Out of Sight

Catalogue essay for Fountain, 2019

by Madeline Reece

How might we develop our senses to become attuned to the things that remain cloaked in mystery? Sundari Carmody presents us with this question through her new sculptural installation, Fountain.

A neuroscientist must learn to adjust their eyes to navigate the dizzying vistas that emerge from the magnification of a scanning electron microscope [1]. Astronomers risk the stability of their circadian rhythms to study the panoramas above, in search of a key to unlock the vast unknown. Scientists continually strive to elucidate the exactitudes of our consciousness [2]. So often we turn to the objective pursuits of science to make us feel comfortable with what we do not understand. In order to develop our senses, must we abandon reason, or what we have accepted through reason, to embrace the mystery that still lurks in the shadows of our existence?

We have become wary of these shadows; out of the light, not in total dark but in the grey space that lingers. It is here that we feel unsafe, uncertain and uncomfortable. As when traversing the mists of an autumnal fog hovering above winding roads, our vision blurred, our senses falter – they become unbalanced and the nervous system takes action [3]. As our bodies navigate the liminal spaces between sight and scent, touch and sound, we begin to experience the in-betweens of our consciousness; the tenuous links between focal points of our body’s attention.

Polarities are evident in Carmody’s practice. As she pushes the definitions of sculptural form, her work migrates from solid to soft, density diffuses and concrete morphs into mist. Fountain consists of three kinetic devices, each emitting a soft aromatic haze that floats through the space, filling the apparent emptiness amongst our bodies. It is less so the devices themselves that require our attention, more the mist that pours from their spouts. It is the liminal, the in-between that Carmody’s work suggests we consider. The space between light and dark, conscious and unconscious, between senses, between particles, between us.

Carmody identifies an affinity with the late astronomer, Vera Rubin (1928-2016), and is greatly inspired by her theories surrounding the existence of dark matter. In a field dominated by men, Rubin was tasked with tracking the velocity of stars orbiting the Andromeda galaxy and it was here that the passionate astronomer noticed that something was missing [4]. Rubin’s “calculations showed that galaxies must contain about ten times as much ‘dark’ mass as can be accounted for by the visible stars. In short, at least ninety percent of the mass in galaxies, and therefore in the observable universe, is invisible and unidentified” [5]. Through quiet contemplation and keen observation, Carmody, like Rubin, uses presence to suggest unseen presence.

Within Fountain, botanical aromas of night-blooming, sleep-inducing plants – Ipomoea alba (Moonflower or moon-vine), Oenothera biennis (Common evening-primrose), Cestrum nocturnum (Night-blooming jasmine) and Papaver somniferum (Opium poppy) – are chosen as placeholders for the purportedly present yet unobserved dark matter. These plants are not abnormal species, but due to our circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’, we are habitually out of sync with them. Carmody subtly draws our attention to these plants by enclosing an infusion of their essential oils, mixed with melatonin and water, within the chamber of each device. A small ‘mist maker’ sits just below water level, gently oscillating. As the mist forms on the water’s surface, a small fan directs it externally. The plants’ essences are used to evoke the night, the dark and ultimately an altered state of consciousness. In Fountain, Carmody has created a notional system that brings the invisible into the light, allowing us to navigate that tenuous thread between our senses. 

Madeline Reece is a curator, writer and artist based in Adelaide, South Australia.

1 Gibbins I, 2014, The Microscope Project, Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide
2 Koch C, 2018, What Is Consciousness?, Scientific American 318, vol. 6, pg. 60-64, viewed 20 March 2019 <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-consciousness/>
3 Visible Body 2018, Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch: How the Human Body Receives Sensory Information, viewed 20 March 2019, <https://www.visiblebody.com/learn/nervous/five-senses>
4 https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/cosmic-horizons/profile-vera-rubin-and-dark-matter
5 ibid