The Parrot House (with Emma Smith)
Snowwhite Gallery, Auckland
6-17 October 2003
Essay by Bronwyn Lloyd

It's as if they're playing the game where you stage a dinner party with invited characters of your choice, be they real or fictitious. Seated around the Parrot House table is an ensemble of characters certain to generate an interesting evening's conversation. Graham Fletcher brings to the table convicted murderer David Bain and Vardaman Bundren, the youngest son of Southern farming folk Anse and Addie Bundren from William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying. Emma Smith's dinner guests are Sisyphus (doomed for all eternity to push a rock up hill) and Sisyphus's long-suffering Missus (nice assonance). A token appearance by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky completes the setting.

In the Parrot House Graham Fletcher's paintings and Emma Smith's drawings have taken on another life. Fletcher has laboriously cut up his disused experimental field paintings and reconstituted the fragments into two wall mosaics Vardaman and David. The entrails of the paintings have been stretched over one another to form a web of canvas strips. The two mosaic figures are cut from the same cloth, so to speak and in the process Vardaman and David are fashioned as brothers.

In Faulkner's novel, Vardaman, an innocent, uneducated boy attempts to grasp the fact of his mother's death. The complexity of this idea somehow becomes entangled with the death of a fish he has just caught and the author with the aid of Socratic reasoning plays out the following scenario:

his mother was alive
the fish was alive
the fish was caught
the fish was dead
the fish was on the ground
the fish was whole
the fish was cut up
his mother was dead
the fish was dead
the fish is his mother
his mother is a fish

In the simple reasoning of a grieving boy there is something painfully beautiful. It is this conflation of beauty and pain that is written in the expression on David Bain's face in the oft repeated publicity photo of a 'murderer' - a shy, slightly tousled and spotty young man gazing off-camera with a look that says that whatever he is dealt at this point can be no worse than what he is already enduring. It seems appropriate that Vardaman and David are each a mosaic of fragments, brought together in the Parrot House as new wholes made from the shards of a previous whole.

Parmenides: And is it not absolutely inevitable that two likes must participate in one and the same Form?

Socrates: It is

In the other life of the Parrot House a cast of Emma Smith's favoured motifs from her considerable archive of drawings have stepped off the page and become a room full of objects collectively titled Sisyphus's Missus.

A community of white logs pierced with red tacks hover somewhere between Twisties and Twin Peaks. They stand over coffins and they cluster around freshly dug graves. The logs crowd two Olympic podiums complete with brass numbers 1/2/3 (who ever remembers silver and bronze?). Logs assemble around a stockade, makeshift gallows and a magic box for the sawing a person in two trick. A single log walks the plank - caught in that movie moment where we wait for the hero to swing to the rescue on a rope. Another is injected with a hypodermic needle witnessed by a wooden friend peeping from behind a pole close by . Yet another log hangs by a knot on the precipice of a cleaved coffin which has a log leg extending from it wearing a painter's shoe. In a dramatic recreation of the cruel mock execution endured by Dostoevsky in 1849 a log stands prone tied to a post awaiting the firing squad.

The wooden boxes covered in yellow chalk markings, plans and calculations provide a mathematical account of their construction. These assorted objects are models of a kind - but at a certain point a model is no longer a model. In this case these wooden boxes, steps, planks and beams become the very systems of power that they seek to undermine. They parody the hierarchies we live by, the futility of unattainable goals, the short term highs, the near misses, the fear of failure - the many and varied ways that we torture ourselves daily.

Sisyphus and his missus are emblematic of the absurdity that is our lives. As Albert Camus puts it 'Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the Gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.'

If the Parrot House is taken as a metaphor for society as a colourful, noisy, confusing jumble of life filled with irony, humour, love, ambition, deceit, death and despair you'd be hard pressed to find a more appropriate cage full of birds than those occupying a perch in Emma Smith and Graham Fletcher's Parrot House.

Bronwyn Lloyd
October 2003