Review: Portraits under the pavement

She threw her arms about his neck… and the earth seemed to spin beneath his feet, and his brain grew troubled, and a great terror fell on him, as of some evil thing that was watching him, and at last he became aware that under the shadow of a rock there was a figure that had not been there before.

Oscar Wilde, The Fisherman and His Soul,  1892

In the subterranean passage that leads from Flinders Street Station to Degraves Street, lurking in the Platform exhibition space, a series of portraits by Lucy Farmer peer out from behind glass screens set like windows into either side of the walkway. Murky pigments trace the contours of the staring faces that emerge from their warped paper grounds, crowned by faux Baroque papier mache frames. In some works the thick cockled paper creeps out from the gilded frames, like rampard weeds, or a rustling contagion, unfurling to touch the cave-like recesses that they have been placed within.

A busker performs as far away from the portraits as possible, claiming for his stage the steps that lead up to the Degraves Street exit. His back is warmed by the soft sunlight that streams through the exit doorway and softens the stark fluorescent lighting of the underground walkway. The natural light adds a quality of normalcy to an otherwise eerie space. The busker can perform here happily, but one feels that if he stepped out of the sunlight he would soon fade away and disappear, overpowered by the enigmatic portraits that colonise the space.

He is the only stationary person in the underground passage that is by its very nature a space of transit, where few people choose to linger longer than they need. Time spent within the walkway can be measured by the hurried footsteps and jostling movements that transform individuals into members of a blurred corpus. It is peak hour, and a crowd of people rush past the busker who is intent in his song. His performance is a given- a loop that will continue- and to the impatient commuters he is nothing more than a breathing fixture within the subterranean architecture.

Situated within an exhibiting space, and placed securely behind glass, Farmer’s portraits also manifest a performance that is fixed and regulated. Numerous sets of eyes silently contemplate the humans who pass them by- with a gaze that is sometimes accusatory but more often disinterested- mirroring the faces of the commuters. The portraits are alive and present- and unlike the busker- they have the power to arrest the progress of individuals intent on completing their journeys, and they find themselves stopping inadvertently before the works, as if caught by a sight of intense ugliness or great beauty. In these moments of viewing, a material shift occurs where the animate and the inanimate are reversed. The portraits become real and the surrounding people disappear.

Suddenly passing through the subterranean passage between Flinders Street Station and the city becomes an uncomfortable and uncanny experience. In the starkly lit walkway, the ever-present atmosphere of anxiety intensifies. Anything could happen down here. The viewer could find themselves conversing with their own shadow, see their own reflection staring back at them, or look down to find that their skin is pocked and papery like that of the subjects in the portraits. 


By Jessica Piesse

Jessica Piesse

Jessica Piesse is a recent Bachelor of Fine Art Honours Graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts, and is currently completing a Masters of Curatorship at the University of Melbourne. She is employed as the Marketing and Curatorial assistant at two commercial galleries, and is a Research Associate at Museum Victoria. Recent publications include ‘Fixing Holes- Ravelling the Hanging Walls of Babylon’, Catalogue Essay for Kevin Chin, ‘Ruined’, Kings Artist Run Initiative, June 5th – 27th 2009, and ‘Thro’ Painted Shadows Clear, Shadows of the World Appear’, Catalogue Essay for Lucy Farmer, ‘You’re Portrait’, Trocadero Art Space, July 11th – 25th 2009.