In Rock #2, Happy to Help and Rock #3, Happy to Help luscious glass bulbs sag from between stacked chunks of porous rock. The quizzical pairing in these small-scale sculptures imbues them with a comic sensibility: the drooping orbs might have been snapped up by the rocks like a bone rediscovered by a joyful pup, or perhaps the gleaming spheres have slowly mushroomed from the stones like some sort of parasitic species. Over the past two decades, Melbourne-based artist Simone Slee has established an expanded sculptural practice that invites us to take a close look at the reciprocal relationships between the materials, objects, bodies and elemental forces brought together in her work. Using performance, video, photography and actions, the artist playfully destabilises a routine understanding of the material world and our position within it.
Slee has coined the term ‘abfunction’ in celebration of the surprise effects that can be produced by the innate qualities of selected materials and elements, such as gravity, weight and time. She has predominately worked with flimsy, everyday materials to produce such effects. In Make a Sculpture, Watch it Fall Down 2005, for example, a cardboard-and-mirror-foil sculpture eventually collapses when the cucumber propping it up decomposes. The Rocks and Things, Happy to Help 2017 series, from which Rock #2 and Rock #3 are taken, marks a shift to more weighty, enduring materials. First exhibited at Sarah Scout Presents in 2017, the series includes a lively ensemble of sculptures crafted from myriad rocks – Obe granite, bluestone, Berlin granite sett, Rockbank (scoria), Pyrenes greystone, Black volcanic rock – all punctuated by glistening glass bubbles.
Slee produced these works after a Berlin Glas e.V. studio residency, in Germany. When making the sculptures,she experimented with theforce of different rocks on hot, blown glass. This is where the affable readiness of her materials to ‘help’ comes into play, for it is they that govern the final form the works take. Slee’s deference to the innate nature of her chosen materials is an extension of the modernist maxim ‘truth to materials’. While modernism was invested in man’s ability (it was usually a man) to harness the distinct traits of selected materials for prescribed results, Slee establishes processes that allow the final work to emerge through the interplay of the materials and forces marshalled.
In Rocks Happy to Help: Hold Up, Hold Down 2017, a sculptural video that accompanied Rock #2 and Rock #3 when first exhibited, the artist’s head is cushioned by a rickety plywood loop pushed against the surface of a rocky cavern. With the image flipped sideways or upside-down, the artist’s body appears weightless, suspended amid imposing rocks. With our perception of gravity upended, the human subject is subsumed within a network of physical forces and supports. This heightens awareness of our own precarious position in the world; our constant reciprocal relationship with and vulnerability to the material forces around us. Bodies are not overtly referenced in Rock #2 and Rock #3 but the sculptures are shot through with the tension established between the latent force of the precariously stacked rocks and the delicate surface of the glass bubbles. We shudder (gleefully) in anticipation of the sculptures shattering around us.
Encountering these works in the Anthropocene – our current geologic era, in which Earth systems have become irreversibly altered by human activity – it is hard not to read Slee’s decentring of the human subject in broader political and philosophical terms. Her practice calls for a recalibration of the way we conceive of our relationship to the physical world, a move towards an overt understanding of ourselves in a network of interdependence and in co-formation with it.
Shelley McSpedden is a curator, writer and arts researcher. She is Senior Curator at Shepparton Art Museum, having worked in curatorial roles at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) and NETS Victoria previously.