Moving Images presents Embrace; A River Runs Through, a recent video work from Birraranga (Melbourne)-based artist Ophelia Bakowski. Through their work, Bakowski explores the intersection of queering and spiritual praxis, with an interest in the inherent fluidity and inter-connectivity of nature and identity. In 2019 Bakowski presented IamOphelia at KINGS Artist-Run gallery.
In 'Embrace; A River Runs Through', the remedy of a river washes over them, through them and with them, allowing for oneness and a cosmic communion. Ophelia Bakowski performs a queering ceremony for the unseen and unheard: a healing act of letting go. The river’s force nourishes a rite of passage, a queer baptism, a bath of transcendence and a pool of reflection, in order to let go of the confines of one’s skin. In this video, the gentle and rhythmic dance of the river is a meditation upon the esotericism of nature, in turn celebrating the fluidity of gender. Bakowski demonstrates that upon relinquishing the anchors of binary statuses, the liberation of flesh and spirit may be achieved, allowing the currents to guide us into glistening states.
— Jake Treacy, 2019, on Embrace; A River Runs Through by Ophelia Bakowski.
Ophelia Bakowski, Embrace; A River Runs Through 2019, video: 5 min and 32 sec, courtesy of the artist.
In Embrace; A River Runs Through, the waters of the Birrarung (or Yarra River) are dark and glassy. Reeds and brush cover the banks. Bakowski’s luminescent body drapes over fallen branches, catches on half submerged rocks and rests gently on the riverbed. They seem to yield to the sway of the current as it washes over them.
This soft yet sombre imagery strongly recalls another Ophelia. The daughter of Polonius and in love with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Ophelia is a key figure of suffering in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia is left bereft when her love mistakenly murders her father, and she famously drowns herself in a river. The character has inspired many representations across film, literature and the visual arts, though probably none more recognisable than John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, 1851-2. The painting’s unruly but lush greenery was very unusual for the time — Everett was one of the first English artists of his era to paint outside, giving him a new ability to realistically depict flowers, plants and trees.
Bakowski pays similar reverence to the depiction of the landscape. Much like Millais in 1851, they use the technology of the day to carefully attend to the spectacle of nature engulfing their figure of Ophelia. Their use of video as a medium touches on the various elements of visuals, audio, and editing to heighten the spiritual significance of nature. Long and thoughtful HD shots capture the bubbles, choppy waves, and reflecting light of the river, punctuated by the ringing of an unseen chime. The submergence of the artist into these meaning-laden waters is thus given the impact of the baptism referred to by Jake Treacy in their accompanying poetic passage. This ‘performance’ is leaving the artist a changed person, as if baptised. In this way Bakowski, who has touched on their Catholic background in previous work, has negotiated their own baptism on their own terms with nature.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia 1851-2, Photo © Tate, shared under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), sourced from the Tate.
For Bakowski, Embrace; A River Runs Through is more than a performative gesture of homage. The performance facilitates and signifies a transformation into Ophelia and her many reincarnations throughout history, placing the artist in a lineage that’s both art-historical and spiritual. Bakowski’s emotional connection to the figure of Lizzie Siddal, a nineteenth-century artist and model who sat for Millais’ Ophelia, features strongly in this transformation. Siddal’s biography was at the forefront of Bakowski’s mind during the making of Embrace; A River Runs Through, with one story in particular standing out. During the final sitting for the work, Siddal caught pneumonia lying in a cold bath after the oil lamps beneath burnt out. Despite a freezing London winter, Siddal held her pose to allow Millais to continue. She was unwavering in her commitment to her role that afternoon, despite the embodied portrayal resulting in her illness. Bakowski seeks to subvert this legacy of a kind of spiritual and artistic martyrdom by redefining the relationship between body and water to one of balance and oneness. Bakowski uses the iconographic cues of Ophelia’s death as signifiers of freedom from earthly limitations, becoming one with nature, and transcendance.
The union with nature explored in Embrace; A River Runs Through offers opportunities to see in new ways; to understand our relationships to our own bodies and to reconsider the significance of the natural environment. This is an especially welcome moment while both local and global environments continue to undergo rapid social, political and ecological change. Embrace; A River Runs Through echoes a solace that many have sought throughout lockdown, whether that’s in local parks, wetlands, or regional bush and rainforest. The work, in particular due to the artist’s presence within the significant Birrarung river site, brings into sharp relief the complexity of place, particularly in the context of the recent Rio Tinto destruction of a group of Juukan rock shelters on May 26th 2020, ‘Sorry Day’. The shelters are an Aboriginal heritage site that is over 46,000 years old and have sacred significance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Alongside their arts practice, Bakowski is also a local DJ, and in conjunction with Moving Images at CCP, they have offered up a mix to accompany Ophelia’s journey in the arms of the riverbed. The mix is arranged into chapters corresponding to the six flowers Ophelia picks as she walks the river bank, and features poetry by Jake Adam Treacy which was presented in a limited edition booklet accompanying IamOphelia, their collaborative exhibition with Bakowski presented at Kings Artist Run in 2019.