Blood on Silk: Last Seen - Artist Interview with Fiona Davies

Scott Wallace
26th Jul 2017

Established Western Sydney artist Fiona Davies has expanded her vision to new heights with the installation Blood on Silk: Last Seen at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. Following the launch of the piece last week as the inaugural installation in the repurposed Turbine Hall, I talked with Fiona about her visceral and urgent artistic vision, and its unique take on modern mortality.

Blood on Silk is on ongoing project that you've been working on since 2009, how does your latest installation fit into the framework you've established?

Blood on Silk is really a long term investigation of what I would call "medicalised death" in ICU. So it's death that's presented as a medical in ICU. And that is interesting on so many different layers. It's got a very strong emotional component, obviously... but I'm really interested in contemporary medical practices and how they interact with ethics, with economics, with that sort of emotional landscape.

This one work in particular comes from thinking about my experiences as a family member of somebody in ICU, when you get to occupy the space outside of the intensive care unit, quite a lot of the time, because you're always being asked to leave while they undertake some process or procedure. Particularly if it's in the middle of the night, it's a very interesting experience, because the corridors are very dark. Most of the hospitals now are locked at night for security. Before, you could at least go outside and get a bit of fresh air - all those people used to smoke outside hospitals - but it's those in-between non-spaces that you're occupying when you're with somebody who's in hospital a lot.

You mentioned there's a strong emotional component, but the project is also quite scientific. Do you think there's any disconnect or tension between the emotional and the analytical?

Not to me. But I can understand that some people might find that a disconnect. But I think that science is emotional... everything's got an emotional component. You can't ignore it, I don't think.

Your work is prolific and deals with some very present themes. Is your creative process an urgent one, or is a very slow and reflective process?

I would say that, particularly because I've been working on it so long and I've spent so much time thinking about it, that it's actually quite a slow process. There have been changes since I started working in this area, but not changes that would be as fast as I like. There are still very hard things for people to cope with an to think about when they're with someone in ICU, and because it's such a - fortunately - rare experience for most people who don't work in that area, it's not something that you're really trained to think about and analyse.

What is significant about silk paper that you used as the main material?

One of the things I was lucky enough to do when I first started in this project was to work in collaboration with a physicist called Dr. Peter Domachuk, and he has unfortunately died at the age of 33. He was working on developing a biophotonic device made of fibroin, which is part of silk. And that was to be a way of reading blood characteristics while your blood was still in your body.

One of the rituals in ICU is that daily blood sampling. You go off to external test, you come back, it's not quite right. They play with the drugs, wait a little bit, another sample gets taken, comes back and that goes on all day. So when I first heard about Peter's project I just couldn't believe it. It would have been so fabulous to just be able to be the equivalent of scanned and it would know what your blood readings were. But unfortunately he is dead so I don't think his project has been taken up by anybody else yet.

To me, the title of the work Last Seen has some quite morbid connotations. What's the significance behind it?

Yes... I think "last seen" for me is always that thing about - you know when you last see somebody when you visit them in hospital. When you last go through the hospital doors. For me it's become quite an almost superstitious transition.

Given the visceral and confronting nature of the work, how do you expect people to react to it? Do you go into creating a work with expectations like that?

The first view of the work, because it's made of silk paper, is a reaction to the beauty of the work. I think for me that's a really important aspect; I don't want to shock people so that they are unable to proceed any further with thinking about the work. So I want them to be not so much seduced, but to be comfortable with the work because it is beautiful, and then to see that that beauty is being used to address some issues that can be uncomfortable. But for a lot of people I've actually found that they are issues that they want to think about, that they want to talk to other people about, but it's certainly not something that we commonly do in our society. 

Do you think there's a big difference between viewing, for example, a sculpture or a painting, as opposed to being actually enveloped in a work? 

As an installation artist, I always prefer installations. Because I do like that feeling that the work is bigger than you and that you have to move your body to read. To some extent that's true with a sculpture, and depending on the size of the painting, you may best experience the painting by moving. But certainly an installation, it is very difficult to experience and installation online. And that is one of the issues that you need to make the documentation of the work translatable so that you can experience some elements of it online. 

Blood on Silk: Last Seen is “the largest installation in Western Sydney to date.” Was the size something you aimed for going into it, or something that happened organically?

It's a function of the size of the space. So, the Turbine Hall is a very, very large space and the installation is size specific to that space and responds to the architecture of that space. So that's what's driven that it's largest. I wouldn't say it was my aim to be the largest, but it certainly is my aim to respond in a thoughtful and appropriate manner to the architecture of the space. 

So the five hospital rooms - or fragments of rooms - that I've created from the ceiling down reflect the geometry of the ceiling girders of the Turbine Hall. So it's not like I've imposed another pattern onto that former workplace. I'm utilising that pattern to create another workplace, or the illusion of another workplace, within the workplace of the Powerhouse.

How do you approach creating an installation? What planning has to go into it?

The first thing is to get a really good understanding of the size and dimensions and structures and what's there to hang things off. Or what's there that can be utilised. Really, the first thing is to get a good understanding of the space, to get a really good understanding of the history of the space and the current context. And then I would really work from that point before moving on into the creative process.

Have you thought about what's next for the Blood on Silk project?

Yes, the next thing I'm doing, which is opening next week, is in a group show at the Science Gallery at the University of Melbourne with a work which is called Blood on Silk: By Cell. It is thinking about the economics and the load of the distribution of blood and blood products, which is one of the major materials used in ICU. 

Wow. Thank you for talking with me, Fiona.

You sound a bit stunned. Are you alright?

Yeah, it's just a lot of information to take in. I was looking at your website before and I feel like a lot of it did actually go over my head. But talking to you has given me a better understanding, I think.

Well that's interesting feedback. So what did you feel went over your head?

The general description of the Blood on Silk project was quite overwhelming, I think. Because it's a lot of unfamiliar terminology, and the point about the silk being used as a scanner for your blood is just incomprehensible to me.

Look, it is to me too, to be blunt. (Laughs) But you know, if you've ever had to have a whole lot of blood taken for blood testing, you think "How could this not be so much better?" You've got no risk of infection, not all of that paraphernalia of external testing. It just makes so much sense. But it's also got really creepy surveillance and human rights things that add onto it as well. Like a lot of things in medicine, there's a lot of different aspects to think about. 

Blood on Silk: Last Seen is on display now until Sunday September 17th at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (open 10am - 5pm daily). For more information, visit the Sydney Scoop calendar.