Common time performed at Craft ACT on 22 May 2004 was developed in collaboration with Christina Merry over approximately a six-month period in 2003 – 2004. The project was initiated in the wake of the devastating bushfires that occurred in and around Canberra in January 2003 and touched on themes of memory, loss, duration, fragility and ephemerality.
The following text was presented by Ellis and Christina in a forum at Canberra Museum and Gallery for the Craft ACT event Content(s).
When Barbara McConchie from Craft ACT first approached me with the idea of inviting performance artists to collaborate with craft practitioners she introduced me to the idea of producing a negotiated object.
I was intrigued by the idea of collaborating with someone who I did not know well and had not worked with before. I have always collaborated with people I studied with or worked with, who had similar conceptual interests and educational backgrounds. So I decided to seek out someone who had a very different practice to my own. I was also interested in the idea that an object could be developed through conversation. Rather than have an idea for an object and then commission someone to make it, I was keen to go into the process with an open mind and see what came out of it.
When I approached Christina Merry all I knew about her was that she knitted lace. I had met her once or twice briefly as she is a good friend of my sister in law. Being a person who gets right into repetitive and time consuming tasks myself, the idea of working with someone who knitted cobweb fine lace, using detailed patterns that took time and patience to construct appealed to me. I was interested in the process of knitting, the fact that in this process, a list of numbers and actions followed as instructions could result in a detailed and beautiful picture.
The only other thing I knew about Christina was that she lost her house in the January 18 bushfires that hit Canberra in 2003. This knowledge made me tentative about approaching her, and initially when I discussed the project with her I left it up to her whether her experience of the fires would directly inform the work we produced.
The work Common time has evolved out of a series of conversations with Christina. We got together in a cafe and I showed her images of work I had produced before, and she showed me some of her work. Initially we just talked and got to know each other. Through a couple of meandering and tangential conversations we discovered shared fascinations with the significance objects take on in our lives, the experience of loss and how time spent producing, preparing, working towards and end result might be interesting to explore as an end in itself.
Knitting a sampler quilt
I was very interested when Ellis approached me to be part of this performance. I had knitted in public for many years, even knitting on Bondi beach (the sand just went through the holes!), however I had never knitted in a live performance before. Ellis and I spent many hours talking about what we would do and how this would work for us.
It took quite some time for me to decide what I was going to knit. Eventually I realised that a knitted sampler quilt using 1ply wool I had rescued when evacuating my home which burnt down in the bush fires that hit Canberra on 18 January 2003 would be what I would make.
The inspiration for this sampler quilt came from the beautiful hand made quilts and hand knitted rugs that were made especially for the bushfire affected people in Canberra by volunteers. As I was one of those who lost their home in the fires I was very touched by this amazing generosity. It seemed appropriate to reflect this experience with the small amount of wool I saved from my once large stash, embarking on a knitting journey of experimentation on a scale I had not attempted before.
The sampler patterns were sourced from some interesting places, as I now had none. All are different sizes, which accounts for the pattern irregularities and can be considered a design feature. From inspiration to completion doing my own design was more time consuming and challenging than following my usually traditional patterns. The lace quilt is divided into twelve samplers each of which begin in the middle and are worked out to the perimeter. Each sampler was then edged by a shamrock insertion and grafted together. The matching scalloped shamrock border was worked sideways and grafted to the samplers.
Weighing approximately 350 grams and taking about 100 hours to make, it has become a truly unique expression of a quilt translated into knitted lace. I am pleased with the end result that can only be measured in relation to the fact that this knitting has helped balance my life, on my own particular journey after the bushfire.
One of the themes or subjects I keep coming back to in my work is that of the domestic environment. I am interested in the way domestic spaces can function as socialising agents. They are the spaces we grow up in, the spaces of our first memories, conversations, arguments, possessions and relationships. While I am interested in houses, furniture and possessions, it is the performative processes associated with domestic spaces that are the focus on my attention. When I develop a work I often produce an object as part of the performance, it relates to what I call the constructive process of inhabiting – it is an exploration of the relationships between bodies and objects where space is contingent – produced like the object through performance in time.
One of the other interests I have developed over the last couple of years, has been and interest in stories and conversation, and how they can be employed in the development of works of art. I think of stories and performances as objects too. Stories can be intangible memorials, conceptual objects that are passed on from one person to another and transformed in the process. Stories are formed anew each time the are told, they have an organic life and a thingness about them.
Lace presents space and air – it’s very light but very applicable – you can do many things with it. Lace can be very special and personal, it can be made by a grandmother for their grandchild, and handed down from one generation to the next.
I have been knitting for over forty years, and in the past ten I have become very interested in the traditional Shetland shawls, the history and the making of them. It gives me great pleasure to knit something that someone else knitted 200 years ago.
After I lost all my patterns in the fires I was approached by people who wanted to share their patterns with me. One lady in Gundagai had patterns shipped out to Yass and someone else went out to Yass to pick them up, and I was very touched by this generosity.
These are questions I ask myself when making work: How long is a performance, should it exist only in the memory when it is over, what is the function of documentation. In making performance with are taking time, time to act, to construct, to breathe? Performance can be used to play with how we perceive time and evoke other times simultaneously. Time gets spent, wasted, used and lost, it is always relative, it hangs heavy on our hands and it flies.
Knitting marks time, it has a pace, a rhythm. The sound of knitting is an extension of the sound of the knitter’s bodily processes, it occurs in concert with their breathing, their heartbeat. Knitters speed up and slow down depending on where they are and what other sounds surround them. Christina has described to me howher knitting speed varies according to the kind of music she listens to while she knits. Bronwen Sandland described knitting as a funny kind of clock.
The significance of objects
Losing one’s home in the fires was much harder than I ever thought it would be. I had thought all one owned was just stuff – and it is just stuff. However it is your stuff, your history, the things that your used in your everyday life. The things that however small they may be were the things that you treasured. It is hard to live without some of these things. Very hard.
I especially miss the wool that I had collected, that was already in my minds eye projects for the future. It was always fun collecting and being given wool and knowing that when a project was completed I could easily move on to the next one.
This meant using the last of this wool was a bittersweet experience. Therefore doing the project and performance with Ellis was a wonderful experience. The conversations over cups of tea were important to the process as were the discussions that we had about time, the lack of time in our lives and in relation to my own experiences in the bushfires.
This whole experience was in fact a very healing one for me and I have learnt many things during this time.
Two works I made before Common time also featured cardboard furniture. I have worked with cardboard on and off for almost ten years and a couple of years ago I started really noticing the alleys behind shops around where I live. I would see piles of refuse, cardboard boxes, bits of plastic and packaging. I started to think about these behind the scenes spaces that are used to make our other spaces inhabitable. I made a few arm chairs and delivered them to a series of back alleys. The chairs were made from a material that was already history, packaging material that had served its original purpose and was being thrown away. I wanted to say something about comfort and abandonment. I made things purely to abandon them. They didn’t last long – days, hours before they were squashed and became rubbish again.
This experimentation led to the work entitled Living room made for late year’s Domain exhibition in and around City Walk in Canberra. Those individual pieces of furniture I had been abandoning in alleyways grew into a collection of pieces that could have filled a living room.
Five performers spent the day with this collection of furniture lounging around, reading newspapers and drinking coffee. I chose not to participate because I didn’t want the performers looking to me for direction. Because I stood back the performers made decisions I would not have and created a work that I would not have developed on my own. They took the furniture through the shopping centre up and down escalators weaving in and out of Saturday shoppers. It was a great opportunity for me to stand back and observe the interactions of the performers with the wider public and the decisions they made.
For Common time I again used cardboard furniture to create a domestic environment. Christina’s lace piece was integral to the development of the work. The shadows cast through the lace and onto the cardboard gave the furniture patterned surfaces. It was also very important that she be physically present in the performance, that her process of knitting be visible.
While Christina knitted I packed the furniture up, transforming it into luggage. These objects had an anonymous feel, like real furniture with the colour drained out, like memories of real things. There is a toy like quality to them, like they have come from and overgrown child’s cubby. I packed up these objects around Christina, demounting while she constructed. The idea was to stop and focus on that in-between time we spend preparing – that time focussed on getting somewhere else – meditating on practice, which is such a big part of making objects that get exhibited away from the context of their making.
Common time was a process piece, a work that moved, it had already started when the audience entered and the end was left ambiguous. The work exists now in another form, documentation, remaining objects, the memories of the audience – these elements become traces, the documentation a reminder of an event, marking time, presenting a moment from the past. Within the work there was a temporal convergence – the time I spent packing, the months Christina spent knitting, the rhythm of her needles and the tempo of my actions. The patterns in the lace each with their own history casting detailed shadows across the furniture as it was transformed. The performance ended ambiguously – I collected as much as I could carry and left the room. Christina carried on knitting, the remaining luggage stacked up next to her. The audience, left wondering if I would return had entered the performance after it had started and were now ushered out as Christina remained in her chair and I had disappeared.