When I spoke to Catherine Street she was busy cutting holes in a vast piece of cloth, which was to form part of a sculptural screen to divide the gallery at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock. The cut cloth is one of many recurring motifs and signifiers in her work that are at once visually seductive and sophisticated, yet quietly subversive, repellent or destructive.
The exhibition at the Dick Institute includes drawing, film, installation performance and text pieces, sourced from websites and weblogs, news reports, scientific books, sci-fi literature and writings on ‘East Ayrshire’s rich history of hauntings and grisly happenings’. A network of references touch upon the supernatural, chaos and order, the material and ethereal, right-wing conspiracies and sci-fi philosophies of existence.
One of the text pieces features a vignette about a psychic making a ball hover in mid-air. ‘An example of “mind over matter”, where ideas and beliefs appear to control the physical world.’ The connections to sci-fi lie in tales of transcendence, where characters eschew ‘the restrictions of the earth and physical existence and travel limitlessly through time and space’; where ‘philosophical ideas about human existence and morality’ feature alongside ‘poetic descriptions of destruction and catastrophe’.
Street’s theories revolve around the idea of order in ideas and language, and chaos in matter, flesh and the manifestations of belief. Her technical perspective drawings contrast with transcribed quotes from strikingly extremist bloggers’ rants. Political upheaval, corruption and all levels of domination and subjugation are weighed against each other.
Don’t be perturbed by the uncomfortable content matter, however, for Street’s skilful renderings know their place as art objects. Her performances, pseudo-scientific objects and beautifully constructed intricate drawings have their own ‘mysterious significances outside of the everyday functions of “real life”’. In a video from 2005, two hands are shown slowly painting each other black with ink. In another, words are spelt out in ink blown through a tube, but the meaning dissolves and the words are obliterated before they can be read.
A performance in Edinburgh as part of an EmergeD project saw a carefully suspended flagpole, angled just-so, rather alarmingly coming to rest in the artist’s mouth, as she lay lashed to a head-high stack of wooden pallets. A text piece tied to her stiletto-clad feet forced the viewer into uncomfortable proximity, part of a deliberate strategy to carefully integrate interpretation material into the installation. Conversely, her smart clothes, pointy shoes and static pose gave her a dignity that was empowering rather than oppressive.
Always flirting with acceptability, Street presents work that is ambiguous and mysterious, while at the same time repeatedly drawing attention to her position as an artist, and the processes of making. She self-consciously invites the viewer to ‘accept or ignore’ the given information, exposing the trickery and fakery by offering ‘a glimpse through the velvet curtain’, fooling the viewer into thinking they are in control of the mystification and demystification process.
Prior to her preparation for the Dick Institute exhibition, Street spent six months working for a women’s charity in South America. She testifies that it was not in any way directly linked to her artwork, but, on returning, she has been able to focus fully on research and production.
Ruth Beale is an artist and writer based in London