Mrs. Macquarie, second wife and cousin of the Governor, owned a cello that had been brought to Australia from England. Like many ladies of her time in the very early 19th century she probably played the instrument to entertain her family, guests and friends (though historians have debated whether indeed she could even play it). The chair that bears her name, carved out of sandstone at the end of the peninsula by convict labour in 1810, is said to have been commissioned by her husband so that she might enjoy the view or, as legend and Google claims, that she might view ships departing for her beloved homeland, so far and distant from the Colony.
The cello has been likened to the human voice, its shape to the female form. It is an analogy that bears no equation to the real world, just a poetic allusion that gives the musician straddling the wood the sensation that the time spent playing the instrument has a secondary meaning. It’s hard to look at Daniel Mudie Cunningham’s Rhymes with Failure and not be struck by the thought that the artist is playing the woman’s body - playing Mrs. Macquarie if you like - albeit through the slightly theatrical distance of the visual pun [cf. Man Ray, Nam June Paik], an already weird kind of embodiment made even stranger by the disconnect between the image and the sound; instead of the ‘human voice’ of the cello - even from a cardboard replica - there is the twangy lonesomeness of the electric guitar. Neither gesture nor sound really equals the thing we’re experiencing, that distanced effect of place and time removing us from the expression of the emotion.
Cunningham’s video work reminds us of the disconnect between the thing that we want and the thing that we eventually get, and how that moment is veiled by an odd sense of relief that we are rewarded at all. The external world is quite separate from our internal emotional world, yet at the same time it’s unalterably connected to our senses in the way we interpret the out there of the physical universe, a kind of causal loop that seems to say that there is really no out there, just in here. The melancholy of national identity is so closely allied with this internal state that it’s hard to imagine any other possibility. The blast of Australian heat and sunlight baking down on those wool suited colonists would, you imagine, have banished the European Romantic aesthetic for all time, yet it found a new home among the gum trees. Is it this idea of Australia that rhymes with failure?
That sadness you feel is natural, and it will never leave.
- Andrew Frost