Activating spaces

Artist Fiona Connor has the social and physical spaces of everyday life in her sights. How she transforms them amounts to a visual – and kinesthetic – sleight-of-hand that is nothing short of miraculous. Virginia Were reports.

When 27-year-old Auckland artist Fiona Connor showed a collection of doors in a group show at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, last year the initial reaction was one of amazement and even alarm as some of the visitors to the exhibition – artists working in the same building – ‘recognised’ their studio doors and assumed Connor had taken them down and presented them as readymades in the exhibition. Complete with signage, bolts, padlocks, graffiti and the scuff marks from wear and tear, the doors were propped up in the space like a series of large and satisfyingly formal paintings; they were instantly recognisable to their worried ‘owners’ who rushed upstairs only to discover their studio doors were still hanging on their hinges. Although Connor’s initial proposal was to present the original doors as part of the exhibition, this wasn’t possible.

Like much of her work, which often takes the gallery space and environs as its subject, these reconstructed objects were replicas of the originals. They serve to focus our attention on the architecture and spaces we negotiate every day – doors, windows, walls, floors and stairs – objects and fixtures with a specific design and history all of their own; objects which we barely notice and often regard as fixed and immutable. By re-presenting them in a different context, Connor rivets our attention in the here and now. She proposes the radical and empowering notion that nothing is fixed and even the most solid and inviolate structures – whether they are architectural, social or political – have the potential for change. But it’s not only the objects themselves that ultimately fascinate her, but how they function within their social context.

“Some of the things I’m playing with are invisible but very present, and when I do a site visit (to research the work), I take note of how space functions within its community. I think that being aware of these things and using them as materials makes the work electric.”

Her work’s association with painting and specifically with the trompe l’oeil tradition is obvious when you see how Connor treats the environmental effects – scuff marks, gouges, graffiti and grime – as equally important as aspects of structure, design and manufacture. These incidental effects are traces of the body and its interaction with the built environment and also markers of the ways such spaces impact on us socially and politically. For instance her installation of doors at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces raised questions about privacy and the traditional notion of the artist as a lonely, vulnerable, isolated figure working behind closed doors. And Inner City Real Estate, 2006, at Enjoy Public Art Gallery was a life-size replica of Enjoy Gallery’s former space, which Connor miraculously inserted into the gallery’s new space, drawing attention to rising rents in the inner city – a factor which forced the Wellington gallery to re-locate to its present space.

It’s something of a paradox (for a practice that is mostly site specific and hugely ambitious in terms of scale and construction) that Connor describes her work as “exploded paintings” because the viewer can literally inhabit her work by walking into, onto or through it.

For Old Buildings, 2007, at the artist-run space Gambia Castle in Auckland, Connor built a replica of the floor above the original floor, so viewers entered the work without immediately realising they had become part of it. In the Duchampian sense this was a case of the viewer completing the work – literally walking on it as if it was a stage. Like much of Connor’s practice it took a while for this work to reveal itself fully and fellow artist Tahi Moore summed up this magical element when he said: “Fiona has raised the level of the floor about 30 centimetres. No, Fiona has made a painting of the floor, about 30 centimetres above the floor. It looks a lot like the floor except it’s not. Some of us thought it was the floor. I kept thinking that I was floating in the air. People looked taller and shorter at the same time.”

Connor doesn’t try to create faithful replicas of the originals though her re-presented objects and architectures are close enough to unsettle us. Often there are signs of stress and fracture that distinguish the original from the replica.

“There are signs of that friction in all the works but maybe that doesn’t translate in the photographs that document them. So in the front of the work Something Transparent at Michael Lett there was a broken pane of glass, and in Inner City Real Estate there was a whole bit that was collapsed. When I’m in my workshop making things, I reconstruct them in their entirety, but then they respond to the space in which I’m installing them. When I made a replica of the Artspace staircase I didn’t add any extra support and naturally it collapsed. In Inner City Real Estate there were two metres of the constructed room that simply didn’t fit into the new room, so I had to collapse it. I love that gesture – letting the space I’m moving into determine the form of the work.”

Unlike hyper-real sculpture, which relies for impact on the authenticity of the object and the insanely dedicated craft of its maker, Connor’s work wears its labour lightly. The effort is not the point. In fact, Connor is quick to point out that when she can use readymade objects she does, sourcing them from manufacturers.

One work that appeared to invite us in, yet simultaneously denied access, was Something Transparent (please go round the back), 2009. This installation, which looked at the complex relations existing between artist, dealer and audience, had people taking serious notice of this Elam graduate who recently began a Masters at California Institute of the Arts. Inspired by the idea of slides inserted in a carousel, Connor literally closed down Michael Lett’s gallery by installing 14 replicas of the gallery’s glass façade inside the space, making it inaccessible though it remained transparent.

Fellow artist Ash Kilmartin, who worked in the gallery throughout this exhibition, says, “Something Transparent has something in common with Fiona’s floor works in terms of shutting something off completely and totally removing what was there before – something you take for granted in terms of what you normally walk on or move through. It completely removed that and opened up so much more in its place.

“It was a real pleasure to sit in there with the work, and what made it successful and exciting for a large number of people, was that it functioned as an image, a sculpture and an idea. People enjoyed the physicality and the illusion of it, and some people saw it as a really beautiful thing to do at a time when the art market is feeling a little bit shaky and the bravado and facade of gallerists might be coming apart… but is it?”

People standing outside the gallery constantly rattled the door handle but found the door locked; following the instructions in the work’s title, many of them did go round the back.

“I think the work re-presented the space by literally changing the way people negotiated it,” says Connor. “It led people through the back door of the business to the private space where the conversations and deals happen and this created an interesting tension.”

Connor’s installation-based practice doesn’t fit readily into the commercial gallery system, but the fact she lived with her parents while she was in Auckland – her father is a builder and she has access to a fully equipped carpentry workshop at home – to some extent has helped her focus on making work that “offers radical new meaning by activating common spaces,” she says.

She is represented by the artist-run gallery Gambia Castle in Karangahape Road, which was founded in 2007. Unlike other artist-run spaces Gambia Castle operates as a commercial space, selling work and representing a stable of artists who are based in Auckland, Wellington, Poland and Germany. But her allegiance to Gambia Castle as her dealer doesn’t preclude Connor from entering into productive relationships with other dealers, galleries or public institutions and the recent project at Michael Lett was a good example of this fluidity.

Her current project is Adam Art Gallery’s exhibition The Future is Unwritten, curated by Laura Preston. For this a group of artists were invited to make radical new propositions about the future and Connor has made a work “that is potentially invisible but permanent”. Working with energy consultants she has proposed a list of modifications to the gallery, like reassessing temperature control and installing solar panels on the roof, that will make it as energy-efficient as possible. Whether or not these recommendations, which are listed in a letter to the gallery – perhaps the only physical manifestation of the work visible in the exhibition – are implemented is ultimately up to the institution.

In a recent project (published in Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture) she made a beautiful series of drawings documenting the demolition of part of Auckland Art Gallery in preparation for its rebuilding project. “My background is in drawing. I came through the painting department at Elam, so this activity where you sit down and lose yourself in the object and dedicate yourself to translating it onto paper is something I really like. Essentially it is the idea that it’s all right here and so make the most of what is around you.”

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