Meredith Turnbull

Spherical Approximations – A Network of Relations


A performer enters the gallery space, white fabric hangs, an opaque membrane around them. Draped and soft across the body, held up and shaped only by the crown of the head and the occasional jutting of limbs as they walk.

A shape is delineated by pale line-work on the floor. A polygon, flattened out and stretching across white vinyl, it occupies and offers a frame. One of three: each a territory for the performer to return to, a base to move from and to move within.

Along one wall of the gallery are white powder-coated elements, repurposed segments that were once recognisable forms: furniture, prop and appendage. They are selected with intention, in order to execute a specific function. The performer collects these elements, stacking and secreting them under folds of fabric and skin. Then moving toward and within their line-work they commence, they harness together metal elements with tape and strips of fabric. Binding and connecting to slowly build, to push and flesh outward in attempted symmetry, the panels and structure of a geodesic envelope or dome.

This is not a quiet operation. Segmenting and attaching, over minutes and hours: the steady construction clangs and pings as metal is brought together with and alongside metal. Each performer gradually reveals a structure that can never be remade or repeated, skin over bones, scrim over formwork. Three envelopes grow simultaneously, alongside one another. Points and ends jut into stretchy fabric and amorphous shapes appear, each an approximation, not quite a polyhedron or a sphere. The envelope—a form and volume that lends itself so eloquently to the poetry of space, its occupancy, absence and purpose—as nest, habitat, womb, shelter.

Between opaque triangular panels the performers can be glimpsed through semi-transparent mesh pentagons. Dressed in white, they contort, bend and turn, a soft body within the armatures and skin surrounding them. At points a performer, grasping onto the metal form within, picks up a dome and turns, carrying it with them. This syncopated action repeats between and across performers and space: lift, rotate, spin and an elegant circumference is drawn within a strange choreography.

Halting construction or in an effort to start again and rebuild, a performer rapidly unhooks and unravels T-sections, elbows, clasps and ties, and an envelope deflates from its punctuated elastic state to flaccid rest as internal metal parts unceremoniously clatter to the floor.


These white forms and their occupants are part of Melanie Irwin’s Geodesic Envelopes, included in the exhibition Spherical Approximations at West Space in Melbourne.[1] Spherical Approximations is Irwin’s most complex Envelope project to date; it includes three distinct versions of the Envelope performances. Building on previous artworks,[2] each performance utilizes three performers, each wearing a stretch textile envelope. Geodesic Envelopes presents a white monochrome version of the envelope. Archimedes’ Approximation of Pi includes large single elements of graphic colour in increasingly complex patchwork geodesic frequencies: fluoro pink, lapis blue and sun yellow on white. While The Material has no Memory conveys an abstract compliment of colourful geometric shapes on white.

The Envelope works are part rumination on the ineffable task of perfecting the symmetry and sphericity of a dome: by stretching out a multi-sided textile polyhedron from the inside. The polyhedrons are inspired by Greek mathematician Archimedes’ approximation of pi[3] (and the use of this number to calculate the circumference of a circle); and by American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller’s (1895–1983) patent and popularisation of the geodesic dome and half sphere.

While the dome and the act of spherical approximation are at the core of the artwork, these are constituent elements within a complex arrangement of form, structure and bodies in space. Time and movement also impact so that at certain moments, only the remnants of the performance may exist: an uninhabited and partly formed dome resting on the gallery floor, or the empty space lined solely with props and appendages along the gallery wall. At other moments designated by the artist, the gallery space is full of activity and purpose, as envelopes are fleshed out and formed by performers working independently but alongside one another.

Irwin’s previous sculptural works, such as the Distension series (2013), have also explored properties of the membrane, womb, stomach or skin. Utilising chloroprene balloons clamped and forced into tall stilt-like structures (made from metal chair frames and mobility aids), Distension is an eloquent distillation of two related components within Irwin’s practice: a fascination with the envelope and the appendage. Irwin’s Appendage performances see participants carry powder-coated coloured metal shapes from home to a performance site, such as an exhibition opening. In one version participants hold the appendages as they view the exhibition, then take them away again when they leave.[4] In another, each participant delivers their object to the artist, until she is laden with multiple appendages—like offerings—along arms, around neck and across torso in red or, most recently, yellow line-work compositions.[5]

While the Envelope and Appendage works are palpably about the use and construction of forms, they equally traverse a field of networks and systems. They invest in the physical possibility of bodies but also in relations between material and form, and between time, space and movement. They mark intersections and connections, where exchanges or introductions are made and the boundaries of things meet or are subsumed together.

In the Envelope works the anamorphic qualities of the sphere, as it encases the human form, are accentuated through each movement as the performer builds their habitat around them. At times they appear insect-like, tirelessly working toward some collective purpose. The biological inflection within the work and its aesthetic connection to cell-like structures has been deliberately explored by Irwin in relation to German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Theory,[6] as well as the field of immunology and the process of phagocytosis. Phagocytosis, from the Greek ‘to devour,’ describes the process of living cells or phagocytes that ingest other cells or particles, often for the purpose of divesting the body of harmful antigens.[7]

In conversation, Irwin has also noted a long-time fascination with Canadian director David Cronenberg’s film Crash (1996), [8] particularly Rosanna Arquette’s character Gabrielle and her use of various prosthetics, as influential in the shaping and implementation of many of her artworks. These and other points of reference form part of the multifaceted research undertaken by the artist that propels and sustains this unique practice.

In addition to these connections, Irwin’s Spherical Approximations and other artworks[9] convey a shared sensibility with historic examples of dance and early performance art from the 1960s and 70s. This shared sensibility is revealed in the emphasis and use of provisional, utilitarian and found objects. Elements such as 10 ft.-long lengths of ¾ x ¾” timber in Trisha Brown’s Sticks (1973) or the use of hoops in Joan Jonas’ outdoor performances, like Jones Beach Piece (1970), and Rebecca Horn’s timber and fabric hand appendages in Fingerhnadschuhe [Finger Gloves] (1972) and Arm-Extensionen [Arm Extensions] (1970). Irwin, like her predecessors, utilises these objects in combination with everyday gestures or choreographed movements to extend the potential of both the body and the sculptural form.

The absurdity and humour that also surface while watching Spherical Approximations, as performers grapple at times comically with static object and flexible lycra fabric, evoke other traditions, such as the use of puppetry, costume and props in performance and visual art. The armature and scrim of the expanded envelope form builds on previous avant-garde experiments, like German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer’s work with the Bauhaus Theatre Group. Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922), Hoop Dance (1928) and Rod Dance (1928), respectively, applied elaborate costumes, metal hoops and spirals and long timber rods as human appendages. These components both restricted and extended the human form in ways that, according to German writer and editor Arnd Wesemann, accentuated and drew out ‘a theorem of physical geometry [whereby] the ”mathematics” of the human body were meant to become visible.’[10]

The Triadic Ballet in particular abandoned traditional theatrical and operatic modes in order to explore the body and geometry in space. It comprised a series of papier-mâché and metal structures worn by three dancers performing on a chessboard-like stage, ideally viewed from above. The choreography attempted to articulate these simultaneously rigid and delicate costume/objects in space. Despite its mixed reception (and only being viewed by around 1000 people as it toured for 10 years between 1922 and 1932), the ballet’s legacy for its approach to the articulation of movement and geometries through space and a fascination with its unwieldy and fragile costumes has led to multiple subsequent reconstructions and restagings since the late 1960s.[11] These and other avant-garde explorations, like Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arps’ puppets, costumes and sets and the 20th century costumes designed by artists for the Ballet Russes, are increasingly revisited and researched by contemporary artists whose own artworks traverse various fields from performance to spatial practice.

Site and context are important factors in these historical precursors and Irwin, like her antecedents, chooses to frame her artworks in specific ways. In the case of Spherical Approximations, the gallery is a vital site and context for the project. Here the viewer can engage directly or otherwise with the artwork: walking a straight line through West Space’s front gallery or pausing to sit and watch as the envelopes are laboriously constructed. Liveness and three-dimensionality combine so that while you are looking and circumnavigating Spherical Approximations, the performer despite being enmeshed in fabric can also look back.

Either through minimal gestures or more overt and excessive qualities, Spherical Approximations is a complex artwork that creates new relations between: system, site and set; prop and costume; endurance and humour; and genre, context and field. Irwin intends more Envelope and Appendage series and with each iteration, these artworks will continue to grow their own system of relations: current in their aesthetic, scientific, social and cultural concerns while elaborately and sincerely evolving the fields and experiments of the past.


[1] Spherical Approximations, West Space, 9 July – 15 August 2015. Performances were carried out in the gallery space on opening night and every Friday and Saturday afternoon during the exhibition period.

[2] Geodesic Envelopes was first performed at the Masters of Fine Art Graduate Exhibition at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, 9 – 15 December 2013. A second single-performer version of this work was performed at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne from 8 March to 15 June 2014 as Melanie Irwin: Geodesic Envelopes, curated by Linda Michael.

[3] Ernest Zebrowski details the findings of Archimedes of Syracuse (250 B.C.E) who estimated the value of π to 3.1416 and subsequent systematic attempts to measure the circumference and diameter of the circle in A History of the Circle: Mathematical Reasoning and the Physical Universe (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 5–8.

[4] The Appendages (Blue) was performed as part of Regimes of Value, curated by Elizabeth Gower at the Substation, Melbourne, 4 April 2013. The Appendages (Red) was performed at the Masters of Fine Art Graduate Exhibition at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, 9 December 2013.

[5] Irwin’s most recent version of this work, The Appendages (Yellow Composition), was performed as part of Feeling Material, co-curated by Benjamin Woods and c3 Projects, at c3 Contemporary Art Space, Melbourne, 28 October 2015.

[6] The mathematical and biological aspects of Irwin’s research, and her practice more broadly, are explored by Linda Michael in the associated publication for the exhibition Melanie Irwin: Geodesic Envelopes from 2014, available from:


[8] Email correspondence with the writer 3 June 2015.

[9] Such as the recent discursive performance, How to Draw a Circle (2015), with Fiona Cameron, also performed as part of Feeling Material, at the Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, 8 November 2015.

[10] Arnd Wesemann, ‘The Bauhaus Theatre Group,’ in Bauhaus, eds., Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (Potsdam: H. F. Ullmann, 2006), 545.

[11] Arnd Wesemann, ‘Bauhaus Theatre Group,’ 532–544.


Produced on the occasion of the exhibition:
West Space, Melbourne
9 July – 15 August 2015