Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects #11
Mistress O and the Bees by Stephen Loo and Undine Sellbach
Official Opening: Friday 4 May 2012
Opening at 5:15pm
Performance starts at 5:45pm
Folk myths and fairy stories are predicated on impossible premises. We do not dismiss them for this reason. There may have been a time when they were regarded as literal. In Ireland in 2004 I asked a farmer about a lovely grove of trees at the top of a hill on his land. I had been conscious of the fact that there were very few remnants of the original forests which had once covered much of Ireland. He explained in simple, practical terms that, at the top of the hill was a Fairy Tree. Under no circumstances could he ever consider clearing that place or cutting down that tree. I realised then that there was a part of him that still held that belief as real, (even sacred) and I was quietly awed by the rich power of the idea. I will not say myth for that presupposes that we don’t really believe it, that it served the belief system of another, less enlightened people and time. It was not myth to him, there was nothing academic in his position – to say I believe in Ireland is merely to say that I admit the possibility of truth. I know his 20th century mind probably admitted the possibility that it may be nothing more than fancy, that he was merely paying respect to his ancestors and to the tradition, yet I sensed too that he harboured a real fear that if he were to cut down that tree the vicissitudes of unknown, malevolent forces, yet alive in the world, may still be unleashed upon him and his family.
We inhabit the supernatural and inculcate it in a very intimate way. While it may defy reason, logic or scientific proof as fairies, ghosts or other manifestations of the ‘extra human’ or supra human it exists as imagined fact. Psychologically that is no less real than the tangible. It is real because the imagination is part of our total reality; it is not outside or beyond reality. The metaphysical is real if conceivable. The metaphorical and allegorical aspects of folk tales and fables, like religion, serve to provide contingent meanings for apparently inexplicable phenomena and simple life lessons or exemplars. We can choose not to believe the explanations they provide or the stories they tell yet we are in thrall to the beauty and imaginative richness they contain. As children we readily receive the most extraordinary narratives, in fact there seems no extent to which they can go which is beyond an child’s capacity to accept, no journey too fantastical that they will not readily undertake. They are vital to the development of creative flexible reconstructive possibilities and they give intensity and power to the dark of darkness and the lightness of light.
‘Mistress O and the Bees’ is a fable, it is an imagined narrative and it is read to us. The act of reading aloud is half of the transaction of being read to. I have yet to encounter any child or adult who does not love being read to. It is also a performative act; the reader intones the variety of voices, adds drama through modulation and creates tension through timing. The reader draws us in and holds us within the imaginative space of the world created through the narrative. We undertake the journey in space and time not with the reader but through the reader as the text consumes all in its brief life. Like music it is only alive and affective when it is read, until then it is merely ink on paper, not a dead but a nascent thing.
The installation creates the potential to maintain the world of the story, almost as if as children we would run outside or off to our rooms to recreate and build on the events and characters of the story in play. The story is a gift, a gift which really does ‘keep on giving’. The most significant gift the story provides is the imaginative extension of both the journey in real time and the extension and encouragement of creative invention that it provides. We have a chance to remember the life of the child mind, to re-engage with it willingly, to be enchanted.
All art is a gift. It is also a transaction. Even at its most introverted and aloof it is nonetheless reciprocal. Like the ink on the paper art only exists when one encounters and interacts with it. In the context of the Exhibition K-O, presented at the South Australian School of Art Gallery in 2009, Stephen Loo quoted from Robert Bernasconi in his catalogue notes : “once the gift is recognized as the gift, it is no longer a gift because its being made present becomes an obligation which demands reciprocity.” 1. In this context the ‘’gift’’ was the donation of the Gallery space to possible occupation and various uses, but the reciprocity in this case is perhaps less demanded than required for the work to achieve completion. Listening is the passive reception of the gift, participation in the realisation of the performance completes the transaction.
Undine Sellbach’s beautiful collaborative work The Floating Islands (2007) was my introduction to her practice. A fantasy derived from the drawings of her father Udo and incorporating music developed by Mikelangelo and Undine, it is described as a “philosophical fairytale for all ages”. 2
My response to this work reinforced for me the power of the fantastical tale to transport me in two ways simultaneously, at once into the narrative journey but equally back to a time when excitement and anticipated adventure was the most powerful thing in my life. Was this nostalgic? I think not. The child lives in us all, however deeply buried.
1. Robert Bernasconi, “What Goes Around Comes
Around” in Alan D Schrift (ed.), The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (New York and
London: Routledge, 1997): p. 267 quoted in the Exhibition Catalogue K2-O2, South Australian School of Art Gallery, 2009
2. Ref: The Floating Islands
Seán Kelly, Curator
Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects is an initiative of The Salamanca Arts Centre and made possible through the generosity of Aspect Design and fundraising from SAC’s Supporters at the SAC Quiz Night. This Project was assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for Tourism and the Arts.
Stephen Loo is a Professor of Architecture at the School of Architecture & Design, University of Tasmania. He has taught at the University of South Australia, University of Sydney, and University of Adelaide, as well as practicing as an architect in Australia and Malaysia. Stephen is a Founding Partner of architectural, design and interpretation practice Mulloway Studio. He is also a practicing artist and has exhibited/performed in London, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, and Launceston.
Undine Sellbach is a writer, performer and philosopher based at the University of Tasmania. Her work explores the relationship between imagination, ethics and instinct in the context of human and animal worlds. Undine has published in animal studies and philosophy and is the co-creator of philosophical performance work A Whirlwind of Insects (with Stephen Loo); fairytale The Floating Islands and cabaret show The Honeymoon Suite, which toured in Australia, US, Canada and UK and Ireland. undinefrancesca.blogspot.com & www.thewordsoundandpicturecompany.com
Mistress O and the Bees is part of a larger collaboration about insects and children that Undine and Stephen are currently working on. Drawing on the entomological imagination of childhood, this creative philosophical venture explores how insects provoke our instincts, mobilize our imagination, aid ethical learning and heighten our ecological understanding.