In Three Acts: Three Seasons

IN: (May 23, 2023)In Depth

In Three Acts. Installation view


In Three Acts. Installation view

Preparation (2022), Oliver Mulvihill

Act I.

Djuna stands in seagrass by the porch at 3 am, grappling with moody winds that take the day, watching silly waves of caution and anxiety. There are endless harbors and lakes on the fringe of this coastline, infinite children playing with albatrosses, swans, and other sea birds, arms extended, small voices in high-pitched caws, and windy whistles; she enjoys this immensely. She took pleasure in cliché far too much. Red coats flap on their little arms in the distance, toes deep in carpets of hazel sand, gliding across the water in the demi-pointes of Swan Lake. The ingenious sea invents all the buried anguish and tepid calm that sits inside every one of us. Apple trees and three-thousand-piece puzzles fill the hours after sibilant prompting from her sister, who knows too much and says too little. Djuna was the same, almost weightless in life, with rosy fluids that blushed her cheeks, a silent face poured into a body whose existence is a utopia. Utopia is so emotional. 


Fragile nobility bled and danced on violin strings and the spoors of amber resin with measured fingers; she’d play for patients whose veins were failing them. Her grandparents watched tenderness in giddy pride and nostalgia, sipping apple tea from sake cups, savoring their occasional bouts of electric sarcasm. They nicknamed her feather; she never thought to ask why. They saw in her the classic themes of a woman suffering: pink cotton coddling her breasts, strands of black hair, slanted eyes smudged in charcoal, standing in odd postures. Quivering blood ran through her wrists, the scented ichor of her mother, her Other, a woman fluent in unease and drifting agony. Djuna wasn’t suffering; she was studying stillness. 


Things pass, and sometimes they don’t.


Third time’s a charm.

Stephen Polatch, Odette, Odile and Siegfried, 2023. In Three Acts, Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 45 Maddox St, London, W1S 2PE.

Odette, Odile and Siegfried, 2023. Stephen Polatch

Act II.

The big problem of stillness is that it crippled Djuna’s practice as an artist, the shadow side of being observant. When diligently unspeaking, she’d come to the sea house to escape its claustrophobia, hunting for inspiration, artistic diegesis, narratives, paintings, and the elements of divinity. She’d demand creative impulse through her structure of waiting and simulacra, enthusiastic for cluttered canvasses, portraits, still-lifes, and poetic narratives. A religious sequence, a ritual perfumed in salt and yeast, genuflecting to aesthetic blocks that cut her in stips like a Band Dessineé; the artist’s block is unimaginably painful. Her sister Kenzo fussed over her, bringing rosé lychees, green bananas, or honey sandwiches with neatly cut-off crusts; it bothered her until it didn’t. There’s a casual genealogy to her problem of stillness that she gleaned from her mother before she died. Her mother’s story of bones and nervous digestion sat in a pyramid of ash on their kitchen table inside the bottle of sake she’d rosily squandered on her wedding day. Three portraits of her lovely face in all its sunken deviations were taped above the table in a triptych of muted detritus.

Irritated by familial rotations and fainted eldership, Djuna crossed the porch with three peeled lychees glistening from bleak seaside sonnets; rutilant light bounced from their dewy membraned flesh. Why was so much guilt scratching her skin, untold stories lacerating her veins? Why does she live at all? Choking on pressure, desperate to birth new artistic stories in their house by the sea, to supplant the ontologies she created so reliably, punctually, tripling her existence. She certainly never founded anything. She had loyalty to sameness. Good artists reproduce the resemblance of old work but not the very same work. Taking childish dissolutions to the water’s edge, she thought long and imprecisely about the possibility of giving up; it was probably too complicated to go on making art, easier to succumb to an alliance with her lack of jurisdiction, to make friends with her limits. Not all artists will enter the summery bravado of artistic metamorphosis, the sanctity of aesthetic evolution knit with sequins, poppies, and threads of glory. She’d do well to drown.

Rafal Topolewski, Untitled (Dictate), 2023. In Three Acts, Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 45 Maddox St, London, W1S 2PE.

Untitled (Dictate), 2023. Rafal Toplewski

Act III.

Merciful dusk bowed to the summer house as her toe bones and palms fanned aloof waters; the shy fidelity of minor fish nibbled her toes to keep her awake. Fidelity takes too long, she thought, making nothing out of something. Fingers of pink and apricot light brushed her calves, thighs, and delicate wrists, obedient to resolution and the blue valentine of countability. Kenzo was calling her to bowls of ripened fruit in little clicks and hums, the details of her face lost to dwindling light and apprehension. Blood oranges she’d segment in motherly convulsions, devoted to fruit and precious time on the briny porch together, always together; tradition is a sacrament unyielding. Djuna joined Kenzo briefly, but only in her mind, releasing the names of birds and unforgotten phantoms to the sky in hyperbrevity. Children of the swan flew home. Around the corner, under a serious moon, a completely untrustworthy low tide was forming, a mise-en-scène of unbearable daydreams with all their potential. What precisely was required in this moment? she weighed.


What if I present myself to stillness as part of the artistic process, a cheek kiss to stagnancy, and embrace the melancholic tides of regression when people come and go? If we speak to the family home, to the ocean, in all its genius currents, rips, and silver drifts used imprecisely, we’ll know quietude; sea change is faithful and forever in the air. We’ll try existing another day. Patience, patience;


Djuna dived into the sea, toe bones and all their fragility left at its little fickle surface.


She tried to try again.

Sophie Ruigrok, A Better You, 2023. In Three Acts, Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 45 Maddox St, London, W1S 2PE.

A Better You, 2023. Sophie Ruigrok

(By Estelle Hoy)

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