Reviews/Visual Art

A spiralling journey into the magical universe

27 July 2022

Jess Tan’s new exhibition ‘inner ear’ invites the viewer to focus on the process rather than the product, and Miranda Johnson embraces it.

There is a meme format that I’ve seen recently online referring to the snail in your ear, a creature that compels you to do things you shouldn’t.

It’s a light-hearted reference to the cochlea, the spiral-like part of the ear that picks up the vibrations made by sound.

Although obviously the cochlea is not literally a snail, the idea of an animal living inside you, controlling your thoughts and feelings, is not entirely fantasy. Consider the multispecies organisms that live on each individual human, such as the microbes living in our eyelashes and eyebrows, on the surface of our skin, and inside our bodies.

“inner ear”, an exhibition at sweet pea gallery by Narrm/Melbourne and Boorloo/Perth-based artist Jess Tan, takes as a starting point the multitude of nonhuman companions that make up our human habitats. Utilising materials from her childhood backyard as well as the detritus of life, the exhibition forefronts the power of paying attention, both as maker and viewer.

The exhibition is presented as a series of assemblages. Some reference the domestic, with objects such as brooms, fridge magnets and vanity tables. Other works meticulously recreate circular or spiral patterns from natural and collected materials, such as coloured pencils, pumpkin stems and wood shavings.

These materials are transformed through a variety of processes; confetti is made from bougainvillea leaves, the sharp edges of branches are adorned with popcorn, rolling seagrass has been washed ashore into delicate coils.

To me, the works read as talismans or mystical objects, demonstrating that meaning and power can be derived from the most prosaic materials.

 A work by Jess Tan, made of nasturtium leaves and stems adorned with popcorn.
Jess Tan, ‘extended stretch/semicircular canal (la-la-la-la-la-la)’, 2022 Courtesy of the artist and sweet pea, Photo: Jack Ball

This combination of earthly materials, and found objects collected and hoarded, speak to the process of “digesting”. Tan uses this term to refer the way she accumulates and re-presents materials, everything mixed together yet formed by a precise logic and visual structure.

The attention to detail this requires, both to create and to view, reminds me of a key tenet of mindfulness; considering your immediate environment and allowing it to ground you in a moment, embracing the looping, repetitive acts of making and experiencing rather than the active pursuit of a goal.

The works in “inner ear” present a history of the artist’s recent and childhood experiences, but also inspire the viewer to pay attention to the accumulation of materials, experiences and feelings that make up our life.

From the perfect ringlet twists of a vine to the multitude of colours present within wood shavings as they age from fresh to dried, “inner ear” leaves you feeling more aware of the mysterious and magical logic of the universe.

“inner ear” continues at sweet pea gallery until 27 August 2022.

Pictured top: Jess Tan, ‘sssssquirl’, 2022, Courtesy of the artist and sweet pea, Photo: Jack Ball

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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