In his essay on the early 20th-century German historian and writer Max Kommerell, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben explores the nature of gesture, understanding it as a form of expression closely tied to spoken language. Gestures are a physical imprint of a person’s attempt to make themselves understood, but also expressions of an inner, silent dialogue. In other words, beyond necessary communication, gesture has an inherent self-reflexivity.
David Noonan’s new series of six jacquard tapestries comprise moody black and white images of life-sized figures, excised from their original photographic sources and set into new configurations. Each of the characters is cropped into a dislocated ground, their idiosyncratic gestures conveying a sense of absorbed introspection. In one image a figure stands immobilized, her eyes closed as she faces the sun, lost in a private reverie. In another, a woman stretches out her arm in a light standing twist, head facing the camera with her eyes obscured by dark, velvety shadows. A third tapestry focuses on a costume assistant adjusting a performer’s skullcap, his eyes shut and hands clasped together, almost in supplication, whilst leaning towards her.
The body language of these figures suggests a moment of arrest, a pause in action before a series of movements recommence. Most of the figures, who would seem to be mime artists, actors or dancers, are clad in leotards or vests, their faces accentuated through stage make up and spot lighting. Drained of colour, the stark tonal contrasts of the images heighten the sense of drama, the pale figures inversely silhouetted against lustrous black grounds. Yet, the backgrounds are not the auditorium interiors one might expect but abstract fields of enlarged brush marks, inky splotches and crayoned lines – as if the figures had been displaced into an oversized Ab Ex painting by Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline.
For several years Noonan has produced collaged images composed from a miscellany of sources: books and monographs on theatre, stage design and dance from the 1960s to the ’90s. The anonymous figures often have a retro allure, their garments and svelte bodies indexes of a bygone era of underground avant-garde performance. While Noonan’s earlier work focussed on costumed figures and masked faces screen-printed onto earthy textiles such as Belgian linen or jute, he created these grayscale tapestries in collaboration with Flemish weavers. Void of the warm tones of natural fabrics these images are austere: both more forbidding and less operatic than previous works. The monochrome also evokes the texture and tones of early Xerox photocopies. At times, the starkness of the white sections disrupts the illusion of collaged elements: it’s as if the imagery was constructed from three-dimensional layers.
These transfixing, mercurial figures seem to both resist and court being looked at – a paradox that lies at the heart of gesture. As Kommerell noted, gestures speak firstly of the subject’s relation to themselves: only by virtue of this do they become compelling for others. Noonan’s compositions capture this enigma – of physical expressions that are simultaneously eloquent and mute, public in communicative function yet internal and deeply private.
For Agamben, historical epochs vary in their breadth of gestural language: like other forms of language, some have been lost over time. Noonan’s deployment of vintage photographs filtered through the superannuated technologies of photocopying and mechanical weaving folds into this cultural reading as salvaged fragments from other worlds. His tapestries are invocations of erstwhile eras, the lexicon of bodily gestures their distillate.
Main image: David Noonan, Untitled, 2019, jacquard tapestry, 2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne; photograph: Zan Wimberley
First published in Issue 206