Reconfiguring the Ordinary Past; a reflection on the work of Olivia Punnett

practice, I arrange and I find out.

Olivia Punnett’s work takes the form of assemblage: constellations of objects arranged in a considered visual hierarchy with evident picture making sensibilities. The component parts remain autonomous and able to be moved into different positions at any time, hinting at the inevitable reconfiguration that living brings with it. They tend to be ubiquitous British items, often clearly from a time past, bearing hall marks of fashions that have long since faded: ornamental patio air bricks, decorative bamboo plant stands, garden items that all the neighbours once had. One of these objects is typically a projection device, employed to open up a momentary window into an alternative place and time. The context is almost always a setting used for living or working.

At the centre of each of these constellations is an image, distorted or modified in some way and light is the common denominator, either as a subject and/or as the means. In spatial arrangements the projection device is antiquated, part of Olivia's aesthetic of the ordinary past, and presented unprotected in the space with wires trailing and minimal aesthetic sanitation. The potential for the projected apparition to be lost, cut off at any point is ever present. Light is an event, an element indivisible from the now, and so a fitting metaphor for memory and a fitting means for resuscitating visions from a time past with all their potential melancholy. This interest in impermanence appears also in her static images- light appearing as the subject, flooding the frame, giving the image a sense of temporality.

Reconfiguration, distortion and modification are all apt metaphors for the human experience of memory.  Memory, and in a related sense, the function of objects in our personal meaning-making reoccurs throughout Olivia's works. Images, objects and places all connect us to our memories. Those now inaccessible moments are brought back, once removed, through these signs that we imbue with our interior life in a myriad of diverse, touching and surprising ways. Her work is poetic and increasingly personal. She works responsively, arranging, re-arranging and re-visiting. She observes and adjusts the work, tuning it: trying it with teeth, with rock, with print, with a tile, with a paint spatter, with hair, with a slide projection, on concrete, through water, with the sound of a choir, with the sound of the wind, on the floor more, on the ceiling more. She is an asker, to friends, peers, tutors, service providers, listening for things to utilise echoed back at her. Through this oscillation between controlling the work and observing it, Olivia hones the specificity of message and nuance that are particular to her nostalgic vision.

The first experience that one has of the potential for separation between sign and its significance is always potent. It was brought to Olivia's attention when she encountered the familiar objects of the British every day in the very different context of post-colonial Barbados, fascinated to observe the quintessential British Post Office recreated in full detail. At that time Olivia herself was undergoing two major reconfigurations: marriage and her first pregnancy, both of which happened close together and against the backdrop of the ex-British island, oceans away from home.

Olivia takes influence from a selection of artists exploring the aesthetic of the ordinary past and its poetic power: Doris Salcedo, Mike Nelson and Lygia Clake's Objects of Significance to name but a few. Rauschenberg as ‘the father’ of assemblage and collage in our common Western art history is also acknowledged. Her voice is one of mixed, or should I say reconfigured, cultures at a time when Britain's colonial wealth and grandeur is a scrap of what it once was politically, financially and philosophically. However Olivia's work isn't overtly involved in this politicised arena, it is more part of her formative experience. The real overtone in her work is a melancholy nostalgia, the re-creating of a time past mediated by a light emitting device.