Two bright green avocados sit in the corner of a low, flat vitrine; lumpy, slightly malformed sculptures, painted acid green, they are viscerally pleasing and exude personality. An enigmatic element of Ruth Buchanan’s exhibition ‘Several Attentions – Lying Freely Part III’, they rested alongside a text that began: ‘Though the figure of communication might be about invention, it is equally about lighting conditions, proximity and timing’ (Conditions Drawing, all works 2009). Inspired by the essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), Virginia Woolf’s tenacious feminist polemic, the New Zealand artist describes the exhibition (her first in the UK) as a ‘meeting’ with the novelist, for which she focused on the convergence between Woolf’s public work as a writer and a personal life overshadowed by mental illness. Buchanan highlights the attention that Woolf applied to the mundane (yet revealing) aspects of life in her writing through precise sculptural and text-based works, and re-enacts Woolf’s research at the British Library in the 16mm film Several Attentions.
‘Humans, like animals and buildings, have biological rhythms that determine when they are active,’ intones the artist’s lilting voice in the audio piece Build a Wall or Be a Room. Exploring the psychology of architecture and the need for shelter, in part by describing how internal systems must hold up to external forces, this work seems to act as a fulcrum between Woolf’s writing, and her personal life, and Buchanan’s installation. Woolf’s body of work consistently addresses the perceived boundary between the public and private self, most famously in Mrs Dalloway (1925), in which interior monologue is interwoven with exterior narrative. Rather than attempting the near-impossible task of chronicling Woolf’s complexity, Buchanan only alludes to her ideas through metaphorical and conceptual gesture.
The Showroom exhibition was the third in a series of projects by Buchanan about female literary icons widely acknowledged to have experienced different forms of psychiatric illness. Inspired by episodes in which personal circumstances converged with the authors’ written work, the performances Nothing Is Closed and Circular Facts (both 2009) were based respectively on Janet Frame’s 1963 autobiographical novel Towards Another Summer and Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. This was an aspect Buchanan continued to explore here, in works such as Curved Curtain (2009), reminiscent of a hospital ward. (Woolf herself addressed the failure of the treatment system for mental illness through the character of Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, who ultimately commits suicide.) By linking three diverse authors – a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a best-selling crime writer and a well-known New Zealand author – through such circumstances, Buchanan could be seen as perpetuating a form of sensationalism that (frustratingly) remains linked to psychiatric illness. The subtlety of this installation, however, led to a more interesting confrontation between Woolf’s lived life and her work, whilst the erosion between interior and exterior selves that Woolf herself explored also seems to underpin Buchanan’s practice.
For the last decade or so, contemporary art has been saturated with ‘referential’ work. How many aesthetically pleasing Constructivist-style sculptures, Bauhaus-inspired graphics (with a 1980s twist) or films rescuing some forgotten hero from obscurity have we seen recently? The choice of such evocative material perhaps begins in earnest, though more often than not it can feel like a thinly veiled attempt at instant cultural gravitas. Refreshingly, Buchanan’s handling of her source material is incisive and lyrical; although she cites ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as a point of departure, she addresses other aspects of Woolf’s life and work, gently navigating her position as a literary icon, whilst contributing an interpretation of the writer’s intellectual concerns.