A Cow's Tail

Julia Charlton
In collaboration with Alan Alborough

February to June 1996
From White Elephant (Unpublished)


ROOM 6 or RULES OF LEXICON or (RED HERRING) is a continually evolving environment that functions as a kind of repository of ideas, works, explorations and processes, a sort of domestic disturbance in the artist's home. The room is about 4m2 with one corner cut off; on the angled wall is a modified mantelpiece with shelves. Two diagonally opposite doorways lead into a dense installation with objects arranged in formations on virtually all surfaces. Taut nylon strings hang from the ceiling, suspending fob watches just above matchboxes placed on the floor. The strings divide the space into a grid which regulates movement through the room. Within this grid, four strings with white tags attached to them form a defined central
column.

AND

On entering or exiting, a 'ding-dong' door-chime is triggered. A motion detector within the room activates mechanisms that control light, temperature and sound: a tape-recorder that plays the distorted tune familiar from ice-cream vans, a string of flashing coloured party lights, a flickering red 'flame' bulb, a light which shines through a collection of bottles, and a fan. After 25 seconds, the timing setting on the motion detector switches off the mechanisms which are in turn re-activated by
movement.

OR

[IMAGE]

One old book on the mantelpiece promises answers with an enviable confidence. Enquire Within Upon Everything by Herbert Jenkins is a hardcover book with a green woven binding and black letters impressed into the spine. Faced with the overwhelming quantity and bewildering complexity of material, the calm assurance of the title is a poignant reminder of a previous time when it was perfectly conceivable that there were explanations for everything, and furthermore that the solutions could be contained within one volume. The wistful longing for lost innocence is subverted by the uncomfortable suspicion that, contrary to Jenkins' guarantees, there are no maps charting a route through the
labyrinth.

OR

Identified by its shape, the truncheon hanging on a wall is a weapon intended to inflict pain. It is wrapped in gauze, the dressing fastened with a bandage clip, indicating that the weapon itself is wounded and receiving medical care. The clip allows for the bandage to be unwrapped and rewrapped, implying that the truncheon could be used, then disguised as a harmless object deserving of sympathy. The wrapping suggests the bandages under a boxer's gloves, and the muffled anonymity of a bank robber's stockinged face or a Third Force member's balaclava. That the truncheon is actually a child's toy baseball bat is a typically ironic
inversion.

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[IMAGE]

A fish swaddled in transparent plastic wrapping stands on its tail. 'CHIPS' appears in letters along the centre of its orange body. This found object is a two-sided sign from outside a corner caf┌ of the kind that sells everything. Empty sockets indicate where light bulbs would have illuminated the message. (RED HERRING) is a pictogram indicating that things are not what they seem: fish is not chips, the shrinkwrapping would smother the fish if it were alive and the bulbs cannot be fitted as the sockets are
sealed.

OR

Discs of dried cotton wool are fastened by clothes pegs to washing lines and have small oval indentations on their surfaces. These growing mediums, used to pregerminate Erythrina caffra seeds, are stained the colour of dried blood by the lucky beans. References to the display of nuptial sheets as proof of bridal virginity, to menstruation and surgical dressings explore issues of fertility, seasonal cycles of growth and the traditional identification of nature with the female
gender.

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White insulation tape on the floor apparently indicates the correct site of the stool, which is not exactly in this designated position. The tape calls to mind official demarcations of place, police markings at crime scenes and fire regulations at factories. The space between where the stool 'should' be and where it is questions the idea of any absolute authoritative voice, including that of the artist, while the sense throughout of deliberate and precise positioning contests the possibility that the chair is
misplaced.

OR

The complexity and quantity of components are overwhelming. The experience of engaging with the space, objects, placements and sensory mechanisms results in a disorientating oscillation between external and internal contemplation, between a pleasure in looking and a heightened bodily self awareness. This movement is caused at least in part by the uneven rhythm of light and dark, sound and
silence.

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[IMAGE]

Two cistern lids placed on mirrors are raised off the floor on wooden blocks; they hold a collection of sealed plastic pill bottles. The way the bottles are arranged echoes the shape of the hole in the centre of a razor blade, and a wrapped blade lies in the middle of each grouping. Each bottle is filled with slightly milky fluid containing whiskers from the artist's daily
shave.

OR

Suspended at eye level from the ceiling is a velvet cushion, one side crimson and the other olive green. I am dissuaded from unhooking it and using it to sit on by the spyhole in its centre and the steel bulldog clips forming the 'lace' edging. Surveying the room through the spyhole from one side provides a fisheye view of the installation, and from the other a reflection of my
eye.

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In a large grouping of objects, a small '3D' disc aptly encapsulates the fascination and self-consciousness generated. The white disc has a central black dot which is replaced with a short black dash when seen from a slightly different position. The prevalence of encoded information suggests that the alternation of dot and dash is a
cryptogram.

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[IMAGE]

In its offset position in the central column the hard wooden swivel stool, part of a previous work, forms an uncomfortable vantage point. The stool is black except for a pristine white foot-rest that, if I sat properly, would be dirtied by the soles of my shoes. This simultaneous invitation and rejection is an example of a recurrent theme related to
access.

OR

Red and black inner tubes have been tied with strips of rubber into two ball-like forms. Their colours recall games of chance and the figure of speech that indicates solvency or debt, and their inflated cylindrical shape suggests children's rubber bouncing toys, 'whoopee' cushions and
lifebelts.

OR

Colonialism, the exploitation of resources and military dominance form part of the complex and diverse web of associations introduced by an elephant curio. The size and strength of elephants make them potent symbols of power, associated in many African societies with
leadership.

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[IMAGE]

A Polaroid captures a potted Erythrina caffra or 'kafferboom' seedling. These indigenous trees are very difficult to grow and bear the distinctive red and black seeds known as lucky beans. The sizes and colours of lucky beans differ widely according to each Erythrina
species.

OR

Internal organs for reproduction or digestion are suggested by the soft pliancy of the inner tubes. Their balling and pairing identify them as testicles orovaries, a reading reinforced by the visual pun referring to surgicalprocedures undertaken to prevent conception by
'having your tubes tied'.

OR

Surgical procedures involving brown sisal and white office string, red sealing wax and buff clothes-pegs were used to remove a hessian skin from the fish sign. The dissection calls to mind precision gourmet skill as the line of pegs becomes a visual equivalent for a fish's
skeleton.

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[IMAGE]

On one wall is hung the skin of a stuffed toy koala bear made of kangaroo skin. While the threadbare remnants imply that the bear has been loved to death, this evidence of deep childhood attachment emphasises the violenceinherent in the act of skinning a child's
toy.

OR

References to previous and future works occur throughout the room suggesting a process of constant investigation and modification. The objects' histories accompany them into the new context and feed the new identitiesassumed there, which in turn inform a reading of their past
meanings.

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Allusions to hospitals, bondage, butcheries, voyeurism, South Africa's booming security industry and boudoirs are made by the cushion through theunexpected, resonant and witty manipulation of velvet, a length ofchain, a spyhole and a butcher
hook.

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[IMAGE]

Pill bottles, mirrors, cistern lids and razor blades indicate methodical, mundane collection and disposal of bodily waste combined with implied illicit drug use and suggest the interconnections between laboratory, medical and domestic
transgression.

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The realisation that the '3D' disc is a winking eye, a found object similar to those stuck on the faces of inflatable toys, is an ironic example of theinterplay between the artist's intention and the viewer's
expectation.

OR

'Separate slowly', 'pasop beware', 'Do not wipe blade', 'danger gevaar ingozi', 'Important belangrik store in bewaar in dry place dro╬ plek', 'Keep away from pacemakers, watches, TVs and computer programs',
'Do not touch'.

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[IMAGE]

Blades in a honeycomb pattern are set into a wooden board. This resonantobject is a die cutter and alludes to biological and prison cell walls, to unitsof construction, healing and nurturing properties and systems of
deprivation.

OR

Multiple associations suggested by the combination of cowhide, beef stock cubes and a funerary vessel include religious ritual, royalty, bride price,wealth, fashion accessories, masculinity and meat, dairy and leather
consumption.

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Two large half-moon shapes wrapped and sewn in Indian bandage cloth are unidentifiable. Partially concealed behind layers of objects, they have afaint unfamiliar
smell.

OR

Packets of black and blue 'Doctor' razor blades, found objects, distil references to educational institutions, sadism, medical intervention, brutality, hair removal procedures and
suicide.

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[IMAGE]

Objects are arranged, substances bottled, experiments labelled and timemeasured according to procedures that appear ordered and meticulouseven as they are
mystifying.

OR

A Polaroid documents a tuber of the Dioscorea elephantipes, or 'elephant's foot' or 'Hottentot bread' plant. Also indigenous to South Africa, this wasthe original source of
cortisone.

OR

Tied with a strip of black rubber and attached to the door, the boxed set of RULES OF LEXICON spells out my recurring sense of being in a gameand not knowing how to
play.

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A profound sense of shock and loss accompanies the recognition of thehalf-moons as elephants' ears, and the cloth takes on connotationsof a funerary
shroud.

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[IMAGE]

Transience associated with temporary rented accommodation corresponds to the place occupied by passages as linking spaces experienced in
transition.

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ROOM 6 is a passage connecting the front and back of the house. The white 6 on the door implies it is one of a number of rooms, as found in a boarding
house.

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Altered household cleaning utensils include a mop head in a large glass bottle half full of baby oil which magnifies the fabric
threads.

OR

Elephants and humans share many similarities, resulting in the adoption ofelephants as symbols for human values in a process of emotionally charged
identification.

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[IMAGE]

Six Oxo cubes are placed on the floor in front of a cowhide rolled into a balland elevated on a shiny brass urn, suggesting the status given to
cattle.

OR

The room implies the kind of ritual that can mark occasions of leaving one state of being and entering another, a location for a rite of
passage.

OR

The ears evoke elephants' acute sense of hearing; they are able to communicate in a 'secret language' by making sounds which humans cannot
hear.

OR

The 'flame' bulb points down to a glass bell-jar covering the tape-player and a recorder which rest on a bed of glass
marbles.

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[IMAGE]

In a bodily reading of objects, the respirator becomes a metaphor for lungs,the electric fan for breathing and the ticking clocks for a
heart.

OR

On the clothes-lines hang the results of exhaustive experiments into thepotential of rusting as a means of indirect
drawing.

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House dust is collected weekly using a modified dustpan. Numberedcontainers of dust are stacked neatly against a
wall.

OR

Sylvia Plath, the Victorian mania for collecting, and school science experiments concerning vacuums are suggested by the
bell-jar.

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[IMAGE]

Being denied access to the concealed contents of enigmatic objects occurs throughout and is intriguing and
frustrating.

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Animal parts allude to practices like trophy hunting, big game safaris, thecollection of scalps for souvenirs, the fur
trade.

OR

I am relieved when the irritating tune and blinking and whirring stop, thenfrustrated at being left in
darkness.

OR

Despite the lulling regularity of the ticking, I am startled by the cuckoo's cry as it pops out of the battleship grey
clock.

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[IMAGE]

I can choose to reactivate the mechanisms, unlike the involuntary initial
triggering.

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Souvenir hollowed-out lucky beans house a family of little carved white
elephants.

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Both doors' thresholds are demarcated by strips of black
tape.

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I am bereft at the knowledge that the room is soon to be
dismantled.

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Codification predominates, contributing to a sense of being
excluded.

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[IMAGE]

Surveillance apparatus, laboratory instruments and specialised
tools.

OR

A doorhandle in the shape of a
noose.

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Slices from a telephone
directory.

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No hands on a clock
face.

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Inversion of
scale.

OR

A cow's
tail.