Façade

12 February – 9 March
Adelaide Central Gallery

Façade is an installation that focuses on the conflict between perceptions and reality, particularly in terms of the mind, body and home. Perceptions of self are contrasted with physical façade. This contrast is extended to include the home, its perceived sense of safety and ability to conceal dangers.

There is an emphasis on the unintended and adverse effects that often result from our historic and contemporary obsession with embellishing, modifying and concealing reality. Exaggerated perceptions become physical manifestations set to provoke and haunt the senses and the mind. Various mediums are used, including ceramics, hair, digital imaging, and household objects.

Façade is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, presented by Adelaide Central School of Art for Adelaide Fringe 2018.

Julia Robinson – Façade opening speech

Welcome to this exhibition by Fiona Roberts: Façade. I will spare you an account of the various definitions offered for façade; suffice to say that while there are many possible interpretations evident in this installation, perhaps what is most obvious to all is that: ‘nothing is as it seems’.

Although we might appear to be gathered in a space familiar to us as both a gallery and a suite of domestic rooms, albeit edited and spliced together, we have in fact been cunningly ushered into an alternative reality. Rooms and the items within, that ordinarily we would trust without a second thought, have instead given us pause for thought. They suddenly seem untrustworthy, tinged with unease or capable of harm.

It starts with a sink, plump and matt like royal icing, where fingers of flesh and blood are teasing each other and I can just hear the sound of nail scratching on nail. In kidnappings, it is always the fingers that are sent for proof and extortion and I wonder how many lost bodies yielded their digits for this show.

The finger web ties knots in hair tangled and matted, playing cat’s cradle in the drain. Hair, of course, is incredibly loaded with symbolism – its root follicles lie hidden under the skin, associating hair with the interior, the inside, the secret. But billowing out from the scalp, hair is potency, power and Pantene. A long flowing head of hair may be described as luxurious but hair off the head is dead weight, brushed off shoulders, swept up by assistants and closeted in mourning brooches.

A small digression here – while visiting family just recently I stumbled across an envelope hidden in an old photo album and tucked inside was a stash of my brother’s hair – specifically, golden toddler curls clipped from his neckline circa 1986. I found this discovery very unsettling as I didn’t think we were that kind of family, but also strangely exhilarating, even empowering. The envelope and its contents are now in my possession.

Returning to Façade, and I’m now in a stately drawing room with lavish wallpaper – a cascading wildflower meadow, lush and verdant as a Summer’s day. Perhaps this is a long-lost pattern by William Morris or, more likely, a madcap Willy Wonka design; edible, flavour-full, awaiting tongues that lick and lips that stain. But Roald Dahl fans, there are no raspberries or snozberries here; instead the first of many deceptions. Belladonna, foxglove, oleander, radium, lead white and arsenic green; their extractions used to adorn our walls and powder our faces; a litany of traumas for body and mind. We do love getting close to nature inside but sadly, we don’t always get it right.

The table in the middle of this mock room tries to speak to me with mouths agape under crystal plates; like birds peeping at their mother. I find myself listening close, mimicking them silently and wondering if I am expected for dinner. It would be rude to reject such an invitation but I am reminded of fine meals set as traps in fairy tales, where unsuspecting travellers lured in by a hot supper, find themselves spirited away, turned into animals or worse luck, on the menu.

But these red-rimmed mouths spin cautionary tales through chapped lips. They tell dark stories of Cinnabar red, a derivative form of mercury once used in cosmetics and china glazing, brought together again here with lethal simplicity.

The wallpaper pattern also creeps onto the bedspread, perhaps identifying this sleeping beauty as Bella Donna. It is in the bedroom that we are most markedly vulnerable while asleep, or sick and bedridden. Here we shed our clothes and risk exposure to fears, nightmares or supernatural visitations. Here, in perfect darkness, our gnawing anxieties have space and time to unfold, free from distraction.

The disembodied head of Sublime/ Succumb, pillowed softly, may first appear at rest, but its pallor and posture more readily suggest the sickbed. The bloom of fever, ever so subtle inside the hollow neck, is spreading quietly as a lacey craquelure of finely traced red lines, conjuring a road map to death.

When I look around I see that the body has made its mark everywhere, leaving imprints on decorative plates and shelved objects that are half medical apparatus, half ornament. Dreams of teeth falling out have seeped out of the bedroom, infecting the occupant’s nick knacks. Is she dreaming of glass bubbles, chewed and bitten? Or tongues that loll like fat, pink worms planted in the mouth to tickle the throat?

Amongst all this, above the bed there hangs a possible tonic for the death throes. An oversized charm bracelet, loaded with warding objects to see us through the dark nights – or at least edify our dreams. At once strangely reassuring with its dangling talismans and yet disconcertingly hefty, it conjures the personal narratives we weave around treasured objects. It also seems to be the only hint of comfort offered in this place of quiet horrors, although I’m not entirely sure it is there for protection.

As an evocation of a domestic space, Façade is no less chilling for being nearly, but not quite right. With its impeccable craftsmanship the work lures us in, before delivering the sting in its tail – are we perhaps more vulnerable in our own homes, when most we expect to be safe? Fans of the Netflix TV show Stranger Things (myself included) might be forgiven for thinking we’ve stumbled into The Upside Down; that blue-tinted otherplace, permanently cold and misty, that echoes the world we know. But on reflection this place feels warmer; more bodily; and might better be described as The Inside Out. I wonder are we standing within the fleshy shell of a house, with all the previous occupants still present, now embedded and enmeshed in the furniture, as though they were simply about their daily business when the evisceration took place.

This convergence of unnerving domesticity and veiled menace might be summed up in the words of American hip hop artist K-Rino. It’s a little out of left field perhaps, but it struck me as oddly applicable and hopefully a good way to conclude:

Step forward towards the front door and come right in,

You have now just entered in the sorcerer’s den.

This is a voluntary thing, nobody’s forcing you in,

But if you go you may never see your porches again.

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