Inversion / Subversion. The Art of Martin Sims.
by Fay Brauer

If in all ideology men and their relations appear upside down as in a camera obscura, Marx wrote, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from physical life-process. The dominant value systems, beliefs and everyday assumptions that are taken for granted represented, for Marx as much as Engels, an inversion of the reality of social relations. Those with the greatest access to power, whether it be in politics, the economic base, society, art, education, health or the mass media, were those most able to determine discourse and shape systems of representation. As the inequalities which exist in power relations, in income levels, jobs, education, demography and standards of living, ethnic groups and genders are conversely conveyed as so natural that, in Engels' words, one's real impelling motives remain unknown, it is like, Engels found, seeing the world turned upside down. Revealing how the world was represented upside down was a Marxist and anarchist strategy, one that Picasso employed with his Cubist newspaper cuttings reporting the horrors of the First Balkan War. Drawing upon the detritus of our consumerist obsolescence, with its reams of polystyrene rather than daily newspapers, Sims also employed inversion in Spill (1993) to reveal how the world appears upside-down like a camera obscura, if not inside out like the negative mouldings of his appropriated consumer packaging.

The very process of mythology, Barthes found, was one of inversion. Unveiling this myth is then, Barthes claimed, a political act, an act of subversion. The art of Sims' inversion is like an act of unveiling what has been shrouded, or unmasking what lies buried, but beneath the hyperreal and simulacra. Being schooled in European modernism, he comprehends such tools of inversion as irony and iconoclasm, parody and paradox, ambiguity and contradiction through Picasso and Duchamp, but deploys them in different ways. Sims' Inkwell (1993) embodied these inversions. When installed within the UNSW Ivan Dougherty Gallery, which was built as a school just before Federation, Inkwell appeared an appropriate linkage between the previous life of this building and its transformation into a campus-bound gallery. Yet rather than being just larger than a thimble, like the inkcups designed to fit into desk holes so common in the lives of Federation school students, Inkwell was near-lifesize; rather than being an empty container for fluid, it was solid; rather than being manufactured from hard, enamel material, it was moulded from wet clay. As all was not as it once seemed, these contradictory inversions in this game of expectation and denial, inevitably triggered questions as to its propriety. Ink was the means through which one learned how to write, in order to learn from others, as well as create oneself. Ink was once - and through inkjets still is - the means by which the writer could become the auteur, the artist. Yet rather than this inkwell being a device into which one could dip one's quill in order to learn how to write and create, this inkwell's chain of connotations seemed to link more with the ink ejected from fish bladders, than the texts from the artist's nib. As schools like hospitals, army barracks and factories all, following Foucault, increasingly resemble prisons, being designed as cellular spaces of surveillance rather than private studios of exploration, functioning through disciplines of correction and subjection, rather than approbation and creation, Inkwell's contradictions may ultimately signal how the very education of art within the punitive cultures of such carcereal institutions, can itself become inverted - belying the very objectives it sets out to achieve.

When Sims attended George Fullard's life-modelling class at Chelsea School of Art, he opposed as he says, its lifelessness on principle. Rather than the life model, he drew everything around it, charting points of convergence between the figure in its conjunctions with objects and its disposition in space. Rather than imposing an anthropocentric gaze upon this field, picturing man as the centre of the universe from which all radiates, Sims constructed a matrix in which the body emerged. When Sims invaded the University of Sydney Tin Sheds Gallery with scaffolding that stretched claustrophobically from floor to ceiling and one side to another, the spectator had no alternative but to corporeally insert their body into this matrix. By inverting outside and underside, exterior and interior, Sims also revealed the rough, work-battered scaffolding which underlies the building of each smooth-faced facade. It excoriated what is conspicuous by its absence but forever lurking like a phantom beneath the surface of identity - the Spectre, after which it was named, of the matrix of interdependencies from which such foundations as the University of Sydney are erected and through which the body is forced to navigate its subjectivity.

By foregrounding what is generally backgrounded in historical causality, Sims also suggests how colonisation was able to occur, especially given the oceans of largely uncharted water to be navigated between Britain and Australia. It was during the Enlightenment when observation strategies were scientifically systematised on land and sea, when the barometer was invented to measure minutely in millibars the pressure exerted by air, alongside such mapping devices as isobars to predict the circulation of high and low pressure belts swirling between the equator and poles. As Sims' maritime maps of the colony together with the charted sea divisions which surround the British Isles in Bread and Water - Ink and Paper (1993) were gradually subsumed by water during their installation in the Glare window at Artspace, Sydney, this evoked the way in which the vast nautical space between Britain and Australia was eventually erased. Yet despite the development of such navigational aids, the first aid to seamen's navigation, the stars, remained seminal - especially with such Enlightenment devices to gauge accurately the angle between a heavenly body and the horizon as the sextant and almanac. As is suggested by Sims' constellations in the Viaduct Project, measurement of the stars was integral to the colonisation of Australia yet provokes the ultimate inversion here by transposing heavenly bodies from one hemisphere to another.
martin sims inversion