‘Nicole Ellis Residue’, Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney, 2 October – 23 October 2004, Sydney, Australia

First Impressions

The floor on which we stand acts both as metaphor and medium in the work of Nicole Ellis. Resonant with lingering vestiges of incidents and lives past, old industrial buildings in inner Sydney provide the conceptual basis and physical source of the artist’s ongoing project.

In contemporary art practice the symbolic capacity of the floor has manifest variously across a diversity of cultural contexts, including in the work of foreign-born Australian artists. Hossein Valamanesh’s burnt Persian rug has become an almost iconic commentary on the trauma of immigration, while Ken Yonetani’s performance-installation for the recent Asian Traffic exhibition in Sydney, in which visitors crushed ceramic tiles by walking over them, referenced violent historic events in Japan and carried a poignant political reading in the Australian context.

Ellis is not the only artist to recognise the dual artistic and political potential of Sydney’s colonial floors; artists from elsewhere have also been drawn to the history-infused floorboards of our industrial past. In the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, for example, Swiss artist Ariane Epars laboriously scraped away the gunge between the floorboards in a darkened room of the old wharf, permitting horizontal slits of light to expose the relationship between industrial habitation and the ancient harbour below.

Ellis also sees the floor as a barrier between the earth and its human occupants, something fabricated over the ground as if it can be possessed. In a postcolonial gesture of defiance, she erodes that territorial claim by applying an acrylic medium onto the floor then lifting it off, the resultant canvas imbued not only with an impression of the floor, but with traces of its industrial past – globules of paint, splinters and the gouge marks made in the timber by manufacturing machines – and in some by artists who’ve more recently worked there.

As an Anglo-Australian artist attuned to the difficult and significant differences between our Indigenous and colonising cultures, the political underpinning of Ellis’ practice stretches beyond the specifics of her chosen sites and the performance of creating each work becomes an exercise in collecting evidence. While one might argue that she mimics the coloniser by souveniring the past in these works, the artist’s process conjures the transitory nature of habitation, finding affinity with an Aboriginal concept of the land in its refutation of the western belief that land can be bought, sold and owned as if a finite commodity.

Though in their textured, evocative surfaces these paintings are the antithesis of the anonymous subjects and cool surfaces of Minimalism, in some Ellis self-consciously re-creates a geometric patterning by collaging together different sections of floor impressions. As well as commenting on local history and questioning entrenched attitudes to the intrinsic value of place, Ellis’ practice therefore also belongs to an art historical lineage stemming from post-war geometric abstraction. By appropriating its essence and re-casting it into the arena of art, Ellis offers fresh insight into that which has been relegated to the social periphery, whether by Sydney’s capricious urban development or, in using the floor as metaphor, by a political system that continues to ignore and pave over past events and injustices.

At the 1993 Venice Biennale, Hans Haacke destroyed the marble floor of the German pavilion, leaving a pile of rubble in the centre. Beyond its immediate reference to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Haacke referred in his accompanying statement to a broader political content, which in many ways parallels Ellis’ own approach to site-specific practice:

“The social and political environment, the symbolic significance – sometimes also the architectonic character of the site – play an essential role [in my work]. These are materials for me, like the physical elements I use – with the difference that they cannot be photographed. That, however, does not diminish their effect. On the contrary. Why else has the “invisible” so often been censored? In the institutions of the art world, as in other branches of the consciousness industry of which it is a part, negotiations take place over how we think about ourselves, about the world, and about our social relations.”

© Felicity Fenner 2004

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