Sara Givins, In Search of Percival Redwood, 2010. Vinyl, pine ply wood, light. Dimensions variable. Photograph by Joy Lai
Those words are from the confessions of Amy Bock, a con-woman known as ‘The Masquerader.’ Bock committed numerous petty thefts and frauds in New Zealand in the early 20th Century. Her crimes included disguising herself as a man, whom she named Percival Redwood, and marrying an unwitting heiress. It’s a story of multiple deceptions of identity, gender and sexuality. And it straddles the contested boundaries of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography with which contemporary culture is currently preoccupied.
However fascinating the subject, Sara Givins isn’t trying to tell us the tale of Amy Bock’s misadventures or the way her unstable self prefigured postmodern treatments of identity. Givins’ target is the slippages of communication that the story demonstrates, the misrepresentations, ambiguities and misunderstandings, and the claims of language to tell us much of anything we can hold onto.
Givins’ installation In Search of Percival Redwood (2010) takes Bock’s confession and treats it like a found object. She has enlarged, mutated and abstracted the text, rendering it illegible. Brightly coloured opaque vinyl is applied to the window that makes up the front and side of Firsftdraft Gallery. It is a veiling device that entices and prevents clear vision. The pattern is made up of cut-away letter shapes stretching out from a series of vanishing points like hyped up cartoon graphics. Inside the gallery, a sculptural form is echoed and repeated four times in different sizes and permutations. Reminiscent of kit homes and of magicians’ boxes, they are constructed from mirrored triangles of marine ply, masked with the same adhesive vinyl from which more of Givins’ distorted font has been sliced. Givins has deliberately not used a code or a system to generate her hieroglyphs. Each letter has been individually morphed and sweetly cut out by hand. The resulting characters are reflected onto the floor and walls of the room. Some appear almost familiar, like skewed gender symbols, arrows or punctuation marks. But they can only hint and allude to meaning. And the projection of shadows reconfigures with each slight shift of natural light.
Givins suggests that language warps through context, reflection and memory into abstraction. That as soon as we have read, or heard or spoken words, they start to disintegrate and reform as abstracted impressions. And this is what Givins makes material in this installation, with the changes of scale, the mirrored surfaces and the flickering play of light.
Amy Bock’s words have been reconstituted as a delirious, sensory experience. The audience is enclosed by the text, their image captured in mirrors and reflected back as ciphers. Givins’ use of kaleidoscopic colour startles, and then disarms. The work implies that language is a space we inhabit with our bodies, and that it is one of pleasurable disarray.
Givins’ ongoing influences are as much from the worlds of literature, from concrete poetry and storytelling, as they are from the immersive installations of visual arts. Edibleland (2005) at The Physics Room consisted of adhesive vinyl silhouettes and text that spread out over the walls and the ceiling, a fictitious creation narrative of the founding of the Canterbury region of New Zealand. This work also made merry with colour and playfulness. The graphics and the text had the appearance of a child’s fairytale but the rampant desire depicted inferred that Givins’ seduction of the viewer was intended to disturb. In her own version of a confidence game, she misled her audience for their own good, so that they might not be fooled again.
Another of Givins’ works, Swarm 11:9 (2007), was based on the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, in which God punished humanity by creating multiple languages and nations, thus removing people’s ability to understand one other. Givins did not use text to represent this cataclysmic loss of comprehension. The installation took the unsettling form of 119 wooden cutouts of insects in massed flight around the gallery walls. These earlier artworks point to Givins’ ongoing interest in the function of language in myth making and grand operatic narratives. It’s the promise of language and its failures that inform her visual practice.
In all of Givins’ work, language mutates between its potential to disclose and to withhold. In Search of Percival Redwood makes use of both tendencies. Masking the window of the gallery has created peepholes for passers-by. The indecipherable text that reverberates through the gallery is a slow disrobing, teasing the audience and distracting them from the quest. Percival Redwood is an illusion of language. Strip back the veils and there is nothing left to see.
What Givins’ search results in is the suggestion that what is lost or hidden in attempts to communicate is as tangible as what remains.
Firstdraft Gallery, 2010
 http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=OW19090728.2.336&l=mi&e=-------10--1----0-all (Accessed May 01, 2010
 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/trials-notable/12 (Accessed May 01, 2010)