The Three Stories Are Flattened

Katrina Palmer challenges the notion of sculpture in a demanding yet enthralling exhibition which gradually makes its viewers participants

TRIED becomes TIRED. HATED becomes DEATH. Letters can be rearranged and words can be shaped, and every word has a sound, a meaning, and an association. A word is a structured, built thing. The letters need to be placed in a particular order so they can blend and create sense and meaningful sound and can dictate tone and understanding and response. The reader is shaped and readied by the shape and noise of the word, and instant associations can be made.

Sculpture: the art of making two- or three-dimensional forms. A letter is a sculpture – circles, lines, curves, loops – oriented in a particular fashion so as to be recognised, placed within a context. Put letters in the right order to make a word, words in the right order to make a sentence, sentences ordered to create a coherent paragraph, paragraphs sequenced to make a whole text that can run for one or hundreds of pages. And those same shapes can be sequenced to make an entirely different story.

Katrina Palmer is a sculptor who makes her works with words, stories, and sounds. She challenges notions of what sculpture is, but if that makes this sound like a dry exercise, then it’s not, believe me. The exhibition consists of three stories in three rooms.

Gallery One – Now Landscape, a new work created for Void. Spread across one wall are five pages of the same story extract. A gravedigger is digging into the ground, contemplating how he and everything around him will be reduced by time into another layer of the earth. In the next column the same extract is shown but the lines are squeezed closer together, and this process of compression continues along the wall. The words become indistinct, the letters no longer meaningful shapes, but hieroglyphics awaiting encryption, until the fifth column is shows a thick, flat line. All life and meaning is crushed like a car in a scrapyard, just the tops of the letters showing like grass growing and the bottom of the letters reaching down like roots.

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The mechanics of the work are around the room – chalk lines and numbers on the floor. There is a bundle of clothes and a bundle of photographs, and a tiny lead model of a hooded man pushing a wheelbarrow full of stones.

Gallery Two – Reality Flickers. Reality Flickers (reminiscent of Modesty Blaise in the rhythm of the words) is the main character in Palmer’s 2014 novel, The Fabricator’s Tale. A passage from the book is written up on the wall, more of a scrawl this compared to the carefully handwritten text in the first gallery. There’s a steel locker in the room, large enough to sit in, more of a confessional or functional tomb than a locker. Inside there’s a recording playing of Palmer reading from the novel. It’s a vicious tale – retribution, violence, brutality – but the voice is soft, gentle, fragile, and kindly, and the soundtrack accompanying the telling is a tender and sentimental melody played on a piano.

Gallery Three – The Fabricator’s Tale. This is grimly, darkly dazzling. Here is a living room, with a cheap sofa, a bookcase, a table, some boxes on the floor – someone either packing or unpacking. It feels everyday and banal. A false wall has been erected close to one of the walls, creating a space where there’s room to sit and watch the goings-on through a gap in the panels, unbeknown to anyone inside. It’s a space for a voyeur, a space which makes the voyeur a party to whatever happens in here, unable to tell as that would be to admit the illicit watching.

There are headphones in the space, and a voice lists the contents of the room and the contents of the relationship that the room held. There’s no order to the list except the order in which the contents are observed, and because there’s no order, the meanings of the words change almost, or are completely lost, and associations are less easy to come by: '…a table, a dog, the filth of my sordid imaginings, a severed head, something I don’t have a word for, my lustful thoughts…' You half expect a cuddly toy and a teasmade. The tone is flat and the list is a flat line of objects.

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This last room takes you from observing a world to stepping into it and becoming a character in it. It takes shapes and spaces and reduces them, exposes them, crushes them, and you feel like one of those shapes yourself.

This is an exhibition that spreads like a stain, making unexpected references, covering unexpected themes. It encompasses geology, the environment, history, death, the mistreatment of women. It draws you in until you become complicit. It is a show that’s hard to penetrate and makes no concessions, perplexing, difficult, exciting, and tantalising.

This is a demanding exhibition. I found myself trying to piece together fragments found along the way, like an archaeologist examining the findings of a dig, or a detective arriving at a crime scene and trying to take everything in, to build a picture of who lived there or what happened here. I sensed references – without being sure I was right – to pulp fiction (and fiction being pulped), and film noir, and melodrama, all delivered with a knowing, comic touch and brutality and violence. This is a deeply involving show, a fascinating and enthralling experience that you become a player in whether you like it or not.

I think this show is brilliant. I loved it.

Katrina Palmer's The Three Stories Are Flattened runs at Void, Derry~Londonderry, until September 10. For exhibition-related events and gallery opening times visit www.derryvoid.com. Photography by Paola Bernardelli.