The Space is Empty and Waiting

Steve Dutton shares his response to Meriel Herbert’s The Space is Empty and Waiting, offering a very personal insight into the artist’s work.

If, as JJ Charlesworth has suggested, criticism is an irritant, it doesn’t necessarily follow that something which is irritating is critical. 1

It terms of criticality there’s plenty of art out there and much of it irritates. There’s the stuff that gets under the political, ideological and social skin, probes it’s limits and lives and even affects change in an unchangeable world; and of course, lets not forget the art which is just plain irritating in slavishly attempting to gather itself unto the folds of criticality, or modishness, or faux madness.

Then there’s some other kind of irritation, the work that digs into our corporeal existences, the work that irritates in a physical sense, the work that won’t go away. This is the work that the body acknowledges along with the mind and it speaks volumes about the strangeness of being a (human) being. Think Orlan, Acconci, and Burden.

Meriel Herbert’s installation at Bloc Space is irritating. It would be too easy to describe it piecemeal, consisting as it does of videos of repeatedly scratching arms, the sounds of footsteps moving back and forth across the space, a video of a mouth gnawing its bottom lip. The whole body is here spread throughout the space as a site of anxiety. Herbert picks away at the stuff that moves her. So far so familiar, however keenly felt.

However, there’s a control at work which exceeds the known limitations of those familiar tropes by setting up a rhythm of the scratching, breathing and slow footsteps which seems to get the whole place, and body, trembling. It’s hypnotic, visceral and, surprisingly, almost heartbreaking. It’s an orchestrated Sunday afternoon in an old folks home but with the volume cranked right up.

There could have been problems. The work might not really go anywhere, it doesn’t really build, it may just seem relentless and overstated and when I saw it I didn’t immediately realise that one of the sound pieces wasn’t on. When the cd of that whispered voice was switched on, saying the words “ If you wait long enough something will happen” the work began to tip into melodrama. (What is it about artists whispering? Something is either said or it isn’t. If inner thoughts or going to be spoken they don’t deserve the sanctity of whispers).

But maybe this is precisely the point. Most compelling is that there’s a sense that Herbert is not prepared to come clean about her motives, that despite all the abounding and smothering bodily anxieties, she may be being coy about her cool interest in the artifice and play of it all, about this distant aesthetic of the bodily techniques of controlling mayhem.

Herbert is prepared to balance precariously between embarrassment and profundity, and sod what she doesn’t feel to be right. Or to be more precise, sod what she knows to be one or the other. This careful orchestration of shudders and tics performs something within and what is performed is the anxiety of not knowing what to think or do next, of which way to turn or if it’s ok to feel like this.

In the midst of all this inner and outer noise I put on some headphones hanging from the ceiling and the whole space falls away a little. I’m hearing the sounds of someone breathing, another familiar trope, but it’s from a very, very long way away. I remember experiencing another of Herbert’s works a few years back, the sounds of herself and a lover masturbating. This time it’s not is not an intimate whisper but one of distance. As the rest of the sound within the space becomes muted and I’m straining to hear the headphones I feel the sickly quiet which descends before I feel might have some kind of a fit. Really. This is what this work does.

My father struggled with Parkinson’s disease for years before he died. It was a battle for him between mind and body and he lived in the trembling and the tensions between an internal determination and the all too apparent and deceitful, yet ultimately victorious and deadly appearance of a sliding self.

There’s an implicit acknowledgment in Herbert’s work that the artifice remains the scab on all the damage done and that the damage is deep but that, as long as we can, we will still try to keep making and moving despite the protestations from our uncontrollable selves.

Steve Dutton, 2005

1. See “The Dysfunction of criticism” JJ Charlesworth. Art Monthly no 279 (Back)

Read this on the Bloc Projects website