ART MUR­MUR (mûr’mer)

An in­stal­la­tion by Ross­lynd Pig­gott, The John­ston Col­lec­tion, 2013.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dr An­gela Hes­son

“Mur­mur” (mûr’m e r) n. 1. A low, in­dis­tinct, con­tin­u­ous sound:

the mur­mur of the waves. spoke in a mur­mur;

2. An in­dis­tinct, whis­pered, or con­fi­den­tial com­plaint; a mut­ter. 3. Medicine An ab­nor­mal sound, usu­ally em­a­nat­ing from the heart,

that some­times in­di­cates a dis­eased con­di­tion.


A mur­mur is by def­i­ni­tion an elu­sive thing, ex­ist­ing in the pe­riph­ery. Like a shadow or an im­print, the more one at­tempts to grasp it, the more ephemeral it be­comes, its force re­sid­ing in the realm of sug­ges­tion or evo­ca­tion rather than that of the lit­eral or fig­u­ra­tive.

When artist Ross­lynd Pig­gott turned her at­ten­tions to Fairhall, the 1860 town­house once in­hab­ited by Mel­bourne an­tiques dealer Wil­liam John­ston, and to­day hous­ing his col­lec­tion of 18th- and 19th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture and ob­jets d’art, it was this sense of the un­know­able that most in­trigued her. As she re­searched John­ston and his col­lec­tion - ex­am­in­ing the pho­to­graph al­bums, the fo­lios of let­ters and post­cards, as well as the col­lec­tion it­self - it was the el­lipses, the pauses, the un­spo­ken traces that seemed to har­bour the most pro­found in­sights into John­ston’s life. Pig­gott would make nu­mer­ous vis­its to the col­lec­tion over the fol­low­ing months, se­lect­ing ob­jects and art­works, and spend­ing hours qui­etly ab­sorb­ing the house’s at­mos­phere.

It was in 2010, at the open­ing of an ar­range­ment by fash­ion de­signer Akira Iso­gawa, that Pig­gott first en­coun­tered The John­ston Col­lec­tion. En­thralled by the sen­su­al­ity of Iso­gawa’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the space and his em­pha­sis on its dream­like qual­i­ties, Pig­gott be­gan to con­sider the pos­si­bil­i­ties that Fairhall might hold for a con­tem­po­rary artist. Par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing was the free­dom and flex­i­bil­ity af­forded by the na­ture of John­ston’s be­quest. As a dealer first and fore­most, John­ston was in­ter­ested in the ways in which peo­ple live with things, rather than in any in­tel­lec­tu­alised no­tion of aes­thetic per­fec­tion. His ap­proach was more prac­ti­cal than rev­er­ent, and ac­cord­ingly the trust stip­u­lated that the col­lec­tion should be reg­u­larly re­ar­ranged, and that it be dis­played with­out ropes or bar­ri­ers. Vis­i­tors are thus able to move freely among the ob­jects, as if in a do­mes­tic set­ting, with­out the lay­ers of for­mal­ity and dis­tance usu­ally present in the mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence.

While few in­sti­tu­tions have the ben­e­fit of such an ac­com­mo­dat­ing be­quest, the con­tem­po­rary artist’s in­ter­ven­tion has be­come an in­creas­ingly preva­lent mo­tif of house mu­seum cu­ra­tor­ship in re­cent years. From the grandiose, con­tro­ver­sial in­stal­la­tion of Jeff Koons’ sev­en­teen sculp­tures at the Palace of Ver­sailles in 2008, to Elm­green and Dragset’s un­der­stated and darkly witty con­structed in­te­ri­ors, To­mor­row, ex­hib­ited ear­lier this year at the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert, the bar­ri­ers between pub­lic and pri­vate, his­tory and in­ven­tion, con­nois­seur­ship and kitsch, have been con­tin­u­ously tested, ma­nip­u­lated and un­der­mined. The es­sen­tially fic­ti­tious na­ture of the house mu­seum is a no­tion that pre­oc­cu­pied Pig­gott from the out­set of her project. In this cu­ri­ously hy­brid space, the needs of his­tory must be bal­anced against those of aes­thet­ics, the de­sires of vis­i­tors against those of cu­ra­tors and artists, and amongst all of this are the of­ten com­plex needs of the ob­jects them­selves, for the most part, never in­tended for mass ex­po­sure.

Mur­mur is not Pig­gott’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of in­cor­po­rat­ing mu­seum ob­jects into her prac­tice. In 1993-4, her ma­jor in­stal­la­tion, Dou­ble Breath (con­tained) of the Sit­ter, at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria saw her works sym­bol­i­cally in­ter­spersed amongst a se­lec­tion of stock­ings, gloves and other cor­po­re­ally and emo­tion­ally res­o­nant ob­jects sourced from the gallery’s Fash­ion and Tex­tile and Dec­o­ra­tive Arts depart­ments. Evok­ing Su­san Ste­wart’s ground-break­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the ways in which the ‘sou­venir’ and the ‘col­lec­tion’ func­tion as ob­jects me­di­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in time and space, Pig­gott’s prac­tice is con­sis­tently distin­guished by sen­si­tiv­ity and del­i­cate at­ten­tion to nu­ance. She has worked ex­ten­sively with ephemeral me­dia - light, air, sound and scent have all fig­ured in her cre­ations over the past three decades - and ac­cord­ingly, her in­ter­ven­tion into The John­ston Col­lec­tion is one that plays as much upon the no­tion of spirit as upon the ma­te­rial ob­ject. The eight rooms that house the col­lec­tion, as well as the spa­ces between them, are cu­rated with an em­pha­sis on emo­tional af­fect. Sev­eral rooms have been sym­bol­i­cally ‘re­stored’ to their orig­i­nal pur­pose, and while their ar­range­ments and con­tents may dif­fer from those present dur­ing John­ston’s life­time, a sense of these spa­ces’ his­tory and the lives lived within them is cap­tured.

Plate 04.

Par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion has been de­voted to John­ston’s re­la­tion­ship with Ahmed Moussa, his Egyp­tian-born as­sis­tant/com­pan­ion with whom he passed more than 20 years of his life. The up­stairs bed­room, where Ahmed slept dur­ing John­ston’s life­time, is all but filled with a carved four-poster bed, on which two toi­let mir­rors are po­si­tioned fac­ing one an­other, re­flec­tions cast in­fin­itely back and forth between them. The ef­fect is both in­ti­mate and cu­ri­ously poignant. In a new work, From B to A, in Colo­nial Knot, the trail­ing thread of a pil­low em­broi­dered with John­ston’s ini­tial dis­ap­pears be­neath the bed, sym­bol­i­cally con­nect­ing this space to his own bed­room, di­rectly be­low, where the thread of a match­ing pil­low, em­broi­dered with Ahmed’s ini­tial, winds up to meet it. Con­ceived by Pig­gott and worked by one of the col­lec­tion’s guides and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Em­broi­der­ers Guild, Dorothy Mor­gan, the work al­ludes qui­etly to the ever-present themes of pri­vate af­fec­tion and pub­lic pro­pri­ety.

Draw­ing upon the po­tent ol­fac­tory link to me­mory, Pig­gott has scented the room with san­dal­wood, its warm, woody fra­grance pro­vid­ing an ad­di­tional air of com­fort and en­vel­op­ment. In the ad­join­ing up­stairs sit­ting room, an 18th-cen­tury por­trait at­trib­uted to Joseph High­more has been draped in muslin. The del­i­cate fall of the fab­ric ob­scures the sit­ter’s face while fram­ing her hands, one hold­ing a rose, the other ges­tur­ing to it.

Across the land­ing, a gentle­man’s study has be­come a place of melan­choly, the flick­er­ing chan­de­lier, sus­pended awk­wardly low, barely il­lu­mi­nat­ing en­grav­ings of ru­ins and bib­li­cal bat­tle-scenes. The mood of the Yel­low Room op­po­site is al­to­gether lighter - this has been re­stored to its orig­i­nal use as the flat of John­ston’s friend, An­gus Win­neke. The sketches and pho­tographs dis­played here are taken from Win­neke’s suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a set and cos­tume de­signer at the Tivoli The­atre. Through­out Fairhall, con­tem­po­rary fur­ni­ture has been spar­ingly in­tro­duced to re­flect John­ston’s own taste for jux­ta­pos­ing the mod­ern against the an­tique, and here a golden Land­scape chaise longue by Jef­frey Bur­nett for B&B Italia is de­li­ciously mod­ish against the black and white che­quered floor.

The divi­sion of Fairhall into flats dur­ing John­ston’s life­time is in it­self telling. For all of his con­spic­u­ous so­cial and fi­nan­cial as­pi­ra­tion, John­ston’s re­la­tion­ship with lux­ury was an un­easy one. He would hap­pily com­mit a month’s in­come to a piece of porce­lain, but he did his weekly shop­ping at the Queen Vic­to­ria Mar­ket at the end of the day, snap­ping up wilt­ing veg­eta­bles for pen­nies. He pur­chased an ex­ten­sive coun­try prop­erty and filled it with valu­able an­tiques, but re­fused to turn the heat­ing on. This com­bi­na­tion of deca­dence and aus­ter­ity has, per­haps, its own air of af­fec­ta­tion, its own par­tic­u­lar pedi­gree de­rived from the life­style of the faded English aris­toc­racy, bump­ing around the fam­ily pile in thrice-darned socks. Whether John­ston em­u­lated this model know­ingly is any­one’s guess; his mo­tives, like his re­la­tion­ships, re­main elu­sive. The com­pany he kept was far from aris­to­cratic, and he lacked the ed­u­ca­tion to ac­quaint him­self with the great lit­er­ary col­lec­tors and con­nois­seurs on whom many bet­ter-renowned 20th cen­tury aes­thetes mod­elled their tastes and be­hav­iours.

The cu­ri­ous ten­sion between os­ten­ta­tion and par­si­mony is most em­phat­i­cally ex­pressed in the rooms down­stairs. Here, one moves from the cell-like sim­plic­ity of John­ston’s bed­room, with its sin­gle bed and un­hung stack of por­traits fac­ing the wall, to the ex­tra­or­di­nary glam­our of an ad­ja­cent all-white sit­ting room, com­plete with po­lar bear rug and walls of gilded ro­coco mir­rors. A 2009 work by Pig­gott, Mir­ror, Mir­ror, is in­tro­duced here - a sen­su­ous, tac­tile par­ing of oil and pal­la­dium leaf on linen and slumped mir­rored glass. This is a place of ego­tism and in­dul­gence, both se­duc­tive and softly un­nerv­ing. A tipped-over teacup and scat­ter of play­ing cards on the floor seem to sug­gest John­ston’s fa­mous tem­per. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the porce­lain lip of the cup against the fringe of bear fur evokes, sur­pris­ingly and pleas­ingly, the sur­re­al­ist in­con­gruity of Meret Op­pen­heim’s Dé­je­uner en Four­rure. A stark, plas­tered fire­place, framed with fluted mar­ble col­umns, be­comes a stage set for three 19th-cen­tury mytho­log­i­cal Par­ian ware fig­ures. This white on white tableau was Pig­gott’s first in­ter­ven­tion into the space, its cu­ri­ously har­mo­nious jux­ta­po­si­tion of un­der­stated, even min­i­mal­ist palette and dec­o­ra­tive his­tori­cism set­ting the tone for much of what is to fol­low.

In the Green Draw­ing Room, the largest and usu­ally the grand­est room in Fairhall, Pig­gott has cre­ated two sec­tions. At one end, a clus­tered in­stal­la­tion of fur­ni­ture and ob­jects evokes John­ston’s work­shop. An up­ended rose­wood sofa ta­ble seems cu­ri­ously per­son­i­fied, its curv­ing legs di­rected vul­ner­a­bly ceil­ing­ward, mak­ing vis­i­ble its more re­cent pine ad­di­tions. In this gen­tly re­veal­ing ar­range­ment, even the fur­ni­ture seems to be sur­ren­der­ing its se­crets. At the other end of the room, the 18th-cen­tury ma­hogany din­ing ta­ble is set for a for­mal din­ner. Di­rectly above it, Pig­gott has pro­duced a video work, which draws upon the flow­er­ing mag­no­lia tree in the court­yard beyond. The work is pro­jected through an elab­o­rate multi-tiered chan­de­lier, in such a way that its shad­ows and re­frac­tions be­come part of the shift­ing, trans­form­ing im­age. A sus­pended for­est of crys­tal lus­tres glit­ters in shades of pink and green.

The se­ries of new printed works that Pig­gott has pro­duced in con­junc­tion with her ar­range­ment main­tain this haunt­ing sense of the frag­men­tary. Over­lay­ing archival pho­tographs (many in the neg­a­tive state) with her own con­tem­po­rary pho­tographs of blos­soms and leaves taken in the gar­den of Fairhall, Pig­gott cre­ates glimpses and sug­ges­tions of over­lap­ping spa­ces and over­lap­ping lives. In Mur­mur – Mag­no­lia Soula­ni­ana, a mag­no­lia ap­pears phan­tas­mi­cally sus­pended in the canopy of John­ston’s four-poster bed. The bro­caded draperies and pat­terned rugs of the bed­room merge and layer with the dense fo­liage of the gar­den and the sub­tle gra­da­tions of pink and white in the curv­ing petals of the flower. In Mur­mur – Va­cances en Paris, John­ston him­self ap­pears, pos­ing awk­wardly at the Tui­leries be­fore Éti­enne-jules Ramey’s mon­u­men­tal, men­ac­ing sculp­ture of Th­e­seus and the Mino­taur. An over­layed dark­ened in­te­rior with tow­er­ing grand­fa­ther clock lends an ad­di­tional aura of me­mento mori. The ef­fect of neg­a­tive sil­ver­ing present in many of these im­ages is at once lux­u­ri­ous and ghostly.

Through­out the house, Pig­gott pro­vides mo­men­tary glimpses of com­fort and whimsy. The kitchen is more tra­di­tion­ally dec­o­rated with oak, rus­tic Stafford­shire fig­ures and blue and white porce­lain. A half-land­ing bath­room has be­come an aviary, a ver­i­ta­ble rain­for­est of vi­brant 19th-cen­tury porce­lain birds set against a 1960s wall­pa­per of sil­vered palm fronds. A Chi­nese urn pot­ted with liv­ing or­chids has been in­tro­duced here - a si­mul­ta­ne­ous ges­ture to Pig­gott’s en­dur­ing love of these frag­ile flow­ers, and to John­ston’s en­thu­si­asm for gar­den­ing. Travel was an es­sen­tial as­pect of John­ston’s life as an an­tiques dealer, and in the land­ing, a se­lec­tion of vin­tage suit­cases (lent by the col­lec­tion’s guides and vol­un­teers) have been stacked to sug­gest a re­cent, or up­com­ing, jour­ney.

Yet de­spite its ex­ten­sive prepara­tory re­search and nu­mer­ous al­lu­sions to past events and lives, Pig­gott’s ar­range­ment never lapses into the realm of sim­ple bi­og­ra­phy. For ev­ery ref­er­ence to some fac­tual as­pect of John­ston’s life at Fairhall, Pig­gott in­tro­duces a note of un­cer­tainty; like the new pho­to­graphic works pro­duced in con­junc­tion with the ar­range­ment, ev­ery tableau is veiled, shad­owed or over­layed with al­ter­na­tive mean­ing. In­te­gral to this project is the ac­knowl­edge­ment of me­mory’s fal­li­bil­ity, of the ways in which his­to­ries are writ­ten and rewrit­ten. Mur­mur is a deeply af­fect­ing in­ter­ven­tion, both ten­der and in­ci­sive, that slips del­i­cately between de­sire and de­nial, op­u­lence and re­straint, love and bit­ter­ness, and emerges as a co­her­ent and im­mer­sive med­i­ta­tion on the com­plex, shift­ing na­ture of re­mem­brance, in all its ma­te­ri­al­ity and im­ma­te­ri­al­ity.

Im­age Plates Plate 01. Splin­ter - Gar­den 2012 - 2013 DVD loop pro­jected through 19thc English chan­de­lier in the Green Draw­ing Room. Plate 02. Ahmed’s bed­room, in­clud­ing From B to A in Colo­nial Knot, 2013. 2 x em­broi­dered pil­low­cases and con­nect­ing...

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