Tony Twigg| Moonbathing

Resettled in Australia after several productive years in the Philippines, Tony Twigg’s creative output encompasses his own well-travelled blend of sculpture, painting, dance, puppets, film and found objects.

Arriving to park in the drive of Tony Twigg’s southern Sydney house-cum-studio, an impassioned voice commands me to “STOP”! A substantial tree branch was under threat from my advancing car – a rare thing in this suburban spot. But found timber has always been an essential element of Twigg’s modus operandi. Many years ago, he and I had gone scrabbling in the local bush to find fallen branches that could retain their nature but also be cajoled into shape on three-dimensional wall constructions to tell the story that was top of his mind at the time.

There’s always a story, a history or her story – which makes it appropriate that Twigg’s first show in Australia since 2011 at Annandale Galleries in Sydney should be a survey of works from 1986 to the present. It’s not that his earliest works, like the half-chair, half-puppet ‘Event’ (1986/88) will necessarily look just as they did 30 years ago. Twigg has always taken the view that an unsold artwork can accumulate history and significance by being remade. It’s an accretion towards a legendary status through time – the story being told and retold, not necessarily ‘better’, just differently. “Some get worse,” Twigg admits with a characteristic bark/laugh.

One old painting in Annandale, ‘Life still life years’ (1989/1997/ 2015) is enjoying its third working, “and I’m hoping to preserve the original signature and the two previous dates in the final version,” he announces. But will it be the final version?

For the stimulus that arose from Bill Gregory’s invitation to exhibit at Annandale was “to see where I’d come from; to find out what of the legend that I’d invented in my early performance works actually survives today. I’d resettled in Australia after years of moving around Asia, intending to simply spend time in the studio. But that inevitably led to my going over my exhibiting history and touching it. And remodelling a work lets you really see it.”

Oddly, Asia had been in Twigg’s earliest works in the ’70s when it was unvisited, simply exotic and different. Letter forms in early paintings could be reduced to calligraphic gestures and expressive shapes that then attained a humanity as puppets. “I wanted to include a story, a temporal element in my work,” Twigg recalls, “something that could be received by an audience and passed on. Performance in the broadest sense seemed a good way – especially puppetry. That brought artworks to life; they were given experience, and that somehow remained in them. Static on the wall, they’re still articulated, as though they’ve been alive. And dance was obviously the next move.”

At various stages in the ’80s and ’90s, Tony Twigg worked with the Sydney Dance Company, the Canberra Dance Ensemble and freelance choreographer Stephanie Burridge; also with theatre-maker Euan Upston with whom he codified a fixation for the number five – the Five Sticks, or, possibly the five ages of man that turn up again and again in his oeuvre. And his short animated film, ‘A Passion Play’ was selected for the Cannes Film Festival.

In the early ’90s, his entropic legend of birth, life and death became more specific following an encounter with the sad story of Mary Jane Hicks, a serving girl in pre-Federation Sydney, gang-raped by ‘larrikins’ in Moore Park – the so-called ‘Mount Rennie Outrage’. Several Surry Hills youths were hanged as a result, despite the pleas of The Bulletin that such excess was only being meted out because Australia needed to look mature enough to be independent from Britain. Working with historian Juliet Pierse, he turned Mary Jane Hicks into a dramatic visual experience which circumferenced whole galleries at public institutions in Wollongong, Brisbane and Lanyon, Canberra.

Returning from an overseas film festival, Tony Twigg dropped in on artist friend Keith Looby, who was enjoying an artist residency in Manila. It was a fateful move. He became captivated by the Philippines, its colonial past and its struggles to find its own ways through Catholicism, American imperialism and its own inherent corruption. He also discovered Ian Fairweather’s work in The Philippines, seeking out the almost unchanged places in Manila and Mindanao that in the 1930s had inspired the peripatetic Scot’s works such as ‘Anak Bayan’.

But, living and working there, Twigg’s Aussie legends had no meaning and “went covert under those circumstances”. The suitcase of the traveller entered his lexicon, as did an abstraction that was a brilliant reflection of the apparently random shanty construction aesthetic that dominates impoverished housing across the country. “Spontaneous Architecture” he called it in one show in Manila, where, he says, “the locals saw themselves in it”. As Dr Paul McGillick put it in the Twigg monograph, Encountering the Object, “Twigg collects images as he moves through Asia, especially the layering of materials such as bamboo on timber; that kind of arm wrestle between the organic and the urge to achieve some order.”

That’s also a pretty fair description of Tony Twigg’s work – discovering a sort of order from the blend of machined and found pieces of natural timber. And what could be more ordered than the circle? Much of the artist’s recent work has been entitled “Expanded Disc”.

“I was pushing the circle around,” explains Twigg, “I guess I was trying to get some of Motherwell’s rhythms into my work, hoping to find a visual structure that strikes something deep and universal. It just happened one day – slicing a circle, pulling it apart and finding that beautiful form. Motherwell stumbled on his in the 40s when he was illustrating the Lorca poem, ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ – which went on to become his epic cycle of paintings and collages, ‘Elegy for the Spanish Republic’. He said himself that there were “layers of mistakes” in those works, “layers of consciousness” which an X-ray could disclose. But it was only by finding a “freedom from conscious notions” that he could find the unknown.

In 2011, Tony Twigg linked his Philippines obsession with this Motherwell interest in the show, Elegy to the Spanish Colony, introducing Sydney to his expanded discs as well as to the enigmatic country that can be “approached but not grasped”’ and the city (Manila) that’s “careering between abrupt conclusion and miraculous salvation!”

One might argue that shutting down the negative spaces in one of Twigg’s discs and reforming the perfect circle would resolve the tension created by its expansion and engender a sense of “miraculous salvation”. For, in Twigg there is the rare combination of idea and aesthetic which lifts art from the slough of pure conceptualism and which has turned so many off the visual in the last half century. After the wonderful Dadaist gesture by Duchamp in presenting an ordinary urinal as ‘art’, could he have predicted that Ai Wei Wei would become world-famous for sending 1001 of his fellow-Chinese to the Kassel Documenta XII, along with 1001 Ching Dynasty chairs? Chairs had come into his life as a result of Joseph Kosuth’s ‘One and Three Chairs’ from 1965, which hung a chair, a photo of the chair and a printout of the definition of the word ‘chair’ side by side on a wall to test the mind, but not necessarily the ocular nerves, with the question, “What constitutes a chair?”.

Twigg offers chairs in his work ‘Sleazen’ (2010/15). But his chairs have ceased to have a seating function as they’re re-modelled to conjure sensations in the mind’s eye of music-stands, possibly even Star Wars stormtroopers and puppets that might just spring into life. Indeed, dancers will perform with them in the Annandale Galleries during Art Month.

They’ll also perform with the Twigg suitcase – or at least its skeleton. This certainly needed to be brought home from the Philippines. Go to the National Museum in Canberra and see historian John Mulvaney’s Globite port, and you will see the receptacle in which the bones of Mungo Lady were transported to the Australian National University in Canberra for study after she was discovered in the sand dunes at Lake Mungo in 1969. Inelegant – but it was the only container available. For Twigg, this links his humble suitcase to the world’s then earliest example of ritual burial practice, about 40,000 years ago, which not only proved the extreme antiquity of Aboriginal civilisation but also placed its origins in a ceremonial context. That suitcase is, for him, the essence of Aussie identity.

So, the traveller returns to his wellspring from a not-undiscovered country – refreshed.

9 March – 9 April
Annandale Galleries

Courtesy the artist and Annandale Galleries.

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