Daylights

24 July – 29 August 2015

Michelle Day

Michelle Day, Hopper-tron, 2015, aluminium, powdercoated steel, eletrical elements, 110cm x 63cm x 40cm, image paul hay

Shedding light on the strange, the fantastic, and the extraordinarily beautiful by Mark Henshaw

In summer, I used to go out and lie on the ground and stare up at the sky. Sometimes I'd do this at night. I'd be there, staring out into this star-lit universe. I think that's where my obsession with light came from. [1]

I'd be daydreaming, then I'd roll over, and I'd see these tiny white insect eggs on the underside of leaves, half a dozen of them clumped together, all held there by tiny, stiff micro stalks… [They were] all part of this fantastic unseen world. [2]

Michelle Day's seminal show was in 2010. It was enigmatically called Elka Mar is lost. The title, with its echoes of the work of the surrealist Max Ernst, gave some insight into the nature of Michelle's imagination, and into the works in the show itself. Here were objects consisting, in the main, of silicone-based organic forms housed within light-boxes constructed from found enclosures – drawers, cabinets, boxes etc. In some works, the forms resembled strange translucent deep-sea creatures floating in a light-filled void; in others, they resembled semi-transparent suspended 19th century wheeled flying machines, magical contraptions reminiscent of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci destined to transport their occupants, and us, into some obscure, previously undiscovered, terrain of the human imagination.

The titles Michelle invents for her works: Floating to the edge of the world [3], Catching and eating their inventions IV, the Gestation of Traffic Lights, Resting in the Blimp Spot, and the way in which they paradoxically connect with the works, are, like the light that is always there, similarly brilliant. There are already, then, in these titles, elements that not only characterize, but which 'shape' our responses to the works themselves – works that are equally enigmatic, equally mysterious.

In the current show, one cannot help but be struck once again by how whimsical, how dreamlike, these pieces are. There are works with titles such as: The Insects of Japan; Hopper-tron; Noceros-balloon; Too Cold in Berlin. Here, these titles function as unifying signifiers for the quirky, mysterious, strange, other-worldly things these objects are, or have become. In some obscure way, they hint at what the objects manifest, what they simultaneously 'incorporate'.

But the mode, or modes, and means, of 'incorporation', of manifestation, that Michelle uses have clearly evolved over time. These works come out of an inspiration that is much more varied – they might be informed by some aquatic antecedent, but they might equally be informed by the thrilling gilled underside of an exotic forest mushroom, or the intricate armature of an insect leg, an insect that had serendipitously come knocking on her door one day, as if to say: Here I am, let me be your muse. [4]

There are also vestigial references to the strange solitude of a girlhood spent alone, gazing up at the stars, or looking down at the strange world of microscopic insect eggs hidden beneath a tiny bent leaf. And there is that one constant – light. Omnipresent. Breathing life into the works, as a kind of celebration of the pure phenomena of seeing.

There is, however, one significant difference between these and the earlier works. Here is the world of the playful, the world of the mischievously magical welded to the purely functional. These works are intrinsically performative. Because not only can you contemplate their very strangeness, you can also 'own' them, use them, turn them on – to illuminate the fantastic in the world around you.

These new works also incorporate new materials, and new modes of 'construction'. There is, for example, at their material junctures, a feeling not only of organic flow, but of substitutive prostheses – of 'limbs' lost and replaced; a melding of the delicacy of living tissue with the immutability of metal – a kind of disquieting prefiguring of what the future might hold for us.

What this exhibition clearly demonstrates, is that Michelle Day's works are the product of a different kind of artistic imagination, an imagination of such intricacy, such complexity of insight that it manifests itself in ways largely untapped by other artists. There are echoes of the fantastical of a Max Ernst, or the uncategorisability of a Louise Bourgeois, but the products of Michelle Day's imagination – the works themselves – are both profound and beautiful in ways that are unique to her. If we let them, they engage, and move us, at some deeper non-rational level.

The works are also serenely beautiful, particularly at night, when they are lit. Then they seem to inhabit and illuminate a space which is both strangely personal and intensely intimate, intensely still. They command contemplation with an eerie insistence – it is as if they provide us with some access into a parallel, secret universe, the exact nature of which, despite their paradoxical light, remains undisclosed to us. This is their secret allure, their intimate otherness, which is their true strength, a strength which, in turn, demonstrates the true power of their maker's extraordinary imagination.

Mark Henshaw is a former curator in the Department of International Art at the National Gallery of Australia. He is also a multi award-winning novelist. His novel Out of the Line of Fire [Penguin Books, 1988] won the FAW Barbara Ramsden Award and the NBC New Writer’s Award. It was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize. More recently, his novel The Snow Kimono [Text Publishing, 2015] won the NSW Premiers Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award. He has also written two crime novels in collaboration with the writer John Clanchy. His work has been widely translated.