Catalogue text for The Red Room by John Calcutt, 2001

Sam Ainsley's The Red Room was produced during a residency at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, the third in a series of projects, following The Red Wall, (Chicago, 1995) and The Red Space, (Glasgow, 1999).

Wall, Space, Room: there is a suggestion of thematic development here. A wall is, among others, a line of separation: it divides ‘here’ from ‘there’. More precisely, it brings a ‘here’ and a ‘there’ into existence. Among the embroidered images Ainsley created for The Red Wall exhibition was a black and white cellular network in which each cell contained the outline map of a country. A series of analogies were suggested here. Each country is – to a great extent - defined by its borders, these borders functioning in much the same way as a wall. Identity is established through a process of differentiation and demarcation: here/there; Scotland/England; me/you. Identity, in other words, depends upon which side of the ‘wall/border’ one finds oneself. Significantly, Ainsley offered four versions of demarcation in this image: thick, straight lines defined the limits of the cells; the wooden ring of the embroidery hoop separated a centralized circular area within the overall rectangular field (this central area bearing white lines on a black ground, as opposed to the black lines on a white ground that lie beyond it); the contours of the countries appearing within the centralized area were continuous and unbroken, whereas those in the surrounding rectangular field were discontinuous and broken. The varying degrees and modes of containment suggested by these differing strengths of contour and demarcation could be read as metaphors for the complexities and ambiguities of identity itself: fluid and fixed; positive and negative; random and systematic; definitive and provisional; resolved and potential.

The key image of The Red Room installation was a line drawing representing a network of Scottish waterways so extensive it created an easily recognisable map of the country. This image was then doubled (the right reading as a map of Scotland, its mirror image appearing to the left) to suggest a pair of human lungs.

In another of the images included in The Red Wall, Ainsley incorporated an enlarged fingerprint. The invitation to make a connection between skin and wall was difficult to refuse: both constitute lines of containment, both define the limits between here and there, between inside and outside. Architectural facts thus became anatomical metaphors. As part of The Red Space installation Ainsley developed this analogy by presenting a MRI scan of a section of her own body, thereby reinforcing the links between these different kinds of interior spaces (the body and the exhibition venue) as well as between this cellular imagery and that of The Red Wall. In general usage the term “space” implies a certain neutrality, a weakly defined identity. Spaces are commonly understood as the ‘gaps’ between ‘things’, voids waiting to be filled. The architectural space selected by Ainsley for The Red Space (a viewing gallery in a modern public building) exhibited precisely such neutral characteristics, for this was a space primarily designed as one from which to view and experience, rather than as one in which to view and experience. By exhibiting a panoramic photograph of the city which failed to correspond to the view available from The Red Space itself, and by including the MRI scan of the body’s invisible interior, Ainsley’s installation also introduced a crucial disjunction between location, vision and (self-)knowledge. (Neutral) space, (invisible) body and (dislocated) representation were thus brought into a perplexing relation in which each served to destabilize the others and which denied the consolation of easy harmony. Such conflicts and irresolutions reappear throughout Ainsley’s work as symptoms of her critical dialectics. Openness plays against closure, inside against outside, craft against industrial modes of production, the microscopic against the macroscopic, the diagrammatic against the photographic. Certainty and synthesis are permanently suspended.

The life size ‘lung' was the installation’s dominant theme, the modular motif being reproduced perhaps a hundred times, screen printed in electric blue on fire engine red fabric. The ‘lung' motif covered two of the four walls and was applied to the fabric using a half drop pattern, a regular and familiar repeat commonly used in the mechanised production of textiles, tiles and wallpapers. All four walls in the room were painted in the same red with a single drawing on the third wall, executed in the same electric blue on red, this time mapping the waterways of Australia. The Australian waterways are more sporadic, sparse in the middle but consistent enough around the perimeter to clearly indicate the edges of the land mass and create the distinctive shape of Australia. When subjected to the same process of doubling as the Scottish waterways map, a butterfly-like image emerged. The only respite from the intense ambient colour play was the single entrance/exit to the space.

Ainsley's Red Room develops some of her earlier concerns, returning to the similarities between human biology, topography, and the built environment, to suggest an interrelationship between our physiology, the land and the societies we create. The abundance of possible metaphors helps to validate her claims; networks of canals, for example, may be read as arterial routes connecting nerve centres to the heart of the city. I'm dwelling on the built environment because, interestingly, the networks of man made waterways were included in the drawings. The inclusion of the Forth and Clyde canal provides an entry point to consider some of the historical connectivity and networks established between Scotland and Australia.

If the wall is an ambivalent generator of identity and if space is an empty abstraction, then the room would seem to provide a more suitable site for the establishment of stable meanings and values. Rooms, after all, are indissolubly linked to specific human activities: dining rooms, bedrooms, living rooms, etc. Rooms – in general contrast to spaces - are pervaded by the human, the intimate, the memorable. Whereas the space finds it difficult to retain a continuity of time (host to a discontinuous sequence of disparate events, it is a site of constant forgetting, of an eternally renewed ‘now’), the room shelters history. Thus in The Red Room Ainsley is able to evoke connections between the intimate (the bodily interiority of the ‘lung’) and the historical (colonial relations between Scotland and Australia, for example). But each is problematized, the intimate becoming too intimate (the room itself is claustrophobic, having only a “single entrance/exit”), whereas the lessons of the historical evaporate in the psychological playground of Rorschach blot images of ‘lung’ and ‘butterfly’.

What I am suggesting is that certain thematic analogies may be identified throughout this series of works, analogies between architectural elements, the body, and a broadly defined geography. More specifically, the series might be thought of as an extended investigation into the ways in which architecture, the body and geography enter into complex relationships as a consequence of their implication in different discourses and signifying systems. Thus the wall as a discrete architectural element might bear comparison with the body as it is known within anatomical discourse, that is to say as a divisible object of empirical scrutiny. This, in turn, has similarities with Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the “conceived city” as a conceptual abstraction arising from the drawing boards of planners and architects, produced from the conventions of geometry, linear perspective and cartography. The neutrality of architectural Space, on the other hand, might be thought of as sharing some of the characteristics of the body as it is known in its impersonal, public guise (the stereotype). Both of these characteristics would seem to harmonize with Lefebvre’s notion of the “perceived city”, defined by generic activities such as walking, shopping, eating, sight-seeing, and so on. If the map (cartography) provides the quintessential mode of representing the “conceived city”, it is perhaps the framed, distant vista that most adequately represents this “perceived city.” Lefebvre’s third notion of the social space of the city, the “lived city”, refers to the ways in which these spaces may be appropriated by the imagination and become invested with history, narrative and myth. Such a personalization of social space would find its architectural equivalent in the (domestic) room, its corporeal equivalent in our imaginary relation to our own body, and its representational equivalent in those forms of expression that personalize the public realm (that turn the image of Australia into a butterfly, for example). Approaching a conclusion we could perhaps say that Ainsley’s ambitious and complex project is ultimately framed by a concern to investigate and dismantle the ideological relations between the public and the private, the self and the world. In keeping with Ainsley’s previous work this also equates to a critique of those cultural and political formations that serve to determine and fix the relative positions of the male and the female. Finally, all of these themes and strategies are unified and mediated through red: the colour of passion, the colour of danger, the colour of political radicalism.

John Calcutt.