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September 30, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Activating Abstraction

Cathryn Monro, Passage, National Library Gallery (ground floor), until 15 Nov

Cathryn Monro’s installation Passage hangs in the window space of the gallery at the National Library of New Zealand. Lines totalling 3.5 km are strung with transparent beads, hanging from floor to ceiling throughout the space. The strands are aligned in a regimented grid, bisected by two straight channels empty of beads. Hanging still, the gridded strands form patterns to the eye as the viewer passes by them. Untouched, the work is ordered and static.

Passage was first exhibited in Auckland at Artspace in 1998. It currently hangs alongside the National Library’s exhibition programme Tirohia Mai, which tells the history of women in New Zealand. Monro’s work can be read in this context, but is equally rich viewed simply as a stunning piece of contemporary sculpture.

The patterns bring to mind Jim Allen’s Space Plane, a hanging installation with a similar grid format, which I was required to babysit when it was part of the Points of Contact exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery in 2011. As someone with a propensity for structure and order, I have an itch to detangle the strands back into their regular grid after the artwork has been interacted with. At the Adam, this was relatively rare, as my primary task was to make sure no one touched it in the first place. In the case of Passage, however, the tangled strands remaining at the end of the day betray that the ordered beauty of the still work is secondary to its purpose as an experiential installation; a temporary pause before it is brought to life by our interaction with it.

The name Passage refers to the act of passage through the work, rather than the static passages that it physically defines. The artwork charts out space, its form consisting of the empty spaces defined by the beads as well as the strands of beads themselves. I have watched as visitors who enter the work may try to walk along the empty spaces, avoiding contact with the artwork, accustomed to the harshly whispered “Don’t touch!” of art galleries and museums. (Disclaimer: I have never harshly whispered “Don’t touch!” to a visitor.) Passage, however, invites you to interact with it: the empty strips running through are narrower than shoulder-width. Even if you try to sneak through, you’re likely to set the strands into motion. And once a shoulder bumps a string of beads, a transformation occurs. The movement is infectious. The previously tentative visitor becomes more adventurous, even running through the window space with outstretched arms.

Once inside Passage your environment is transformed. The thousands of beads catch and refract light around you, dancing into life as they are activated through contact. They invite you to stray from the path and make your own passages through the work, telling your own story and sculpting uniquely with the movement of your body. On display in a glass case, your movements are visible from all sides. When you enter the work you become a part of it, activating it and completing it. Are you now on display as part of the work? Your interaction with it is now theatrical, transforming it from static sculpture to performance piece.

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