WHAT IS IN A NAME?
The first thing that struck me about Polly Jean Dance was that she had an amazing name. Also, every time anyone mentioned her upcoming show, I had a moment of confusion. My dog is called Polly (incidentally, after Polly Jean Harvey, so Dance and my dog kind of share a middle name too). Every time someone mentioned Polly’s exhibition, or Polly’s install, or Polly’s artwork, my initial reaction was confusion about my dog’s activities. The crossed wires only lasted a split-second, but it took a while for my brain to side step this short circuit. Dance’s name struck me first as being unusual and evocative, and then a personal association was made that was difficult to break.
Archive Space was named to reflect a gallery that exists both as a physical space and an online repository. It serves as a reminder, to the directors as much as the audience, that the opening night and the few weeks of exhibition period are not the be all and end all. I think what interested Dance as much as – if not more than – the name ‘Archive Space’ was the lettering on the outside of the building. On the lintel above the gallery doorway are low-relief letters that spell ‘L I B R A R Y’. The modestly proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms of Archive Space are the former library of the old Newtown School of Arts. Dance has taken this history as her starting point and trawled local archives for stories, images and histories about the space. A name and a word piqued her interest, and she was compelled to investigate further.
Dance’s materials are ephemeral. Unlike most monuments to history, hewn for longevity, her creations appear to be deliberately non-archival. Commemorative plaques are re-presented as rubbings on greaseproof paper. These are taped to the walls and windows with masking tape, that notoriously impermanent material that hardens, curls and unsticks over time, leaving behind a dirty trace of itself. Yellowed newspapers from 1921, recently discovered under the linoleum flooring of the second gallery space, are laid out on a central table for inspection.
On one wall hangs a framed black-and-white photograph of an early banquet in the building’s main hall. The attendees, seated at long tables, are well-dressed men in suits and cravats. Dance invites the audience to pick a man, draw a portrait and write what they know about him. Perhaps this interactive element was set up to draw out stories from locals with real, historical knowledge. What has happened, though, seems far more interesting. Taped to the wall around the nucleus of the photograph is an expanding orbital of sketches, with increasingly absurd accompanying comments. ‘He wasn’t ready for this photo’. ‘This man is asleep and has no eyes’. ‘I’m the sneakiest man in Newtown’. A new set of histories is being imagined, fabricated and presented in a free form and democratic way. Nameless men are provided with alternative identities and stories – it’s easy to rewrite history. This resonates in an age where anyone with an Internet connection can contribute their own perspective on any number of current events, be it via forums, blogs or social media. Dance has translated this process back into the world of tangible materials and face-to-face interaction.
I wonder what Polly Jean Dance will do with this accumulation at the end of the show. Will she pack it all away and create a new archive? How about the objects fossicked from under the floorboards, carefully laid out and labelled by material – wood, coal, copper, rope – what will happen to these? Will they be reinterred for discovery by some future archaeologist? How will future studies be altered by her method of reintroduction? There is something to be said for the idea of Dance’s collections and constructions becoming an archive in and of itself, even though the materials may not last. Maybe it should all be thrown into a time capsule and placed under the Archive Space floorboards, or given to the building’s trustees, or the City of Sydney archives – a response to their materials becoming material culture in and of itself, and going back into the collection. History is exhumed, examined and re-archived, and all that remains visible is the name you write on the box.
- Rebecca Gallo