IF MOTHER KILLED HER WIFE WILL SHE HANG?
18 January – 4 February 2012
Mills + Morte, Dominique Hindmarsh + Susannah Thorne
In If Mother Killed Her Wife Will She Hang? Mills & Morte examine society’s love affair with sensation and gossip. Drawing from the 1920 trial of Eugenia Falleni, an installation of paintings and mixed media works raise questions about collective behaviour and pack mentality, prompting the viewer to reflect on how they manifest today. Inspired by Victorian freak show posters, early Australian circus imagery, contemporary department store displays and courtroom evidential exhibits, the work questions societal moral codes and which forms of ‘bad behaviour’ continue to be socially acceptable.
IMAGES | Images courtesy of the artist.
IF MOTHER KILLED HER WIFE WILL SHE HANG?
To know how bad we are, in the condition of mere nature, is an excellent recipe for becoming much worse.
It is hard not to be moved by an account of the life of Eugenia Falleni. Vilified as a moral degenerate, the record of her life in Sydney in the early twentieth century ‘in particular, her public notoriety for sex-fraud and subsequent conviction for murder’ says much about the kind of society we emerged from. It also has something to say about our society today.
A working-class Italian migrant, Falleni had been living in Sydney for some time as a man, Harry Crawford, and had been twice married, when her first wife’s body was discovered by police in bush near Chatswood. In interview, police were informed that Crawford was in fact a woman, and Falleni ‘deemed an untrustworthy character’ was arrested for murder. Convicted and sentenced to death in 1920, Falleni’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison. She was released from Long Bay prison in 1931 at the age of fifty-six.
If Mother Killed Her Wife, Will She Hang? frames the life of Eugenia Falleni in the form of a question. The Falleni inquisition is historical fact, yet its resonance then as now is problematic. Arrested for murder, Falleni was also effectively on trial for sex-fraud: for her gender-crossing, her marriages as a man, and sexual relationships with women. Such was the moral indignation that newspaper headlines depicted the alleged murder almost as a secondary offence.1
Befitting her story, the casting of Falleni by artists Mills & Morte – Dominique Hindmarsh and Susannah Thorne resists univalent readings. Her dubitable gender, the focus of debate both in and outside the courtroom, offers an entry point into Falleni’s world. Thorne’s trio of mixed-media portraits cleverly delineate but do not define. Her interweaving of gendered materials suggests much about Falleni’s character. The unavoidable reference to the ‘comforting’ distraction of domestic crafts and hobbies (a nod to gender associations we are urged to question) presents a strident counterpoint to the masculinity of much of Thorne’s materiality and imagery. The overriding translucency of the work, however, ultimately withholds more than it divulges, pointing more fervently to what may lie behind and beyond the man-woman visage.
What Thorne’s assemblages suggest most clearly perhaps is that the real subject of this story is to be discovered ‘if at all’ not in isolation but in the presence of her accusers. Arranged as a judicial coterie, each of Falleni’s twelve jurors appears as an instance of the persecuted Falleni, a paradoxical inversion of self and other, judge and judged. This, we sense, is no mere characterization. It is as much about us, as it is about Falleni. In the presence of Falleni’s twelve jurors we are neatly brought into the frame, challenged by Thorne to reassess images of self as normal, the other as freak.
Transference between identification and objectification is a thematic vein that both artists keenly explore. Hindmarsh’s imposing canvases of Darlinghurst police station and courthouse ‘seminal architectural forms that remind us that it is power that decisively structures space’ leave us in no doubt that Falleni is on trial, objectified.
So too, does the manifestation of a terrifying public gallery: Hindmarsh’s staggering installation of shoes recalls the historical reality of the crowd witnessing Falleni’s tortuous daily parade between the two buildings. Hindmarsh’s work suggests a fundamental concern with being physically involved in Falleni’s trial. To look at her painted sculptures is to feel the presence of the multitude.
In the absence of their owners, Hindmarsh’s shoes carry a formidable charge: they have become inhabited by the awkward posturing of a menagerie of squatters – screen and circus performers, fair ground curiosities, and freaks. In Australia at the end of the nineteenth century ‘as on either side of the Atlantic’ the line that divided vaudeville from circus and from freak show was not always easy to draw. Hindmarsh’s pointed reference to the circus ‘the archetypal form of spectacle known for revering the talented and the perverse in equal measure’ clearly likens the plight of Falleni to that of entertainers. Both become the object of a cathartic enthrallment. This, we sense, is what Falleni is really suffering: the public’s desire for scandal, its thirst for sensation, its objectification of the other for entertainment.
Despite their shimmering brilliance, Hindmarsh’s shoes suggest a complex subtext. Perhaps this is a reflection of our unease about bodies and what they mean, a reference to a deeply embedded moral sense that appearance mirrors our true inner self. Or perhaps it is our response to Hindmarsh’s layered works mimicking the system of societal influences and hierarchies we sense undergirds Falleni’s supposed moral culpability.
If Mother Killed Her Wife, Will She Hang? pushes and pulls, challenging and seducing. Conceived by the artists within the framework of an exploration of love and death, Mills & Morte invite us to revisit Falleni’s trial as both precursor to a death sentence and, we sense, the death of much more. Yet in its capacity to draw on our responses to identity, community, the self and other, Hindmarsh and Thorne’s exploration reveals something also of the nature of love – the kind of love within communities shown to strangers captured by the ancient concept of xenia. For within these works is a sense that Falleni’s persecution bears witness also to the persecution of xenia. In this a site of enduring moral contention Falleni’s story commands our attention, today as much as ever.
- Mike Barnard, January 2012
If Mother Killed Her Wife, Will She Hang? is a continuation of the Falleni Series, an examination of the life of the ‘man-woman murderer’, Eugenia Falleni, launched by collaborative artists Mills & Morte, Dominique Hindmarsh and Susannah Thorne, at Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney in January 2010.