Walking into Susan Cohn’s UNcommon Moments at Anna Schwartz gallery on Flinders Lane, one is immediately struck by the power of the work, its subterranean themes. Under subdued lighting three distinct collections emerge, dealing respectively with dying, welcoming, continuing. Along the left side of the gallery is a metallic walkway, that runs as if beyond the dimensions of the room.
In the first piece, Til death do us part Cohn has placed a series of engraved toe tags on satiny purple cloth in a pine box on a silver stand. In the corner, a pine casket lies on plastic crates, lit starkly from above. On the wall a video projection loops, its soundtrack clotted with the sound of crinkling plastic sheets and metallic scrapes. We see the iconic image of a shrouded body with outturned feet and a single toe-tag dangling from the big toe, then a naked, supine body being showered down, prepared, in the sterile coolness of a morgue, and lastly the preparation of the body, the application of kohl to the closed eyelid with a decisive and emphatic tick.
When pressed, Susan Cohn reveals she began this work with the knowledge that her dear friend, Ian Mowbray, also an artist, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He was not expected to live to see the exhibition. But live he did, and he took part in the artwork, the wooden coffin made to his proportions, the messages on the toe-tags are to his lovers, his friends – devised with Cohn – and have a permanence and a weight that goes beyond the precious metals they are forged with. The ritual showering of the naked form and the bodily preparations shown in the video are conducted upon Mowbray’s body in a macabre but humorous play. It is like the ultimate Huckleberry Finn conceit – the chance to play dead at your own funeral. A lifetime distilled into succinct metal plaques designed to dangle from the toe.
Hearing Cohn relate this incredible story, I felt fascinated. Both by the power of their friendship, the lengths to which philosophical conversations about death might have turned into a physical reality, the black humour in trying out the preparations of death before your time, in the knowledge that your time might be any moment now.
There is something childlike in enacting one’s own death, in the sense that it pokes at the finality, the nothing-left-ness of death, and tries to experience something that we can never experience until, one day, we do. I can’t help but wonder how it felt for the artist, Mowbray, to lie in his own coffin, sensorily aware of its quality, its fit, its oppressiveness. And the act of lying on the preparation table in the morgue, being washed down with a hand-held shower, pelted with beads of water – when your skin can’t help but deny the ruse by recording the sensation of it all.
The strength of their friendship and the love that permeates this work is palpable. The toe-tags, inscribed with meaningful epigraphs, are a gift that he can take with him when he dies. As well as awe, I also feel a sense of yearning … how rarely do we get the chance to say these things in time?
Isn’t play-acting one’s death, creating a performance out of a rehearsal for the inevitable, a big fuck you to finality? And this is just one part of a triptych, a series of Uncommon moments, where death, the act of seeking refuge and the commonplace, everyday, collide.
The shiny metal walkway has a percussive timbre underfoot. Is this the River Styx? Am I entering a second stage of the Underworld, its locus: Flinders Lane? The next artwork concerns not death, but new beginnings. On the floor a huge raft of shredded paper bouquets gathered with string lie in rows. These are offerings at the foot of a large photograph of a wire fence – or are they gates? – the kind designed to keep people out – or in.
Despite their actual openness, the gates invoke a barrier. A steel lectern stands in front of the image of the gates and the carpeted tributes, with a silken eye mask and a series of cards, and behind the walkway, mounted on the wall, a wire structure upon which a series of wooden objects hang. Handcrafted and slender, they appear to be a series of earrings and longer neckpieces, but upon closer inspection, they are in fact USBs, handmade from Ebony, Huon Pine, pink gold and fine silver, entitled Styx.
Cohn reveals that the work All welcome concerns our treatment of refugees. The shredded offerings laid at the foot of the image of the gates are made from clippings of media coverage about refugees, the polemic, the diatribe and the support – the endless debate and commiseration that has been written by mainstream media. The USBs, represent the one gift we can give to people coming to a new place: information.
In the artists’ statement, Cohn writes “To open the gate or the hands, to give a new possibility to the unknown guest, is one of the greatest of gifts. Styx is jewellery to say welcome, to invite a person without homeland to enter a new home. The goddess Styx was said to have had miraculous powers; the Styx is a magical stick, a message stick with which to negotiate the way into a new community.”
There is discomfort in the content of this second series, because far from gifts of information or acts of welcome, our country’s policies towards refugees include a series of trials and internments designed out of fear. Again Cohn asks us to contemplate and dwell on a topic that might be painful or out of the ordinary, as we continue to walk along the path, ever deeper.
The third and final aspect of the exhibition, Keeping on keeping on, has two parts Still life and Ganbatte. Still life is a table, with cup, bowl, jug, drinking glasses. There are no seats at this table, only objects, Cohn’s own. On the furthest wall from the entrance – two iPads are mounted – depicting everyday activities on loop. A woman on a treadmill; coffee being poured: mundane and unremarkable actions elevated by the white-walled prominence of gallery installation.
Ganbatte, situated alongside the path, involves a series of pins in a Perspex-boxed plinth, delicate yet robust with colour and materiality. One looks like it could be a wire contraption from an electrical circuit or a light-bulb filament, others look like buttons asking to be pressed, others still look like lifebuoys, their circumference rubbery smooth.
These seven pins sit on an aluminium tray pierced with uniform round holes – it is immediately clear none of the pins will fit in those holes, and, yet, the eye tries – perhaps experiencing the essence of ganbatte – a Japanese word that means ‘persist, stand firm, try hard and do your best’ respectively, simultaneously, in the way that only non-English words can.
Cohn’s statement about this third moment in the triptych is revealing, but also sobering: “To be at the very heart of community is not always to be comfortable. The rituals of everyday life may be banal and awful. Keeping calm, continuing through the mundane, can be an extreme experience, where personal suffering is masked and has no public place. Ganbatte Jewellery says I see your struggle; know someone is thinking of you.”
This reminder of everyday rhythms, of the moments that make up the daily reality of those that outlive the dead, connects deeply with the first piece, like some existential ouroboros. Looking down at the walkway, which extends past the wall and ends abruptly in a small white alcove that sits immediately beyond, there is a sense of pause, we have gone as far as we can, for now.
These three uncommon moments have a weight that lingers long after leaving the space. Susan Cohn asks us to consider this trio as a whole, and yet each of them feels enormous, loaded, difficult to discuss.
In her artist statement, Cohn writes: “Jewellery is more than its materiality, the creation of a beautiful adornment. It is a gift, giving. It can say: I see, I wish I could make it better for you. It recognises pain at the limits and turns it into an exchange, forging an ongoing bond.”
Cohn’s practice, while undoubtedly conceptual, is also utterly embedded in her training as a jeweller. At the pointiest end of these moments, these conversations, is the wearable – the significance of the rings, USB necklaces or toe-tag adornments, balloons out from the finite presence of the objects themselves.
Top to bottom:
‘UNcommon moments’, installation entrance
‘Til death do us part’ install
‘Your secret is safe with me’, toe tag
‘All welcome’ install
‘Still life’ installation
All images of the exhibition ©Koray Kilicli & Susan Cohn
All video work within the exhibition ©Koray Kilicli & Susan Cohn
Anaya Latter is a freelance writer and editor with a background in marketing and communications. Latter has written for The Readings Monthly, Three Thousand and Tone Deaf. She has worked for a wide range of clients and campaigns such as Channels the Australian Video Art Festival, Community Law Australia and Racism. It Stops With Me. She is a board member of Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and currently works as Communications Coordinator for Craft Victoria and is a Resident at Right Angle Studios.