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This essay was written for Kath Fries' exhibition Grove. It is co-authored by Cass Matthews.


Stories permeate Kath Fries' installations. She is inspired by ancient texts, mythology, legends, fictions and fairytales. Her works invite people into an enchanted setting where they can experience the spirit of the story. “It is not about retelling the story, it’s about creating a space that reflects the emotion of the story,” Fries says. The themes Fries identifies in a particular story are brought to life in her installations of found objects. It is a poetic and romantic process.

The Grove installation interprets the oldest surviving Japanese work of fiction, the tenth century text, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It is the tale of a man who gathered bamboo and one day found a small girl in a glowing bamboo stem. According to the tale, he and his wife raise the girl until, one day, she leaves them behind to return to her fellow celestial beings on the moon. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter holds wide-reaching messages of love, loss, temporariness, belonging, dislocation and the magic in everyday life.

Fries’ hauntingly beautiful installation brings the memory of this enduring fiction to the present. Lengths of bamboo stand in the gallery space recreating a Japanese forest in which the viewer is immersed in the tale. The environment Fries creates is a space for the imagination. She wants people to suspend their disbelief and consciously engage with the timeless message of the story.

The fictitious atmosphere is a result of Fries’ clever construction of the bamboo forest. Looking closely, you discover that not all the shadows cast by the projected light are real. Some shadows are sketched on to the floor, prompting a reconsideration of reality. Light cast by segments of mirror distorts the space allowing myth to slip easily into reality. Ghost stories find a perfect place to inhabit here. Fries’ inclusion of feathers is a reference to the feathered cloak from the tale. The feathers make subtle movements and prompt an inkling that the mythical past endures. It is the feelings that are invoked through being immersed in whispers of the ancient narrative that bring the fiction to reality.

Fries’ choice of material is important to her interpretation of the narrative. By using objects such as feathers, mirrors and bamboo, the artist, like the bamboo cutter, finds the magic within everyday objects. “I enjoy working with found objects because you don’t assume they are precious, so they are accessible to a wide audience,” says Fries. The reliance on unassuming materials supports Fries’ message that the themes of fairytales and myths are universal. Fries enjoyed working with bamboo and drawing on its tenacious nature as a metaphor for the strength and resilience of humans; it is a belief in Japan that people should resemble bamboo in that they are ever yielding but never broken.

An installation itself is a temporary experience. Just as in the tale, the found child, Kaguya-hime, could not remain with her adoptive parents forever, Grove will not remain permanently. Time on Earth is fleeting and it is only memory that will linger with us. Grove offers viewers the experience of dislocation in a way that would be a challenge to achieve in a two dimensional work.

Grove extends Fries’ practice of intertwining narrative with installation. In previous works, she has drawn on the ancient Greek texts and in several works she alludes to the Cretan Labyrinth. These centre on the thread used by Ariadne to guide her lover Theseus through the labyrinth. Fries used the thread to symbolise the interconnectedness of people and events in life, as well as the lessons to be learned from one’s history. In Proliferation she called upon the story of the Sirens, as told by Homer in The Odyssey, to recreate a static waterfall of feathers spilling down a white wall piling up at the bottom of an empty room. Luringly beautiful and eerily empty, it compelled viewers to reconsider the Sirens’ warning of impending danger as though echoing across time to sound an alarm about the consequences of destroying our environment.

Fries teases out the messages within ancient stories that are relevant to a contemporary audience. She does not offer answers but assembles a world that, like a junkyard of found objects, is rich in the essence of lives past. Her installations are experiential and her use of everyday objects gives purpose to the seemingly insignificant. Grove breathes life into Japan’s oldest text from across the Pacific Ocean and in doing so invites Australian audiences to make their own connection with its timeless and universal messages.

Image: installation photo by Kath Fries

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