The Scumbag exhibition at Stills Gallery, Sydney in April 2008, is an installation of hand-stiched felt letters and a series of large format colour photographs, which reflect upon childhood perceptions of family trauma.
In Scumbag photography is only one element in a complex interactive installation. This marks a new approach for Dreyfus. Central to this work is language and the power of words to evoke strong emotions. Dreyfus specialises in subject matter that presses buttons, and this can cause discomfort to some viewers. Her images reflect upon the frailty and physicality of the human condition and on subjects who are often rendered invisible and hidden from view.
The artwork consists of alphabet letters in bright kindergarten colours which when 'played with' create words and phrases on the walls. In their untouched state they make an inviting pile on the floor. The words spelt out by Dreyfus are the words of psychological trauma, words of abuse or the impact of abuse.
Scumbag. Horrific. Punishing Silence.
The photographs in the exhibition reveal these same words placed within the landscape of an anonymous suburban housing estate, evoking a silent testimony witnessed only by the artist through the camera lens. Dreyfus is demonstrating her concern for emotionally charged inner and outer worlds.
This complex work evokes a dialogue between childhood, materiality, feelings and language. At the centre sit powerful phrases, which lay bare innermost thoughts. They visually and linguistically inscribe intimate aspects of identity that often remain shamefully and fearfully concealed 'behind closed doors'.
Dreyfus' Scumbag disrupts the line between the public and the private domain.
The Scumbag exhibition is an installation of hand-stiched felt letters and a series of large format colour photographs, which reflect upon childhood perceptions of family trauma.
This exhibition marks a transition from the documentary and figurative style that has characterized my photographic practice to a new approach, which engages with the body in relation to objects, language and the inhabiting of space. There has been a shift from depicting the presence of the physical body to a distinctive absence. In its place, the body is suggested and implied by the representation of its inner world.
In my previous exhibitions I focused on bodies in transition; bodies in states of pregnancy, adolescence, overweight, aging, illness and gender transitioning, when normative boundaries were disrupted. My works probed cultural taboos and exposed the body in various states of abjection. The images reflected upon the frailty and physicality of the human body; what it means to inhabit a human body; and to be the object of representation of subjects that are often rendered invisible and hidden from view.
The experience of working with people who revealed private aspects of themselves to me and to a wider audience, engendered moments of shared intimacy, emotional intensity and commonality between the subjects, the spectators and me. These were aesthetic and affective encounters and have influenced and changed my artistic processes. In this exhibition I aim to create the effect of intimacy by building a narrative through feelings and language that appear in both the present and the past, in an undefined place and time.
Scumbag embodies the language of emotional trauma and the inhabiting of domestic spaces. In its textual form, it is a collection of hand-stiched coloured felt alphabet letters that evoke a dialogue with childhood, materila\ity, and the sensations of touching and feeling. Pinned to walls in groups of phrases, where innermost thoughts are laid bare, they inscribe linguistically and visually, intimate aspects of identity that often remain shamefully and fearfully concealed 'behind closed doors'.
Scumbag, therefore, attempts to negotiate the disjunction between the public and private persona, as it is realised by the interior spaces of emotions and the exterior places of habitation. In this process of negotiating a sense of self through place, the body, both as a presence and an absence, remains central.
The exhibition is completed by a series of large colour photographs which reveal the placement of the works and phrases in the landscape of an anonymous suburban housing estate. The presence of the photographer at the site and the camera's "insistent gaze of absence, of testimony" (1) provides the evidence, acting as a witness to the imagined events.
The images further play with notions of identiy, creating a contested space between the implicit presence of a speaker and the absence of an identifiable person with whom to connect the voices. Neither age nor gender is identified, as there is no visible human being to project the words onto. There remains however, a strong sense of an embodied subject who inhabits the space with his/her own trumatic memories.
Scumbag represents a continued desire to visualise the unspoken and the unseen. Rather than using photographic representations of the body, it forges a new language of representation to register the experience of emotionally charged memories and the way "trauma is mediated to us in terms of embodied perception" (2).
My aim is to explore the capacity of art to engage the viewer in affective encounters that tread a fine line between the verbal and the visceral, the intimate and the mutual, the public and the private.
(1) Buci-Glucksmann, C., Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger: Images of Absence in the Inner Space of Painting, in Inside the Visible: an Elliptical Traverse of 20th Centruy Art in, of, and from the Feminine. C.M. de Zegher, Editor. 1996, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. p.281
(2) Bennett, J., Art, Affect, and the "Bad Death": Stragies for Communicating the Sense Memory of Loss. Signs, 2002. 28(1): p. 333-351
At some point in a person's life, they will experience a feeling of discomfort or unease that can only come from bearing witness to something that they were never meant to see. This feeling of uneasiness can be found in the new body of work by College of Fine Arts (COFA) graduate Ella Dreyfus who is currently undertaking her PhD in the School of Art. Her upcoming exhibition, Scumbag, encapsulates the artist's desire to reveal hidden truths and expose the previously unseen and unspoken, a theme that underpins her entire artistic practice.
Dreyfus majored in photography at COFA in the 1980s, a decision that inadvertently saw her choosing between her mother's world of textiles and her father's world of photography, Dreyfus's earlier work focused on the body, in particular pregnant, aging, transgender and adolescent bodies. These black and white photographs, all of which are beautiful and confronting, stemmed from the artist's own life experiences and her propensity to step over the line from comfort to discomfort.
This discomfiture was evident in the 1999 exhibition Age and Consent, which captured the aging body, naked and unabashed. Despite the confrontational and challenging nature of this series of work, Dreyfus insists that her projects are "a personal exploration about looking where I'm not allowed to look and showing people what I've seen."
Taking her investigation out of the private lives and into the public domain, Weight and Sea, 2006, the first of Dreyfus's PhD shows, relied on the participation of the public to become the subject of the work. By asking passers-by on Tamarama Beach to step onto the scales and allow the general public to see what they weighed, Dreyfus took a very private act and exposed it for the world to see. Reactions of shock, relief, embarrassment and horror were recorded as part of the work; evidence of progression in the artist's practice and her subtle move from two-dimensional works of art into the realm of installation.
This progression continues in Scumbag, an exhibition which saw the artist hand- sew bright, colourful letters over the course of one year. These letters, which are approximately A4 in size, fit together to form words and phrases that evoke deeper emotional responses. The words provide an insight into internal dialogues that expose the often hidden elements of trauma, abuse and pain. Specifically alluding to childhood traumas, Dreyfus insists that Scumbag "isn't about extreme behaviour. Rather it's the revealing of something commonplace that refers to those who can't speak for themselves."
There is an underlying and deliberate unease in Dreyfus's phrases such as 'I forgive you every day' and 'horrific' both of which subtly suggest emotional anguish. Punishing Silence, one of three diptychs included in the exhibition, situates the phrase within the "bland suburban-ness" of a cricket pitch and a bathroom. Unlike Dreyfus's earlier work, it is the absence of the body which gives these photographs their poignancy. Despite this absence, the language evokes a strong presence, a voice or variety of voices entering into what Dreyfus terms the "psychological realm."
While there is a distinct progression from Dreyfus's earlier photographic work to the textile based installation work in Scumbag, a transition that greatly excites the artist, she clarifies that "I'm doing what I did earlier but in a very different way." The obvious question now is where will the artist go from here? With post- PhD projects already in the pipeline, Ella Dreyfus will continue to explore facets of the psychological and the transcendental and aspires to "give people an experience of something beyond their body."
ELLA DREYFUS'S photographs always provoke a strong response. From the media frenzy and hate mail generated by her portraits of naked pregnant women in the 1990s, or the intimate discussions of childhood trauma provoked by her latest exhibition, Scumbag, Dreyfus is an artist who gets people talking.
"I look at things that are taboo, taboos about the body, taboos about emotion," she says, sitting in the Stills Gallery in Paddington surrounded by her latest works. "I find a way through my visual art practice to talk about things we're not allowed to talk about."
The show examines one of the big social taboos: childhood abuse, neglect and trauma. The photos depict domestic settings decorated by powerful words and phrases in colourful felt letters: a children's bedroom with the word "horrific" above the bed; a corner of a house with the words "I exist" visible under the table.
Dreyfus, 48, wanted the colourful lettering, reminiscent of children's blocks, to contrast with the darkness and sadness of their meaning. "These words go straight for the jugular," she says.
The Sydney artist and lecturer at the National Art School shot to prominence in 1992 with her Pregnancy Series, which saw her discussing and defending the works on Good Morning Australia and in glossy magazines. Most exhibitions since have also looked at bodies rarely seen in public, including the ageing female body and the post-op body of a transgender man. This show does not look specifically at the body, but the intimate words and places imply the presence of people at their most vulnerable.
"I'm not representing the physical body the way I used to, but the presence of the physical body is palpable," Dreyfus says.
The idea for the exhibition came in part from an earlier series about pre-pubescent boys, which generated anxious responses from some viewers, and led her to realise "there's nothing benign about childhood".
Dreyfus says her own childhood trauma of growing up with a father who was unable to talk about surviving the Holocaust also inspired this work. "I've become this kind of artist through a very strong desire to see things that can't be seen and tell things that can't be told through my art."
Although she has been hurt by some of the angry responses to her work, Dreyfus relishes that it provokes such a passion. One visitor to this show pointed at a photo and said through tears: "I know so many people who live in that house."
Dreyfus says: "When what has come from my personal experience, my labour, reaches this public place and I see people being turned back in on themselves and their own histories and emotions, that's very satisfying."
"Very powerful. Chilling, evocative...a safe space for exploring the unspoken, the hidden, the taboo. Thank you for creating an alternative space where those whose experience of 'home' has been negative, can bond and feel they belong."
"Very powerful and emotional work. It really affected me. The strength and power and boldness of your work continues in this exhibition."
"The juxtaposition of words with everyday items strikes a universal chord with anyone who has experienced trauma or hard memories. Using brightly coloured letters and simple phrases only evokes the senses more vividly."
"Your work is so strong, so emotionally stirring - it almost reduced me to tears. powerful, complex, beautiful, vulnerable."
"My inner child is nodding and hiding and saying YES! Loudly. Silently. Bravo, a beautiful departure. I want to run my hands over the soft felt letters."
"Resonating work - I thought I discovered a punctuation mistake but realised I had been punctuated!"
"Original, confronting, emotional, potentially healing...again and again."
"We came at a quiet time of day with no one else, but yet the words shouted and we were surrounded by resonance of past pain and redemption."
"Overwhelming, visceral, powerful words and images. The silence of the unspeakable and unprocessable burst through each work and image with a life and voice of it's own. Very moving work."
"I am completely overwhelmed, awed, inspired and profoundly affected by your work. You have respectfully and sensitively explored a variety of subjects that should be viewed and dicussed, yet are often rendered taboo. "
"A powerful, visual and evocative experience. These images trigger memories of my childhood and associated dislocation and emptiness. Experiencing these feelings in my gut and acknowledging them I feel to be a very healing experience. I love how your work comes from your experince of the human condition."
"I've been walking around your exhibition while you have been having a group discussion in the same room. A great insight for me to hear you talk about your work while I see it for the first time. I find the colour, texture, soft lines and intimate presentation so inviting, like a go-ahead to identify and confront traumatic experiences, events and feelings that I am sure most people have but keep hidden away. A rare and wonderful experience."
"It took me back to kindy and pushed me forward to parenthood all at once. A powerful use of text and image in an intimate, emotional way."
"Strong, strong vibrations. Wonderful work, tapping into so many different levels of feeling, memories, suspicions, wondering, comfort zones."
"Beautiful work, especially in the tension between the playful and the personal. It gives the viewer a space to model the words into their own landscapes and memories."
"I want you to stitch me felt fridge magnets that say 'cold hearted'. I'd like to mess with the words, the work offers me that feedom. That these harsh words can segue, melt and find different meanings according to context."
"Thank you for taking the risks of revealing the unspeakable on all our behalf. "
"Something turns inside. Great to see the world of silence given some space."
"Ella, your work is very still and very very moving."
"Important to bring this dialogue into public view. Thank you for not being afraid to open those doors and allow others to face their own histories and present."
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