Anne Ferran’s live/work studio is located in the Darlinghurst neighborhood in central Sydney, in a beautiful early twentieth century building. We decided to meet there after the Together < > Apart conference concluded, and it turned out to be just a short walk from the National Art School residency, where I was staying as a guest. Upon entering, the winter light flooded her space and I encountered panorama views of the city beyond. There were details throughout that gave me clues as to what I was about to uncover in our future conversations. I focused on a stack of antique English teacups and saucers on a low-lying bench, sitting on top of what appeared to be spiral bound notebooks, journals, and scraps of paper that artists keep around to remind them of an idea, a novel, a place. Next to the teacups was a paperback book entitled Travel Diary, sitting adjacent to a tripod. It appeared to be one of those texts found in a second-hand bookshop, imbued with history and worn with the memory of former readers.
The living room space and studio was divided by a white opaque folding screen, and within her studio, photographs could be found everywhere—leaning against walls, sitting on a large table and mounted on the wall. Delicately crafted books of her photo project, 1–38, sat on a drafting table. Off to the side was a room for computer production and various reminders of upcoming deadlines attached to a sloping clothesline, mirroring the power lines in the distance. In a nearby corner, there was a pile of felt material, in varying shades of blue. Seen from their edges, they looked like blankets, but from afar, they easily could have been layers of paint. Throughout the space, there were books, paintings, ceramic works and what looked like netting material, hanging on the wall like sculptures. One piece of netting appeared to be a small hand-made bag, almost invisible or weightless. It possessed an ephemeral, celebratory quality with long threads hanging on either side, its fragility enhanced by its installation on a south-facing wall adjacent to a window. In retrospect, this ephemerality, or, the suggestion of past/present, can be found in all of Anne’s work, waiting for the viewer to discover it.
Metonymy and memory in the work of Australian photographer, Anne Ferran
“.…Needless to say, we are not in search of sources or origins, but of structures of signification:underneath each picture there is always another picture.”
Douglas Crimp, Pictures, 1979
This past July, I was introduced to Anne Ferran through Mary Roberts, an art historian from the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Sydney. A prolific writer and professor of British Art whose research focuses on gender, Orientalism and the history and culture of travel, Mary is currently writing a book on the artistic exchanges between Ottoman and Orientalist artists in nineteenth-century Istanbul. Mary Roberts had described Anne’s work to me in late 2009, after I gave an informal artist talk at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Mary was a scholar-in-residence. Mary thought our work had an affinity, and she hoped we would someday meet. Three years later, I indeed met Anne and participated with her in an artist panel, “Toxic Blooms”, at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand’s annual conference, Together < > Apart, organized in conjunction with the 2012 Biennale of Sydney.
Upon arriving at Mary’s apartment in Sydney after a seventeen-hour flight, she immediately gave me a catalog of Anne’s work to peruse. The first series I encountered was ‘Lost to Worlds’, photographs taken over a ten year period in Tasmania, of which a gelatin silver print is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. These landscapes reveal the sites of penal colonies for women in Hobart and Ross, built in the late nineteenth century, and subsequently torn down in the late twentieth century. Silent, pristine and embodying human presence, now erased, these images conjure up other images from the history of photography: fragments of Roger Fenton, Timothy O’Sullivan and Felice Beato come to mind. Instead of a panorama or full view of the site, Anne places her focus on the ground, immersing the viewer in a space both alien and futuristic, yet hauntingly familiar. As the familial legacy of this region descends from many penal colonies constructed by England in the late 1700s, one could literally step into her photograph and wonder, was my family ever here? There is a hovering mist in the upper left hand area of these photographs that appear as light illuminating the ground. In Anne’s words, these “blooms of light” on the surface were the result of a light leak while shooting medium format film, and as many artists are aware, those small glitches can yield unexpected and welcome results to a work of art. The printing of the photographs on aluminum highlights the flecks of light through these fields, subtly changing from one side of the image to the other. Her process is one of careful study, whether working on location, in collections of Australian antiquity or with government records. Her approach exerts conceptual and aesthetic restraint, harmoniously aligning the final photograph and its intention via the process of its making. Another series, entitled “1–38”, begins with a study of departmental health records and photographs from a women’s mental asylum in mid-twentieth century Sydney. Rather than re-photographing the images in their entirety, Anne decided to crop in, focusing on the gesture of the hands, the area of the torso, and most importantly, keeping the identity of each woman concealed. What results is a sequence of body movements, where each hand emotes anxiety, anger and stillness, sometimes clutching at one’s clothes, or making gestures of self-protection.
Adding a small amount of color to each image, the works echo the humanity of those hidden away from society across time, whether in captivity, containment or imprisonment. The artist book she produced for I-38 is covered in 1/4 inch thick felt, light grey in color, its format a long rectangle, each photograph printed on the right side of the page with a band of blank space on its left. Upon turning the pages of this book I imagined the closed space that these women inhabited, figuratively and literally, and pondered if their forced collectivity brought even the smallest amount of solace or was in any way communal. Anne Ferran brings forth these difficult questions, the invisible histories of the Other, and re-inscribes them for our contemporary and social reflection. Although specific to the regions of Australia and Tasmania, these two series communicate across borders, standing in for other sites, people and current events. As Walter Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” In Anne Ferran’s work, the making and the viewing engender a delicate act of disappearance and reappearance.