Box of birds

Closing this week at the Stills Gallery, Sydney, ‘Box of Birds an exhibition by photographer Anne Ferran.

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Over the past 20 years Anne Ferran has worked with the residues of Australia and New Zealand’s colonial histories, probing them for gaps and silences. She has been especially drawn to the lives of anonymous women and children, seeking to shed light on their presence, and absence, in museum collections, photographic archives and historic sites. It is characteristic of Ferran’s images that the subject is not what is seen but rather what haunts it, something only partially visible. Intellectually and emotionally engaging, her photographs have explored episodes of incarceration in prisons, asylums, hospitals and nurseries, giving voice to the spectres of the lost and unseen.

Box of Birds returns to the subject matter of her previous works INSULA and 1-38: 1940s photographs of 38 unidentified women who were patients of a Sydney psychiatric hospital. In a significant shift of approach, rather than exhuming traces of the past, Ferran harnesses photography and performance in an endeavour to manifest its continuing power in the present.

Ferran’s process alternated between the considered and the uncontrollable. Female performers were instructed to hold pieces of felt up to her camera, the 38 lengths of dyed and painted fabric recalling the crumpled clothes worn by the women in the original photographic archive. Other images were wholly improvised, the performers creating strange and outlandish figures out of a disorder of material, bodies and space.

In a deliberate departure from the 1940s archive, Ferran’s performers conceal their identities behind lengths and swathes of fabric, raising ethical questions about photography’s role in recognition, representation and expression.

All the work in Box of Birds aims to elicit the energy Ferran saw trapped in those 1940s photographs, their un-quiet spirit.

Close July 27th at the Stills Gallery

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