There's No Place Like Home
13 March - 9 May 1999
Memory is a soft seductive thing
Paula Dawson 1
Paula Dawson There's No Place Like Home
1979-80 Collection of the artist
In the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns from the illusionary world of Oz to the safety and familiarity of her home in Kansas by clicking the heels of her ruby red slippers and chanting the mantra: 'There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home.' Paula Dawson's work of the same name, there's No Place Like Home (1979-80), a holographic representation of a living room in an installation of a suburban house, plays with the notion of representation in a similar way. There's No Place Like Home blurs the boundaries between illusion and reality, just as Dorothy's trip down the Yellow Brick Road happily melded the world of dreams and the people of real life into a Technicolour land of magic. For Dawson however, the 'magic' of holography also allows her to investigate the role of memory and objects and the temporality of images; thus transforming her realistic representation of a suburban interior into a shimmering and poignant reminder of the frailty of human relationships and the vulnerability of emotions.2
Dawson's use of the hologram as a window in There's No Place Like Home satisfies the voyeur in us all, fully exploiting our desire for example, to 'sneak a peek' through that open curtain while walking past, thus gaining a fleeting and unsolicited insight into the lives of the inhabitants. On looking in the window of Dawson's 'house', we are confronted with the contents of an ordinary, if somewhat outdated living room. The everyday objects it contains are familiar: a leather lounge suite and chairs, a bookshelf, a coffee table with cups and saucers on it, a television set, and the ornamental paraphernalia that fills our lives (and is unique to each of us). By exploiting our fascination with the holographic medium (and capturing it further by the scale and spatial volume3 of her image), Dawson encourages us to linger; to look deeper than would normally be permissible with this type of scene. This type of looking is also endorsed by the installation's display in an art gallery environment in which we are generally engaged in a particular type of codified behaviour (looking at art).
The sense of absence, even loss, is strong and is encouraged by the eerie contrast between the sharpness of the holographic image and its monochromatic colour and green laser light glow. Our desire to construct a narrative is stimulated by the light sources strategically worked into the hologram itself4 - does the light from the doorway in the left-hand wall perhaps indicate that the occupant is making a cup of tea during a commercial break? Through the use of everyday objects in There's No Place Like Home, Dawson attempts to engage us in a type of looking she coins 'generic subjectivity'.5 Personal things, however banal, have an amazing ability to conjure up memories: a discarded toy rescued from a box, or a lover's jumper retrieved from the back of the wardrobe, can bring to mind, for the person who unwittingly 'happens' upon them, a totally different time and place. The objects that we see in the hologram have been introduced into the 'home', just as they are in 'real life', to perform specific duties (even seemingly non-functional items such as mementos or souvenirs); and, when arranged in particular configurations within the domestic space, actually begin to influence the manner in which the occupants behave. This is particularly so with the living room, whose television and lounge suite encourage, and tend to determine habitual occupation of this part of the room.6 As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel, Transparent Things:
When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!7
of 'generic subjectivity' and her strategic incorporation of this type
of looking into There's No Place Like Home is closely related to
her continued interest in mnemonic memory.8 Developed by the Ancient Greeks,
mnemonic memory training is a field or practice that uses objects (initially
architectural features) as visual clues to aid memory recall; whereby
sections of information are mentally placed upon specific elements (for
example, the columns) of an initially real, but later fictitious, or 'mental'
building.9 Frances A. Yates writes that:
The art of memory is like inner writing. Those who know the letters of the alphabet can write down what is dictated to them and read out what they have written. Likewise those who have learned mnemonics can set in place what they have heard and deliver it from memory. For the places are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like script, and the delivery is like the reading.10
The fact that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (known only through the existence of one-point perspectival drawings11 ) became the later focus of post-Renaissance memory training is also important. The use of an image of a theatre as the basis for remembering (which indicates that the information superimposed on it is regarded as events in time, not unlike the action of a play12 ) has enabled Dawson to transform this theatre of images into a theatre of memories.
In Dawson's living room, the viewer is left to ponder the lives of the room's inhabitants, and to search for visual clues that assist in uncovering their identity. Fully aware of this 'game', the artist cannily thwarts our attempts to see what they look like by obscuring the framed family photograph on top of the television; thus transforming it into a generic image representative of all family photographs.13 Despite the fact that There's No Place Like Home was made in Besançon, France, the living room created for the hologram is similarly generic and bears no signs of a regional or national 'French-ness'. Dawson is also aware of the beauty of using everyday props in her work; the ability of these familiar things to evoke different memories or recollections for different people; we are all able to slip below the surface of different objects into another time and place.
The temporality of the image is an important component of There's No Place Like Home and is closely linked to our performative role when viewing the hologram. Dawson believes that holograms have the ability to draw the viewer into 'a kind of aesthetic force field'.14 She explains:
White light holography was not appropriate to my needs due to the limited depth and inaccuracies of image geometry introduced at the transfer stage. My work with portraiture made me realise that the portrait specifically attaches the holographic environment to an OTHER, whereas working with no people implies to the viewer that the space/time of the hologram is theirs.15
The fact that the room is a representation blurs the notion of past and present; the room existed once so that it could be transformed into an image, yet it still exists. The sense of the past, and of nostalgia, is reinforced by the monochromatic colour of the image, yet it is experienced in the present (from the front at least) as a three-dimensional, almost 'living' reality.
Dawson's holographic work is informed by a fascination with the history of pictorial space in western society, and particularly the depiction of three dimensions in two. In a sense, she engages in a sculptural tradition, creating works experienced in three dimensions. Yet she has parallels too to the painter, as her 'sculpture' is in fact a two-dimensional image. There's No Place Like Home shows us, however, that if Dawson, the holographer-painter, has pledged her allegiance to any one genre, it is the still-life. Her delicate still-life detail of cups and saucers on the coffee table is a bright, shimmering note in the banality of the room and speaks of the relationship between the people who drank from them (is it one of intimacy, anger, formality?), and may have only just left the room.
Dawson confronts representation head-on by allowing us to walk behind the holographic plate and stare into the space where the 'lounge room' would be. The trick is complete. From the back of the image we look at others, staring into the space of the living room, as we did, not so long before. Dawson explains:
So it seems that the room existed before and elsewhere and that its image exists now, also elsewhere. From the point of view of those who return to the outside, it keeps existing independently of the viewer - it still exists, but as a mental image of its former apprehension.16
Dawson also believes that the large image zone of There's No Place Like Home involves us in a mode of perception that exists outside of the art gallery context, belonging instead to 'automatic architectural responses'17 that rely on 'habitual, barely noticed, rarely remarked upon actions in the home'.18 She explains this sense as the 'domestication of perception',19 a sense that encourages us to allow the shared trigger of her generic interior to spark unique and individual memories and emotions:
Images cannot replicate the spatial/temporal relationship of the experience of living and neither can memories of it. To live we re-enter space and to remember we re-enter time. But the memory of past time involves the mental image recall of space. A space that we can see in our mind's eye but cannot re-enter is synonymous with an inaccessible time. The representation of space in an optically made image is consistent with this in being unavailable to re-enter and also synonymous with the past. Images and memories share the property of impalpable space.20
Even if our individual Yellow Brick Roads lead us, just like Dorothy, straight (well almost) back home, There's No Place Like Home shows us that if we look (no really look), the everyday objects around us can carry us to different times and places if we are willing to just let go.
Paula Dawson was born in Brisbane in 1954 and grew up in Melbourne. She completed a Higher Diploma of Secondary Teaching (Art and Craft) at Victoria State College, Melbourne in 1975 and a Graduate Diploma of Fine Art (Painting) at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Melbourne in 1978.
Originally practising as a conceptual artist, Dawson's first solo exhibition that included holograms, Transparent Things, took place at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1977. She has exhibited widely throughout Australia and internationally since that time, in exhibitions including Space Light: A Holography and Laser Spectacular, an Australian touring exhibition of 1982; The Holograms of Paula Dawson, at Brisbane Museum, Queensland in 1986; The Holographic Instant, at the Museum of Holography, New York in 1987; Artec '89, the first International Biennale of High Technology Art, in Nagoya, Japan in 1989, and Paula Dawson and the Secret of Happiness, at the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne in 1994.
Dawson was artist-in-residence at the Laboratoire d'Optique de l'Universit de Franche-Comte in Besanon France in 1979, where she worked on There's No Place Like Home. At the time that it was completed in 1980, it was the largest hologram ever made. Other residencies include the Museum of Holography, New York in 1985; the Department of Applied Physics, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne in 1986 and Heytesbury Holography, Bell Resources Ltd, Melbourne in 1987. She is also an ongoing visiting artist to the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Dawson completed a Bachelor of Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne in 1981 and a Master of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, Sydney in 1992. She was a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston in 1994. Dawson is an ongoing Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sydney where she is currently lecturing; she completed her doctoral thesis there in 1999, 'The Concrete Holographic Image, Its Spatial and Temporal Properties and Their Application in a Religious Artwork'.
The theory of holography was developed by scientist Dennis Gabor in 1947, but it was not until the invention of laser (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation) technology in the 1960s that Gabor's developments could become a reality. The word hologram is derived from the Greek roots holos, meaning 'whole', and gramma, meaning 'message'. A holographic image can be thought of as a complete visual message, in that it replicates exactly the size and three-dimensionality of an object as an immaterial light field.
The hologram is an image registered on a sensitised glass plate, not unlike early examples of photography. But unlike photography, which registers an image by recording the intensity of light, holography records the light's intensity and direction. To create a laser transmission hologram, a laser beam is split in two (through the use of carefully positioned lenses and mirrors): the object beam is directed onto the object and the reference beam is directed onto the photographic plate. The hologram is formed by the interaction of the different beams of light which create an interference pattern (image) that is registered on the plate by processes similar to photographic development.
The interference pattern incorporates the complete information about the laser light field of the subject by recording minute differences in the time that the laser light takes to travel from all parts of the three-dimensional subject to the plate. Without the re-introduction of laser light to 'replay' the image, the image is not visible, and the glass plate appears totally transparent. However, if the developed hologram is lit (by laser light) at the same angle and direction as the original reference beam, the holographic image is 'complete'.21
Senior Assistant Curator, Australian Photography, National Gallery of Australia
Links of interest
1 Paula Dawson, in To Absent Friends, video, directed by Ronnie Taylor, Film Australia, 1990.
2 Kelly Gellatly, 'An Interview with Paula Dawson', artonview, Autumn 1999, p.24.
3 Paula Dawson, 'The Concrete Holographic Image, Its Spatial and Temporal Properties and Their Application in a Religioius Artwork', unpublished PhD thesis, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999, Chapter 5.
4 Note also the light from the television in the right foreground of the image and the standard lamp in the back left-hand corner.
5 Gellatly, 'An Interview with Paula Dawson' (1999), p.25.
6 See Paula Dawson's discussion in her paper 'Holographic Memory Theatre', presented at the International Symposium on Display Holography,Lake Forest College, Illinois (1988), published in Proceedings of the International Symposium on Display Holography, Illinois: Lake Forest College, 1989, pp. 429Ð40.
7 Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972, p.1.
8 Dawson, PhD thesis (1999), Chapter 6.
9 Pat Sabine, 'Memory Theatre 1: A New Work by Paula Dawson', Artlink, Art and Technology Special Issue, vol.7, nos 2 & 3, 1987, p.4. Dawson used the theory of mnemonic memory training as the basis of her later hologram, Memory Theatre I, 1986.
10 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp.6Ð7.
11 Themselves representations that reflect on the concept of western space. Pat Sabine, 'Memory Theatre 1' (1987), p.94.
12 Dawson, 'Holographic Memory Theatre' (1988).
13 Of course the photograph is not of the 'family' of the house. It is simply one of the many objects assembled by Dawson to enable her to make the hologram.
14 Rebecca Coyle and Philip Hayward, Apparition: Holographic Art in Australia, Sydney, University of New South Wales: Power Publications, 1995, p.68.
15 Ibid., p.67.
16 Dawson, PhD thesis (1999), Chapter 5.
20 Ibid., Chapter 6.
21This description of the holographic process is based on the explanation that appears in Coyle and Hayward, Apparition: Holographic Art in Australia (1995), p.10 and an unpublished description of the medium by the artist.