The minute you enter Tatjana Este’s Unfold at the Counihan Gallery you are immediately arrested by the slow hypnotic tick of the metronome accompanied by a soothing female voice. Straight away you feel compelled to slow your rhythm, your breath, your steps as you move around the gallery, and the busy road outside fades into the distance.
Around the space, mounted on the walls and clustered in groups in the centre, are swathes of light blue satin bunched at the top to give them a humanistic appearance. They appear as cloaked and silent sentinels, keeping a watchful vigil, or perhaps immersed in their own meditative reverie. This is The Gathering, an installation that grows throughout the exhibition. The soundtrack is coming from a video work projected onto the wall, Healing Gestures, featuring dancers Benjamin Hancock, Alexandra Petrarca and Este herself performing a slow, graceful unfolding movement. With fluid intimacy, Este’s hands slowly trace the contours of the dancers’ bodies, accompanied by a meditative spoken-word piece by psychotherapist Debbie Ford. Completing the installation is a stainless steel table, Stabilisers, almost jarring with its clinical overtones. Perfectly-folded bundles of the same cloth used for The Gathering – hundreds of metres of hand-dyed satin – await upon the reflective surface of the table, in readiness for an intimate ritual to be performed between Este and her audience.
These are the things you immediately see and hear when you enter the Counihan, but like the folded lengths of cloth, there are many layers to Tatjana Este’s Unfold. Exploring psychological states and the manifestation of emotion in spatial and social contexts, this performative, large-scale drawing installation has been developed alongside research the artist has undertaken into depression. Este considers how external influence, and art itself, might act as a therapeutic medium with the potential to connect people through their engagement with material. The work continues Este’s use of line in space through tracing contours, the process of binding, displays of gestural freedom, and her labor-intensive approach to her art making. Here, the viewer also plays an active role in the evolution of Este’s immersive work.
Human connectivity, intimacy, and the cathartic power of touch are integral to the themes of Unfold. We live in a world where we are increasingly connected by digital platforms on the one hand, and yet more people are struggling with loneliness and lack of personal, meaningful interactions on the other. Este considers the notion that there may be something wrong with the way we live, and she cites Johann Hari’s Lost Connections as a major influence in the creation of this work.1 Technology has become a buffer, an anaesthetic for our true emotions, and Este puts forward Hari’s suggestion that we need to acknowledge our pain and loneliness in order to establish a truer connection with the world around us and the people in it. But we cannot change the world without first addressing ourselves – in therapy this is one of the most difficult revelations to come to terms with.
Este aims to overcome this feeling of disconnectedness by inviting her audience to contribute to the process of performative drawing, opening themselves up to the vulnerability of being touched by a stranger (herself). In designated sessions during the show, a bundle of cloth is selected from the stainless steel table and spread on the floor, and a participant is invited to lie upon it. As the dancers continue to be traced in the video work, Este also traces the contours of the participant’s body onto the cloth with a marker pen. The fabric, now containing traces of the other person – a drawn body silhouette, perhaps residue from the skin or even the faint scent of perfume – is knotted at the top and placed among the rest of The Gathering installation, leaving a physical record of a moment of connection and intimacy.
We don’t often think about it, but many times throughout our lives we place our trust in strangers and allow them to touch us – doctors, masseurs, hairdressers, even the inadvertent contact with other commuters on the close confines of public transport. Este herself worked in a vintage clothing store, and believes this has had an influence upon her work – folding fabrics, interacting with customers, and hearing their stories, both joyful and tragic. This was how she met Debby Ford, the psychotherapist whose voice and words we hear in the video, when Este had to put her hands around Ford’s waist to measure for a dress fitting. We don’t attribute much significance to these small moments of intimacy with strangers as we move through our daily lives, but in a world where we increasingly interact with each other through screens, being close enough to feel the breath of another is something of a rarity.
The twist in the tale is that I am now writing this essay about Este’s work during the time of Covid-19, a time when we must socially isolate, remain in our homes, and avoid all physical contact with others. A time when touching or hugging another could mean a death sentence. How the world has changed in a few short months, and when I reflect back on Este’s exhibition it is inconceivable that an activity involving such physical intimacy between strangers could take place now. In fact, I wonder if it will ever happen again, in the same way, or will our interaction with others be forever changed in the future? Now, more than ever before, we rely on technology to stay connected to our family and friends, but what does this mean for physical intimacy when we cannot hug those we love and who might be suffering through this difficult time? Human touch is essential to our well-being, releasing endorphins and boosting our immune system, and there is some evidence that babies can die from the lack of it.
Este’s message, and her thoughtful and clever execution of it, has now become all the more poignant – and urgent –at a time like this. Her work essentially conveys the eternal human paradox – our desperate longing to be known, truly known, by another, and yet the sheer impossibility that we can ever really know the depths of another human being. Like the dancers in the video we are constantly shifting, revealing and concealing ourselves, striving to break out of the confinements of our physical bodies – which function as both vehicle for expression, and the cage that limits us. We are many-faceted, containing multitudes, impossible to pin down, and when we use technology to connect, the nuances of our inner selves are lost. Este reminds us that there is a healing power in the direct and caring touch of another, a power that enables us to unfold and reveal a little of our selves beyond language, and beyond appearances. Through the skin, we find each other again.
Kim Anderson, April 2020
1 Hari, Johann, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018
UNFOLD - Tatjana Este
Counihan Gallery, 11 October – 10 November 2019, Melbourne
Exhibition Essay by Kim Anderson