THE SEA. THE SHORE
“A being dedicated to water is a being in flux.”
Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter
Shakespeare’s infamous Ophelia—broken-hearted, grieving the death of her father—drowns slowly in a river in Denmark. In a state of spiritual collapse, she has fallen from the bough of a tree while collecting flowers. Now submerged, the young woman’s hands puncture the river’s surface like lilies. As she welcomes in death, Ophelia sings, her flaxen dress turning lavender as the water exchanges its initial offering of buoyancy for debilitating weight.
Melbourne based artist, Meg Cowell, photographs undulating feminine garments in, what appears, a vacuum of infinite space. The dresses, rich in hue and excessive in their skirting, are handpicked for their unique and romantic character: “Each garment has to speak to me in some way, to tell me what its wants me to do with it, as cosmic as that sounds.” The chosen articles of clothing are then photographed in a 1000-litre pool Cowell has installed in her inner-city backyard.
Ritual dress accompanies many important rites of passage. For women, white wedding gowns and Victorian mourning attire are iconic artefacts that carry their wearer from one stage of life to the next. In turn, it is not beauty, vanity or a political reading of fashion that concerns Cowell’s practice. Instead, it is the moment when a woman dons a costume for her transformation that is of interest. For the artist, such occasions elevate garments beyond their materiality to become an embodiment of female ritual.
Cowell’s exhibition, The Sea, The Shore, presents a series of large-scale photographic works that illustrate this shift from garment to artefact. Through sophisticated direction, the artist creates vignettes of unique gowns, lingerie and couture as they bloom into new forms: for example, dresses appear flower-like, floating in the abyss. She describes the satisfaction when clothing abandons its inanimate physicality for a sense of agency: “I think an image is successful when it shows metamorphosis. Good images require a kind of imaginative collaboration from the viewer to interpret what they are seeing.”
However, it is the body of water (literally, metaphorically) filling each gown that encourages spiritual transformation. Water—as a passage between shelves of land—is inherently connected to transition: mortals and immortals alike have cleansed, purged and even re-birthed here, moving from one tangible or metaphysical place to the next. Although the actual water is not visible in Cowell’s images, it acts as an agent for movement and a deep, almost cosmic, setting for the garments. Inspired by scenes like Ada’s drowning in The Piano and Ophelia’s watery demise, the artist explains, “It’s the Romantic idea of the psyche unanchored and adrift in deep water that fascinates me.” In this way, aqueous infinitude becomes a chamber for the memorialisation of female transition. As woman and outfit are separated, they alight one another, passing through the rigor of ritual toward transcendence.
TO THE SURFACE
Just as the wearing of a marvellous gown can transform a woman from mere mortal into princess or screen goddess, so an unremarkable female garment – a discarded petticoat found in a skip perhaps – is transformed by Meg Cowell in her photographs into an alluring presence, charged with the mysteries and paradoxes of feminine states of being. These luscious photographs are remarkable for the sense of their garments being inhabited not only by their absent wearer, but also by a complex of moods, emotions, constructs of the feminine and even characters. Is that Ophelia floating down to the dark depths in White Chalk?
The closest analogy to the suggestive power of female garments in these images is the film still of Marilyn Monroe in that dress. We forget the gowns in other iconic images of women, but we remember that one – its pleats, halter neck and shimmering lamé. Why? Because set in motion above the subway vent it becomes animated with the qualities of Marilyn herself: both the film persona - exuberant, irrepressible, insouciantly provocative; and the woman behind it - increasingly out of control.
The subjects of Meg Cowell’s photographs have this kind of charisma and understated double-edge - the result of her artful stitching, dyeing and arranging; her painter’s eye for colour and texture; and her ability to elicit a sense of movement by floating the garments in water. The dancing, light caressed, peach confection of a gown in Flush is the stuff of fantasy or fairy-tale, yet the smoky wisps and tendrils of its fragile underskirt – extraordinary in their painterliness - suggest an incipient process of osmosis, reminding us of water’s symbolic associations with transformation.
MIRRORED PARTS, SACRED PLACES
The common thread running through discourses on beauty are most often based on the elements of clarity, symmetry, harmony and vivid colour. These properties are synonymous with geometric form and balance.
For the photographic work in ‘Sacrum’, Meg Cowell has embraced these principles. Her compositions have pleasing harmony and rhythm, gratifying the visual senses. Her aesthetic approach is based on proportion and structure where she amalgamates mirrored parts that fit harmoniously into a seamless whole, like a butterfly with splendid wings radiating out from the central thorax. These symmetrical arrangements around a central pod give the exhibition its title ‘Sacrum’, referring to the physical structure within the pelvic region.
Meg Cowell’s works are as ambiguous as they are structured. Through folds, seams, threads and bones she expresses a delicacy showing an internal world of sensuous places. The paired folds reveal an inner life of luscious drapes and enveloped spaces. This is a sacred place, a foramen, an orifice. Vividly translucent, light passes through texture, weave and skeleton in these sumptuous images, where one becomes intimate with the anatomy of lace and the lattice of bones.
The mirror imaging as a compositional device references the psychiatrist Rorschach’s inkblots, used to interpret personality characteristics in patients. Through her recent photographic work, there is evidence that emerging artist Meg Cowell has gained insight into her own creative character. The integration of emotional perception, creative intuition and her inquisitive sense of the psyche, reflects her developing maturity as an artist.
Through exploring a diverse range of evocative subjects, surreal topics and moody scenes, Meg Cowell is constantly developing intriguing bodies of work. This includes ‘Sacrum’.