Buttons in a Bottle: Contemplation#2,  A Personal Response

As many who work in the museum sector will know, once you’ve curated an exhibition, it is difficult to experience it as a first-time viewer would, even if you can experience moments of pleasure as you discover new things over time. However, as Curator at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, I have had the privilege to experience Marie Potter’s Contemplation#2, an exhibition I have not curated, almost as a first-time viewer.

Occupying the NZAFA’s LightSpace gallery throughout March 2013, Contemplation#2 was the culmination of the artist’s Masters research and as such there are references to great theorists and artists. All of this is relevant, but my real joy was encountering the exhibition and its objects in a more visceral, even poetic sense.

It was on contemplating Potter’s assemblage of assorted white buttons in an old glass milk bottle, wooden peg clipped right on its rim, that I discovered her exhibition for myself, that I realised what she had achieved. For this artist has an understatedly deft way of selecting objects and putting them together. Why a milk bottle, buttons and a peg, just so?

The beauty of the buttons-in-bottle assemblage is that it doesn’t prompt me to ask ‘why?’ in any ‘normal’ sense, to delve into the artist’s choices in the way one might consider another artist’s choice of media, subject matter and techniques. Potter’s assemblage just seems ‘right’: it has its own poetics and it feels right within the poetics of the exhibition. There is a poetic meta-language at work around me and it gives this assemblage a life of its own. It is a life enriched, in an abstract sense, by the history and beauty of the objects that make it, but it is a life of its own, somehow familiar but ultimately beyond my everyday experience.

From the buttons in a bottle I turn my attention to a rusted Kodak camera, containing a tea strainer and a watch. Then there is an old leather bag containing a pair of gloves and a plethora of other objects, some possibly for medical use, but I wouldn’t really know what. And there is also a large tin that has seen better days: it is propping up a small axe draped with a long lace glove. They are all objects given a reverence by the artist, sitting in the light of the gallery’s wonderful arched window. They give me the ability to face the central table of medical instruments, laid out in neat arrangements of rows.

Being a woman, I know I am faced with gynaecological instruments, not that I’ve had first-hand experience of these ones in particular, but they do remind me of modern-day instruments and procedures. I of all people should know something of these, having had major surgery for chronic endometriosis only four years prior, carrying the scar. But these are not instruments that frighten me, for they seem too bent towards that same kind of reverence as the rest. They speak to me more generally; I don’t demand to know the gruelling procedures and unspeakable moments of truth that might accompany them. Those could be there, but I am in a different space, the space of the exhibition, where poetics are at play. It is the poetics of taking objects and putting them together to give them a new life, a collective life that knows its scars and has had a myriad of experiences. A life that is also one with which to enjoy the previously unknown rightness, of an illuminated bottle of buttons, with peg.

Jodie Dalgleish


NZ Academy of Fine Arts