Watching my daughter drape a blanket over bunk beds in a holiday house reminded me of sitting under a chair as a kid with a towel draped over it. The experience of creating and inhabiting these small spaces was profound. Since what we do in space, how we divide it up, extend and project it, apportion it, contain things in it, link one space with another, are fundamental questions which inform the possibilities (as well as limitations) for sculpture, design and architecture that we experience as adults.
When I saw Mikala Dwyer’s work for the first time in the mid 90s I thought she too must be led by her childhood memories (or later by her own children) to construct these messy, simple playpen sculptures and installations, which like a kindergarten exercise seemed to focus on one shape or another, one material or another, each a set task to explore a fundamental spatial property.
Subdividing the gallery space with blankets to create cubby houses, tents, partition walls. Folding paper, cardboard, fabric or plastic to make basic shapes. Using modelling clay to make shapes and containers. Using basic shapes like cones and cylinders in circles and grids to mark out a space. Sowing fabric into basic shapes for clothes. Joining sticks or tubes to make more elaborate constructions, and scaffolds.
Curiously, her work seemed to always lead back to first principles, like a distillation or reduction, not on to something more complex and assured. In other works the first numbers and letters emerge out of the squares and blocks, a legible geometry; ‘0’ and ‘1’, an ‘I’, an ‘O’, a ‘U’. The works return to pre-linguistic values in order to refashion language, to begin speaking and writing all over again.
As someone else recently wrote: “If the multicoloured PVC pipes and other machine-like components of the installation resemble children’s blocks and other toys laid out for play on the floor, then the coat-like forms [hanging on the wall] are the crowded, haphazard bags and wet-weather gear outside the classroom”, or, perhaps they’re from the dress-up box. Dwyer had performers in one work excrete into transparent, cylindrical potties as part of the live performance, then left them on display. Freud’s thesis on art was no less explicit.
Indeed, it seems Dwyer has restaged an entire early education across a long adult career. Certainly if we could unlearn or decouple materials from institutional practices and fixed conceptions – from the history of art, design, sculpture – and redeploy them reflexively and with natural abandon and even spiritual feeling we might well get to the playground look and feel of Dwyer’s work.
In light of which, Dwyer’s avowed interest in Friedrich Froebel is not surprising. Having invented the first kindergartens in 1832 based on the importance of learning through intuitive play, Froebel also instituted “gifts” (toys) and “occupations” (activities) which would assist. The first a soft ball, followed by basic wooden geometric blocks, and then paper perforating, paper cutting and folding, interlacing, weaving, drawing, clay modeling. Thus the child was led from immediate spatial sensations to complex constructions.
Alumnus Frank Lloyd Wright, concluded: “so form became feeling … these primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects which were ever got into the architecture of the world.” Indeed, thanks to the alumni of those first kindergartens (Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee Walter Gropius) many 19th-century ideas for children’s activities have turned into artistic processes: cutting-out, bricolage, assemblage, pricking, origami, masquerade, messing about, and so on. And much of contemporary art and sculpture – Dwyer’s work is exemplary – resembles the detritus of such playful craft activity, with materials sorted into in basic shapes and piles, or stuff scattered across the floor, or pinned up on the walls.
Since psychoanalysis, and especially Winnicott, we consider a child’s imagination closer to the unconscious, and children’s games closer to pure fantasy. Thus to return to it as adults represents an ideal, open and receptive state. And as Dwyer suggests: ‘If you can get down to the core structures of our imagination, why can’t we change them?’
So while her work might seem to be a reduction to the elementary starting geometry of Froebel, from this point she attempts to construct new connections between disparate realms of experience, and opens herself and the work to radical interpretation.
Indeed, Dwyer has engaged clairvoyants to interpret of the work, or to transcribe ‘letters from the dead’ communicated during a séance as part of the work, or to determine the shape of a work (“She could see some tall, sheer white pointy things which I’ve tried making… [but] it’s really hard to interpret these flowing things and turn them into clunky matter”).
The open, loose weave of her work, the basic geometry which organizes constituent elements and effects, is like a dream or spirit catcher; a device to focus and convert ethereal transmissions into material vestiges or traces in the art gallery.
It’s a kind of idiosyncratic formalism, variously described as an ‘unconscious architecture’, a ‘playground for aliens’, a ‘little temple of love for dead things’, a ‘psychic theatre’, ‘homes for thought’, with ‘ghosts floating through walls.’ It’s clear the arrangement of materials and forms might be determined by some pretty esoteric forces; as if these simple configurations were trig points for ulterior forces.
Indeed, Dwyer refers to the different ‘frequency of materials’ including memory, emotions, love, hate, indifference, necessity, excess. So what happens if we open up materials to ideas and emotions, if we reconceive of matter as co-extensive with non-matter on some other parallel plane where everything is simply traversing space as one frequency or another (which physicists assure us is the case)?
Dwyer designs and makes the machines that might capture and coalesce these emanations. Her ‘circle’ or ‘hanging’ works focus and redouble the powers of distillation of single elements into nothing short of a largescale manufactory.
A copper distillery and conical funnels, mangled perforated coppers (where too much has been caught and sieved), ducting and tubing for channeling energies, mirrors and transparent plastic bubbles reflecting and containing the invisible material, banded trees and harnessed plants where living energy is converted to lamp light, chiseled stone converted to sound, blank slates and unmodelled clay awaiting ultimate inscriptions and final form (for all that trapped energy in potentia).
But does it really work? Well, not all the time according to Dwyer. There are, she says “momentary bouts of cohesiveness. Coalescence and dissolution are in my experience the way we go, minute to minute, day to day assembling into some order to fall apart again in the next, entropy.”
Which is always the risk of shucking off the ego, unleashing the id, dematerializing oneself into the sub and/or ultra-frequencies of the world around. Dwyer’s works are less propositions than they are apparatuses for those who elect to practice that kind of dissembling, and they come with a cute manufacturer’s warning: “If you’re standing in front of one of those sculptures, and if its doing its job, you’ll be getting a bit of an identity crisis with it: you’re not quite sure where you begin and it ends”. You may even feel inclined to don one of the suits.
Indeed, by some reckoning, human form is completely replaced across a lifetime so that all original atoms are gone by old age. Which makes of us, a wavelength (albeit it a long one), an emanation of energy, simply travelling through material form, animating it.