verticality that seems provisional, as though the work is testing out its own strength. Fieldsend describes her exploration of an idea through new materials as a ‘dialogue of intent, gestural actions; of reacting, of pushing it to its limits, of responding to its possibilities, the pull of gravity and the way it falls and of failing and of triumph.’
‘The power of Stevie’s work lies within it being so deeply felt and personal – yet also expressive of and identifiable with the universal human condition,’ says exhibition curator Barbara Dowse. Inevitable to Adrienne Rich’s evocation of the universality of gestation and birth is its opposite – decay and death – and the works in this series hold the two in delicate balance.
Eleanor Zeichner is a writer from Sydney and current Assistant Curator at UTS Gallery.
7 November to 1 December, 2018