Linda Michael

Melanie Irwin: Geodesic Envelopes

Geodesic Envelopes, performance still, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 7 April 2014. Performer: Melanie Irwin. Photo: Christian Capurro

The sphere does not possess the rational beauties of geometric volume, but it offers the great securities of a belly.1Quoted in Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres: Volume I: Bubbles, trans. Wieland Hoban, Semiotext(e),
Los Angeles, CA, 2011, p. 99.

— Gaston Bachelard

Geodesic Envelopes emerges from Melanie Irwin’s interest in how our bodies relate to everyday objects and the urban spaces we inhabit. This and other questions that underpin her practice may be philosophical—what is the difference between me and this table? what is the order of things? what is the difference between the infinite and the measurable?—but her way of solving problems is physical and material. She explores the body’s interaction with things over time.

As part of a repetitive series of actions resulting in a floor drawing, in one of her earliest performance sculptures, Untitled (Action_Structure_Drawing), 2008, Irwin tied herself over several hours into an aggregation of boxes—modular units made of bamboo chopsticks—until she was unable to get back to her feet. The task required flexibility and adaptability, and she found that she intuitively worked to make movement easier, as the ever-growing structure overtook her body like a construction scaffold.

Such performative interactions with objects replicated situations in everyday life that also inspired later works. For instance, a spatio-temporal line drawing, The Appendages (Red), evolved out of a regular activity for Irwin—publicly carting around stuff for her work that she had salvaged from hard rubbish. The delegated performance involved up to fifty people bringing an object Irwin had given them—a metal ring or a frame that Irwin had powder-coated bright red—to an exhibition opening at the Victorian College of the Arts, carrying them around the exhibition and taking them away when they left, creating a dynamic drawing through the movement of their bodies. In holes or bumps where rivets or screws may have been, these linear forms retained the traces of their former lives as parts of utilitarian objects: chairs, garden hose reels, display stands, etc. Anticipating the whitened objects in Geodesic Envelopes, they formed a unified though disconnected group, ‘rejuvenated from scrap metal to clean linear fragments,’2Melanie Irwin, in conversation with the author, 16 January 2014. wherein bodies were incorporated into networks of geometries and into the spaces of abstract painting. Some participants returned their Appendages to Irwin several months later at Heide, where she carried them around at the opening of her exhibition.

Again using their bodies and parts of everyday objects collected by Irwin from hard rubbish and junkyards, the performers in Geodesic Envelopes attempt to activate the spherical dimensions of a large costume of stretchy fabric. The resulting forms, in which objects protrude from inside this membrane, contrast with the immediately preceding sculptural series, Distension, 2011–13, in which elongated mobility aids pressed in from the outside against large ballooning forms made of stretchy chloroprene, soft stand-ins for bodies.

Geodesic Envelopes has another static precursor in Aggregate Elasticity, shown in 2012 in an artist-run space in Brunswick, in which Irwin had tried to create a spherical form by pinning stretch fabric over a conglomeration of broken fragments of furniture she had collected from Brunswick streets, effectively encapsulating clutter in a makeshift body.

However, Geodesic Envelopes signals a new direction that is not reliant on the aesthetic choices that were unavoidable with these earlier works, as Irwin assembled and disassembled and stood back to adjust and produce forms she would be satisfied with from all angles—the traditional sculpture-making process. Geodesic Envelopes is structured so that the performers work almost blindly to the sculptural outcome and the artist is liberated from formal decisions. ‘We try to produce a sphere, but we’re guessing most of the time about how the form must look from the outside. There’s no objective perspective for us while we’re making the work, there’s no standing back or walking around it, we’re literally inside it’.3Melanie Irwin, email to the author, 19 February 2014. As Jane Bennett proposes, it is ‘not so much a doer behind the deed as a doing and an effecting by a human-nonhuman assemblage.’4Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press Books,
Durham, NC, 2010, p. 28.
This approach to matter aligns with Irwin’s use of discarded objects in a world of surfeit and overproduction. Bennett again: ‘there was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore.’5Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 31.

As well as enfolding human and object in the performance, Geodesic Envelopes integrates the organic and the geometric within the fabric membrane itself. Sewn from triangular Lycra and mesh panels, this spherical envelope is a soft version of a geodesic dome made famous by architect Buckminster Fuller, and initially appears like a ghostly white costume worn by the performer. Over several hours the performer, while staying inside the costume, stretches it over the objects into ever-changing and ever-expanding abstract conglomerations that look like experimental structures for living: protective, isolating or modular architectural forms. Their efforts to achieve a spherical shape are doomed to failure, anticipated perhaps by the idealism of Fuller’s iconic twentieth-century design, which he intended as a model for resilient, affordable and ecologically sound housing.

The relationship between the potential sphere created by the performer and the octagonal platform marked in white chalk on the floor points to another impossibility, that of measuring a circle, a form that remains ideal. Irwin’s work references Archimedes’ third-century-BCE approximation of the number pi (π), which is used to calculate the circumference of a circle. His idea of measuring the perimeter of two polygons, one slightly smaller than the other, to determine most accurately the circumference of a circle that lay between them, was to Irwin an almost physical way of understanding an indefinite abstract concept. Her explorations of geometries are likewise physical, as she explores the active agency of our bodies and their capacity to adapt to changing, demanding and constrictive circumstances.

The elastic fabric membrane worn by the performers is analogous to the skin or the stomach, and responds to the rigidity of the metal objects. After she had made the first one or two of these sculptures, Irwin, a mother, realised that ‘there was something there about the sensation of being inhabited and kicked against from the inside’. She was interested in philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s description of women’s bodies as ‘“apartment buildings” in the way that they house their progeny, this blurring of the body and architecture’, as well as in the body’s elasticity and resilience.6Melanie Irwin, email to the author, 19 February 2014.

Indeed Sloterdijk describes the various habitats that we construct as spatialised immune systems, artificial containers or technological envelopes designed to protect us from the vast emptiness of the cosmos, ever since modernity removed the securities, or safety structures, of theology and Platonic cosmology. To Sloterdijk, life is a matter of form (for example, a mother and child, or a patient and analyst, are a dyadic ‘bubble’); and living means building spheres—to him both a philosophical and a geometric term—both on a small and a large scale. In the performance–sculpture Geodesic Envelopes, a person inside their own constructed yet responsive sphere of immunity encapsulates both the isolation of contemporary life and the potential for interconnection and transformation.

Linda Michael
Deputy Director / Senior Curator
Heide Museum of Modern Art

Melanie Irwin
Geodesic Envelopes 2013–14
lycra, powdercoated found objects, cotton twine, chalk
Installation dimensions variable
3-hour performance every Saturday and Sunday,
8 March – 15 June 2014
Performers: Alessandra Barone, Louis Balis, Danica Chappell, Emma Collard, Georgie Glanville, Melanie Irwin, Klara Klevy, Mia Salsjo, Andrew Treloar and Ben Woods

Irwin was born in 1977 in Sydney. She graduated from La Trobe University, Melbourne, with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and English Literature, and later studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Art in 2011 and completed a Master of Fine Art in 2013.

Solo exhibitions include Distension (Single File), Australia China Art Foundation Gallery, 2013; Aggregate Elasticity, Brunswick Art Space, Melbourne, 2012; Archimedes’s Approximation of π, Firstdraft Gallery, Sydney, 2011; Sphericity, Blindside Gallery, Melbourne, 2010; Infrastructural Variations, TCB art inc., Melbourne, 2009; Architectonic Traces, Ocular Lab, Melbourne, 2008; and Mathematical Reasoning and the Physical Universe, Seventh Gallery, Melbourne, 2007.

Selected group exhibitions include Shift and Adjustment, LoBe, Berlin, Germany, 2013; A Half Scene, XLY Museum of Modern Art, Chengdu, China, 2013; Regimes of Value, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, and The Substation, Melbourne, 2013; Future Possible, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 2011; Keith & Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship Exhibition, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 2011 and 2009; Far Point …, Sydney Non Objective, Sydney, 2010; Cytoarchitecture, Techno Park Studios, Melbourne, 2010; Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship Exhibition, COFASpace, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2010 and 2008; John Fries Memorial Prize Finalists’ Exhibition, Blackfriars off Broadway Gallery, Sydney, 2010; Video-Vareo 3, Sub-Urban Video Lounge, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2009; Ciagla elastycznosc (Constant Elasticity), Fabs Gallery, Warsaw, Poland, 2009.

In 2013 Irwin received the Picture Berlin residency, Berlin, Germany and the Nellie Castan Award for her VCA Masters exhibition.

Produced on the occasion of the exhibition:
Curated by Linda Michael
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Saturday 8 March – Sunday 15 June 2014

Download PDF

Notes   [ + ]

1. Quoted in Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres: Volume I: Bubbles, trans. Wieland Hoban, Semiotext(e),
Los Angeles, CA, 2011, p. 99.
2. Melanie Irwin, in conversation with the author, 16 January 2014.
3, 6. Melanie Irwin, email to the author, 19 February 2014.
4. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press Books,
Durham, NC, 2010, p. 28.
5. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 31.