Julie Rrap would like to express her deep thanks to all the artists who participated in Blow Back.
Maria Fernanda Cardoso
These portraits represent a collective performance act that uses breath as an action that is both gentle yet provocative. The performers’ open mouths mock the endless images of women posed in this way to suggest their receptivity; like a vessel waiting to be filled. In ‘Blow Back’ their breath is materialized like the capturing of a sound; a unique expression of their voice; a silent protest.
While breathing, we touch this world. While dreaming, we create this world.
—Noritoshi Hirakawa, 2017
Have you ever been by someone’s side as they took their last breath?
My grandmother’s last breath was a physiological event distinguished by a poetic rhythm. My close and absorbed analysis recorded her long drawn-out, deep and laborious breathing as innnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuut innnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuut. The labour of breathing; its composition, arrangement and its gaps indicated the end was near and when the final breath came it did so suddenly and loudly – a deep groan more than a breath.
There is another kind of breathing at birth. Birth is a very different physiological event from death when I consider the three births and one death I have been present at. The first birth my own, I have no recollection of (and yet I exist as a result of). The second birth was my daughter’s and the third my son’s; their first breath coincided with their first utterance, a cry, the sign of life. The first breath conjured a message in communion with the world, the uttering of I am here. The first breath is the first stanza. The last breath, a groan, brings silence signalling a departure; the end of the poem.
Here, I have drawn a relationship between the breath and poetry. This coupling encompasses the breaths relationship to words, to speaking. This poetic relationship is also a philosophical one defined by Gaston Bachelard as ‘poetic breathing’, where words are formed through the act of breathing: “[…] speaking quietly, rapidly, shouting, whispering, intoning – we would discover an incredible multiplicity of poetic breathing. […] an economy of breathing at work.”
Initiated in the first breath are the conditions of human intimacy. The first breath is after all like our first word. Bachelard saw the breath as one with the speech act: “It is really breath that speaks […] then the lips gently separate and seem to aspirate the air.” This notion of breath speaking is also explored by Judith Butler in her examination of the poetry written by Guantanamo Bay prisoners: “What I sense is the ultimate source of these poems from Guantanamo is the simple, almost primeval, arithmetic of breathing in and out. The origin of life and the origin of language and the origin of poetry are all there, in the first breath, each breath as if it were our first […] what keeps us alive as we inhale and exhale the universe.”
Julie Rrap’s recent works invoke poetic breathing. In her large-scale photographs, Re-making the World (2015), the artist is exhaling, blowing forth tiny digitized versions of herself. Like stardust or tiny molecules her digitized figure hurtles through black space. Here, she breathes herself into the universe; her way of “re-making the world.”
In her new work Blow Back (2018) she offers this performance to others. Inviting thirty-three women artists to perform breathing for her camera, Blow Back continues Julie’s allegorical take on the creation story that she started in Re-making the World. The etched forms of each artist’s exhalation on the glass demonstrate Julie’s creative force. Not content with the invisibility of breath, this work harnesses the ephemeral breath, visualising and giving form to something that is formless. This desire for form is not surprising from an artist whose practice has centred on materialising and refiguring the body, where each iteration sees the body perpetually frozen in the image or preserved in all its fragments in bronze, aluminium, silicone or wax.
In Blow Back the breath’s invisibility-made-visible also recalls the wonderment of seeing the sign of my breath on a pane of cold and steamy glass, the cold car window for example or walking to school and seeing the plume before me in the cold air of a winter morning. Another image that comes to mind is Gabriel Orozco’s breath stain on the shine of a black piano in Breath on Piano (1993).
When I entered Julie’s studio in 2017, I understood I was there to breathe for her. Standing against a black backdrop and facing her camera, she instructed me to breathe in, hold still, and breathe out. With my long breath a rhythm unfurled; my exhale in time with the drawn-out sound of the slow camera shutter. We repeat this performance over and over. Each time, as I am poised to inhale I close my eyes. This performance reminds me of many attempts to maintain a regular meditation practice, and my failure to fulfil the transformative promise of breath work. Breathing for Julie reminds me I am living as a body, I am not simply the involuntary announcements that my mind makes day in and day out. This performance, like the finished work itself, draws me back to my breath, bringing me back to my body.
The breath’s ability to ground us in our bodies is central to Luce Irigaray’s understanding of the other. Irigaray notes that while breathing is “essential for our bodily existence” it is also essential for relational existence. Without breath there is no speech, no word and no communion. For Irigaray the breath is essential to our being in the world with the other. It is essential to what she sees as our innate “desire for sharing” and our desire to love and be loved. Irigaray calls for a “cultivation of breathing”. This cultivation hinges on an awareness that breathing is what keeps us living and therefore keeps us connected to ourselves and to others and to the world.
This relational existence is interesting to consider in light of Julie’s recent practice. For most of her career the artist has used her own body and yet recently there has been a turn toward others to co-create her work. This turn involves collaboration and for her participants, friends and artists, we receive the brief opportunity to become installed in the theatre of her mind. Like in Re-making the World: Artist’s Dreaming (2015), Julie asked thirty artists to sleep in her studio, while a video camera positioned above filmed them sleeping for an hour. Against a white mattress and covered by a white bedsheet we see still bodies asleep. Presented on monitors, the work initially reads as a series of photographic lightboxes, until one notices the subtle rise and fall of the figures under the sheets. The sleepers, like the women in Blow Back are breathing and as durational videos they almost go undetected as moving images, if not for the breath.
These works, like Irigaray’s philosophy of breathing, offer us a rejoinder – they make us stop and we remember to breathe. When I gaze upon these images I am reminded that I like the women in Blow Back, am breathing and as I see their breath I am breathing with them; breathing in and out the same air and breathing with and in the world of the other.
Moving along the wall from one breath form to another, one woman’s portrait to another, from one artist’s face to another, I am reminded that like Julie, each of these women is a creator, an artist, a thinker, a maker. This is significant in a world, an art world, dominated by mythology that is gendered male. And to this, Blow Back is the collective woman; here she speaks a breath that states I am here/We are here.
—Cherine Fahd, 2018
References: Gaston Bachelard (1988), Air & Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications. Judith Butler (2009), Frames of War. When is Life is Grievable? London: Verso. Luce Irigaray, “To Begin with Breathing Anew” in Lenart Skof and Emily A. Holmes (Eds.)(2013), Breathing with Luce Irigaray, London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic. pp217-226. Lenart Skof and Emily A. Holmes (Eds.) (2013), Breathing with Luce Irigaray, London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Julie Rrap has been a major figure in Australian contemporary art for over three decades. Notable solo exhibitions include, ‘Remaking the World’ , Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne (2015); ‘Rrapture’, Newcastle Art Gallery (2014); ‘Julie Rrap: Off Balance’, Lismore Regional Gallery (2011); and ‘Body Double’, a major retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney (2007). Rrap was included in the ‘Australian Show’ (1988) which toured to the Frankfurter Kunstverein in Germany and major museums in Japan. Other significant group exhibitions include ‘Every Brilliant Eye: Australian Art of the 1990s’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2017); ‘Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker’(touring), Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; State Library of NSW, Sydney; Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne (2017); ‘Biometrics’, New Media Gallery, Anvil Centre, Vancouver (2014); ’Theatre of the World’, Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania; and La Maison Rouge, Paris (2013-14); the 14th Jakarta Biennale (2011); ’Revolutions – Forms That Turn’, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 16th Biennale of Sydney (2008); ‘Turbulence’, the 3rd Auckland Triennial (2007); ‘Fieldwork: Australian Art 1968 – 2002′, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2002); and ‘Systems End: Contemporary Art in Australia’ which toured Japan and Korea in 1996. Rrap’s work is held in major public collections as well as many corporate and private collections. Rrap was selected for the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Award at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2009. Her video work, 360° Self Portrait won the 2009 University of Queensland National Artists Self-Portrait Prize. 'Blow Back’ will be Julie Rrap’s thirteenth solo exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.