As we ascend through the vineyards and canola fields of the Barossa Valley, we are primed by this landscape for Deborah Prior’s latest exhibition “The Third Day.” Prior’s textile and performance practice has often used domestic craftsmanship to reflect on the body, and here the artist develops a recent tendency to consider the body in place, its fragility and its impact on environmental and political crises. .
“On The Third Day” has been hampered by various health-related setbacks that run through Prior’s deeply personal works. The artist suffered an injury while embarking on his first iteration of this work, and subsequent health complications, as the COVID-19 pandemic further limited the artist’s mobility.
These events have only fueled the richly intertwined narrative of personal and political crisis found here. The evolution of this body of work, and the way it responds to these challenges, makes its outcome all the more triumphant.
The works of art – mainly pinned to the walls of the gallery – deserve special attention. Prior’s intricate and intuitive stitches abound on its surfaces. Beads gather in thin clusters, turning mostly found textile objects into unorthodox cards. You couldn’t imagine a better space, with Jam Factory Seppeltsfield’s stained concrete floor and gold wood paneling framing the white walls. A happy accident that makes the visitor’s experience fascinating.
Prior combines subtle pastels with shocks of sinister manufactured color, allowing a complex gradient to emerge between the natural and the synthetic. This tension plays out in the vibrating Squatter blanket series, woolen blankets dyed muted greens, bearing hundreds of kitsch vegetable labels. Each label bears a decidedly camp title – “Fabulous Foliage”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Charisma”, and adds to a disturbing assemblage of plant names that impose rather than identify.
In other works, seemingly benign pastels are loaded with eerie drama, stripping textiles found by settlers of any perceived innocence. In one of the largest rooms here, two patchwork blankets adorn the back wall of the gallery, rearranged to form the phrase “LOST FLOCK.” These two big words suggest that settler nostalgia does not grant immunity in the face of an impending crisis. The consequences of settler agriculture and colonial activity vibrate with an apocalyptic urgency in Prior’s work.
Walking is a key element of Prior’s practice, and the traces of his walks resonate like a common thread throughout the exhibition. Walking allowed Prior to form breathtaking responses of sensitivity and intimacy to the rhythms of environmental crisis.
The exhibition features works designed to be walked through, such as pastoral apocalypsean orthopedic sling reworked into a backpack, and Fleecea sprawling merino skirt that’s a testament to 10 years of performance in knitting and running.
Fleece is draped over a low wooden chair, spilling its varied colors onto the floor. It reflects dye experiments, periods of collaborative work and transitions into layers of eucalyptus dyed earth tones. These recent additions were completed during Prior’s residency at Grindell’s Hut on Adnyamathanha Country in the Flinders Ranges. During the residency, the skirt was worn during short walks, limited in duration by the artist’s state of health.
The earthy hues of the landscape and the devastation wrought by cattle grazing in this country come into the work as knitted layers. Balancing two distinct timelines – lifespan and deep time – Fleece is fundamental to this exhibition, forming a storied archive that tracks every change in the artist’s practice over time. The viewer is inspired here to see personal stories of health in relation to the greater health of the planet.
“On The Third Day” is a testament to Prior’s astonishing creative resilience. The artist emphatically proclaims our mutual fragility and need for change, laying bare the patterns that bind together our most desperate contemporary problems.
Her sewing, salvaging and repairing processes indicate both a deep reverence and a critical eye towards the objects she transforms, allowing them to reveal disturbing truths.
The scale of these works, both physical and temporal, demonstrates Prior’s attention, with fury and sensitivity, to the unfinished business and deeply intertwined crises of our time and place.
Deborah Prior: Day Three
Jam Factory Seppeltsfield, 730 Seppeltsfield Road, Seppeltsfield SA
July 30 – September 25
Free entry, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
ArtsHub is a publishing partner of the 2022 National Gallery of Australia’s Digital Young Writers Mentorship.