ACT News


Sex is just part of the furniture

Today's column is rated PG. Gang-gang recommends reading by mature readers. It contains explicit discussion of sensuality and sexuality, in household furniture.

Canberra's Salvos and Vinnies stores, garage sales and the vast warehouse of used things at the Mugga Lane Resource Management Facility have in recent times been haunted by one most unorthodox shopper. American artist/furniture maker/furniture ''rejuvenator'' Michele Marti is a visiting artist at the ANU's School of Art.

Her first masterpiece, The Curious Sofa (of which more in a moment), was made in America and is now strutting its sensual, velvety stuff in the New York home of its purchaser. But while here she has been making new, just-as-curious pieces, from Australian materials. Those new pieces are on playing-with-your-mind display now in her exhibition Nonverbal Cues at the School of Art Gallery.

But discussion of The Curious Sofa (pictured on this page) will give an idea of what Marti thinks and does.

While completing her course at the California College of the Arts (her thesis was exploring ''sensuality and sexuality in and around furniture'') and haunting San Francisco flea markets she found two ornate but rather knocked-about Victorian chairs. She set about ''regenerating'' and ''rejuvenating'' them.

And when she's doing that sort of thing, she's said in a US interview, ''I become so attached to the pieces of furniture I'm rejuvenating that every scratch, dent and drilled hole tells me a story of what these pieces have endured throughout their lives. Because of this the chairs become more and more like people and therefore I feel like I have to give them the opportunity to experience a new life of sensuality and sexuality.''


As she worked on the two chairs she had the witty idea of combining them into one piece, a sofa designed to enable in its users (indeed to make unavoidable) ''some serious flirting'' of the kind that Victorian users would have thought unseemly and blush-making.

In the case of The Curious Sofa, notions of sensuality are assisted by her re-upholstering of the sofa in sumptuous, charcoal-coloured velvet. She is, as well as being an artist, a consummate upholsterer and woodworker.

At the school on Wednesday she was juxtaposed with one of her new, Australian, but very Curious Couch-like works.

''This is Welcome To My Alpine, because Alpine is the name of the fabric I used,'' she said. ''But this piece [gesturing at the bigger, settee part] I found at the tip [at Mugga Lane] and this piece [the chair that's been grafted on to it] I got at an antique shop in Sydney. It was amazing to find the two pieces from the same era.''

Now the two pieces are one, one eccentric and mischievous settee, so designed that when two people are sitting on it they're facing each other and one of them is in the artist's words ''almost on top of the other'', with even a hint from the piece that one of you should have your legs stretched across the other's lap. You wouldn't, we hope, do this to a perfect stranger beside you on a park bench at the Arboretum, but then park benches in their straightness don't require us to look at one another and get close. They encourage us to sit like individual shags each alone on the one cold rock.

Marti is very interested in all this, in how furniture, how it's designed and how it's arranged, directs our behaviour towards others sitting in the same space.

Yes, no drawing room in any of Jane Austen's novels would have been furnished with a sofa as curious as The Curious Sofa, one that forced intimacy on men and women sharing it in an age when society and its mores required them to have oodles of starchy personal space; times when a lady would swoon if, before the two were married, a gentleman's knees touched hers.

Marti's work and her ideas are, for a shy columnist, sometimes blush-makingly sexual. Some of her overtly female pieces (none of them, thank goodness, in Nonverbal Cues, to challenge for inclusion in this family column) even have what she calls ''spread legs'' and female genitalia. But that's enough of that. Google them, if you must.

But she says that her work addresses a range of physical interactions between people, everything including even ''light seduction'' and ''pillow talk''.

I wondered if all furniture strikes her in this way but she says, thank goodness (for it would be a struggle for most of us to live comfortably in suburbia with our average furniture if it seemed alive and sexually charged) that, no, it's really only ''Victorian furniture with its grand ornamentation that gives each piece a kind of gender and personality''.

Furniture and flirtation are recurring themes in her work and her conversation about it. ''Furniture is a cradle to the body. There's an interaction between the body and furniture. Wood and textiles are extremely luscious materials and add to the circumstances [in which people find themselves sitting together] and contribute to the art of flirtation.''

Hurry! Nonverbal Cues, after which furniture and furniture-arranging will never seem the same to you again, finishes this Saturday. It is at the School of Art Foyer Gallery, Ellery Crescent, ANU.