Shifting Horizons 2016
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney
In 2012 I had the opportunity to travel to China as part of an Australian artistic exchange. It was a significant trip which added another link to the trajectory of my practice as an artist. My life has been marked by significant journeys. I left my native Israel to study in Vienna, spent a decade living and working in New York, another decade in Sydney, and now I work from my studio in the Upper Hunter Valley. Having grown up in one environment and then migrated to live in several others before ending up in rural Australia, my artworks are informed mainly by encounters with the natural world. Transience and permanence are the poles between which my practice has been suspended. As such my art tends to emphasize the liminal: the state of being between fluidity and solidity, between absence and substance, between order and disorder. Interacting with the landscape has been my way of making sense of a place, and I have come to believe that the natural environment is the single most crucial factor in shaping a given society and its culture.
The artworks I make are maps of memories and experiences, which explore the landscape, with a particular focus on natural processes of growth and degeneration. On that first visit to China, when I stood before the archaeological relics unearthed at the imperial burial grounds in Xi'an, this focus was at the forefront of my mind. I set out to find a way to explore symbolic links across cultures and between ancient and contemporary lives. Subsequently, I made a body of works, consisting of both paintings and three-dimensional objects that were inspired by ancient practices.
Burial sites, memorials and other forms of commemoration are carved out of the environment as markers of human transiency. The artworks are, therefore, a site where the existential tension between human transiency and the perpetuity of the natural environment is played out. Looking at these fragments of an ancient empire protruding out of sandy pits, it was clear that the natural context had been pivotal not only in deciding the location for the emperors’ burial sites but also for the preservation and the wear of the monument. Mountains, forests and rivers that surround the city would have provided an auspicious setting, materials, as well as waterways for ease of transport, while the shifting dunes and drifting sand have added a temporal element to the confluence of forces that have since acted upon the place. Today, in the actual pits, sculptured body parts, animal bones, wagon wheels and other objects are scattered around, emerging from sand, ash and dust. Desert dust is everywhere. It covers the monumental clay army, as well as the mausoleum and the city itself. In fact, the Chinese empire grew out of the loess dust that had blown from the Ordos desert, north of the first capital city, Xi’an. The drifted dust highlights the contrast between the permanence of the imperial monuments and the wandering of those who would have inhabited the region. The rulers immortalised in clay, jade, and bronze, versus the nomads, carrying ideas and goods, who for centuries would have wandered in the arid terrains between Xi’an and the west, leaving only fossilized footprints in the crusted soil.
A desert looms high in my personal and cultural memories. On the one hand, violent campaigns and tribal feuds have been fought over an expanse of the arid terrain in which I was born. On the other hand – a desert is a serene place of meditation and contemplation. In the dusty Chinese burial pits, filled with the remains of an ancient empire, I reflected on my past desert experiences that were crucial to my decision to become an artist, and have shaped my subsequent thinking and the choices I have made. Back in the studio, I set out to make a body of work that will offer a contemplative space in which to reflect, among other things, on wars and its aftermath.
In ancient China, the subject of the landscape was deeply imbued with philosophical and spiritual meaning. Taoist and Buddhist beliefs about the harmonious structure of the universe, and scholarly ideals of a retreat from the chaos of dynastic collapse and the political machinations of the imperial court, each played their part in ensuring the primacy of landscape painting during several Dynasties. It is still important today in China when the subject of landscape sometimes becomes a lament in the face of pollution, environmental destruction and corruption. By combining both traditional Chinese materials and subject matters in a Western context and technique, the artworks draw attention to the global disregard of the environment, and the consequences of human interventions in the landscape.
The overall title – Shifting Horizons - encapsulates many of the ideas and themes that are investigated in this body of work, whose imagery places side by side nature-based elements and ancient Chinese funerary artifacts. It highlights the notion that meaning of objects, including artworks, is unstable; that it shifts over time, in different contexts and according to individual points of view. In addition, the title draws attention to shifting principles that govern different social and cultural practices, with a particular focus on the complexity and diversity of burial rites and methods of disposing of the dead. The meanings of the natural setting of memorials and commemorations have been shifting as well. For example, unlike most western contemporary burial practices, in the past the funeral procession of the dead throughout the landscape was as a significant means of honouring the departed as was the final burial.
In addition to the conceptual framework, the Chinese journeys had inspired me to expand my practice, and employ new materials that have been used by Chinese artists and craft-persons throughout the ages, such as rice-paper and clay. The exhibition’s main component is a sequence of painted rice paper scrolls entitled Cline. This is supplemented by various objects - Repository boxes and an army of clay angels - all of which is an aesthetic response to experiencing the interrelationship between Chinese ancient cultural practices and their environmental context from a Western point of view.
The series, comprising of 34 vertical compositions on delicate rice paper scrolls, juxtaposes screen-printed images of Emperor Qin’s terracotta army, which I had photographed on-site, with painted fragments of nature. Extending over 25 meters long, the scrolls offer the viewer a journey across time and across generic aspects of the landscape - a pictorial journey that unfolds with the march of the terracotta warriors from visibility to invisibility across an unforgiving Nature. The term ‘cline’ possesses both biological and linguistic connotations - it refers to a continuum with numerous gradations from one extreme to the other. The intention is to draw attention to historical continuities, and, in the context of this particular piece, to emphasize the link between the ancient landscapes of China and those of my own experiences in the natural environment. In some of the rice paper scrolls, the presence of natural forces is hinted at, as in the ambiguity presented in scrolls depicting dust, fog and smoke that render the landscape and the ancient relics almost indiscernible. In other instances, panels showing images of the terracotta army are intercepted with painting of distinct parts of the landscape, such as mountains, sand dunes, grasses and forests. There is no attempt to replicate here a particular vista. Rather the painted fragments depict personal remembered experiences in the landscape. The fainted images visible through gaps in the painted sections, allow the imagination to make up what is absent.
When painting I draw on the techniques used by European renaissance artists, which I studied in Vienna. It is a nod to art history and a node on its continuum. The artwork’s surface is an outcome of layering of oil paint and tempera washes, splattering and rhythmic squiggly brushstrokes that are visible traces of labour-intensive painting activity. This is contrasted with the smoothness of the screen-printed photograph; a contrast that provides a space in which to explore the complex relationship between the innate characteristics of these two processes – the artist’s gestural marks and the mechanical reproduction process. As such the artworks steer the viewer towards a multitude of issues ranging from highlighting the difference between the two mediums, to cross-cultural issues and their consequences to the natural environment.
The Repositories series was inspired by a particular chamber, which archaeologists speculate was the headquarters of the terracotta army at Emperor Qin’s burial site. Each of the 9 repositories is shaped to resemble an open book, with a concave-convex dialectic between the two sides of the work. As historical reliquaries, these artworks offer the viewer a space in which to reflect on issues relating to mourning and memory. Their two-sided structure welcomes a dialogue about the customs of burials and commemorations in different cultures and draws attention to shifting principles that govern social and cultural practices.
The texture of each of the repository-boxes was made to look like the packed earth of the chamber’s surface. Nestled within their hollowed side are tiny clay figures and objects. They recall the Han Dynasty sculptural tomb pottery pieces that symbolise items the deceased person would need in the afterlife. Yet, the small clay objects I placed in the sand-filled cavity of each box, draw on burial practices of other cultures, whilst onto the convex side I attached two-dimensional mixed-media artworks depicting images from the Chinese tradition.
During the time of the Han Dynasty, in addition to the emperors who had the privilege to be buried with armies of clay warriors, other high officials would placed performers and protective warriors in their tombs to accompany them to the afterlife. With the development of farming, influential landlords would be buried with scaled-down scenes of life on the farm made out of clay. Inspired by these clay sceneries, I made the ‘still life’ series, which consists of several trays filled with sand in which I arranged an assortment of clay objects.
In Still life: Grove I placed in the sand scores of thinly rolled sheets of blackened clay. The piece recalls ancient scrolls and their function in recording and transmitting information. The arrangement of the clay scrolls in the sand suggests remains of burnt forest in a barren ground and offers a multitude of semaphoric pathways. Mainly it is contemplation on the transference of culture throughout history and on environments that have been devastated by wars and atrocities.
As an analogy to the emperor’s clay army, I made a clay army of angels. Both armies - warriors and angels - evoke a multiplicity of analytical frameworks and connect to issues relating to burial and commemoration, to otherness, to trauma and suffering and to the forces of nature. Hundreds of clay angels, all of which are cast from two distinct moulds, exploit the transformative characteristics of the material and its ability to receive imprints and impressions. The subsequent Saggar firing process burns out the water out and hardens the pliable white raku-clay figure to become an angel of black baked earth. I used the material as a metaphor through which ideas could articulate themselves. Thus, instead of portraying the angels as ephemerally and gently passing through feathery clouds, or breezing through treetops, they are cumbersome warriors impeded by the earthy material of which they are composed. The blackened clay, the fired earth itself evokes notions concerning destruction and regeneration. As such they are an expression of the angst I have carried with me as an Israeli and a Jew, who lost her close relations in the Holocaust.
Most individuals upon hearing the word ‘angel’ think of Christianity and its associated portrayal of angels. Many assume that only Christianity and Judaism believe in such creatures and that, since Jewish law prohibits such representations, mostly Christian artists have portrayed them. However, the idea of the ‘angel’ appears in most cultures and traditions - in classical myth from Japan through the Middle East to the Americas, in shamanic visions, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. Angels are older than the Jewish bible, where they are first encountered by most Western people, and believed to be ‘invented’ by Zarathustra, going back to around 1500 BCE (about 500 years before the belief in the Jewish God). Regardless of the origin of the concept, archaeological and anthropological findings indicate that angels were part of pre-historic belief systems.
Arriving at the idea of an angel to be part of this project has been unexpected. My upbringing, as a secular individual, included neither God’s angels nor the devil’s demons. The angel’s historical narratives have not cast a spell over my imagination, and I have considered angels to be an irrational invention of biblical stories. A certain sentiment in me had resisted this unanticipated engagement with angels. Yet intrigued, I have let this incongruous winged ethereal creature become a propelling vector throughout the research and development of Shifting Horizons. As an agency of the imagination, the angel draws attention to the threshold between visibility and invisibility, between absence and substance, between order and disorder. In addition to effecting shifts between modes of existence, the angel symbolizes the utter ‘otherness’ I found China to be.
The repeated figure of the angel connects to ideas about patterns of repetition in human life. This is also articulated in the cline series. The use of the repetitive process of photography, screen printing of repetitive images of warriors combined with repetitive paint marks and repetition of nature-based motifs creates a movement across the scrolls. In addition, it serves to suspend closure as well as to establish the possibility of recurrence. Both the army of angels and the images of the terracotta army are used to evoke processes that occur in the natural world, as well as to reinforce their actual ‘mechanical’ means of production: the photographic and printing processes and the ‘cloning’ formation of the clay figures out of moulds. These repetitions are an internal rhythm that unravels in a process of the spectator‘s reflection and remembering.
The artworks can be seen as instances of cyclical transformation connected to natural processes of growth and decay. In its particular way, this body of work is an intermixing of symbolic means employed to point out that, in contrast to the surviving fragments of the terracotta army in the burial pits, the natural world is not a dead world and perhaps it is most essential to the survival of human life. Shifting Horizons is guided by the idea that cultural practices exist in relation to the environment and are rooted in a social and historical context. By evoking remains of the dead in the landscape, the artworks highlight the notion that landscapes are infused with mourning and memories and as such have a significant historical dimension. The artworks, inspired by the archaeological finding in the burial grounds of Xi’an, take the viewer on a journey across cultures, across time zones and across a landscape which is oblivious to us and our cultural constructions. By juxtaposing images of Chinese ancient funerary artefacts with aspects of nature, the works emphasise the immeasurable age of the natural world in relation to the temporality of human perspective and offer the spectator a space in which to reflect on instances connected to cyclical natural processes of growth and decay.
Chinese Translation (pdf)
Three Women Went to China: Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti
‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself,
It leads to transformation of dust into pure gold!’ (Rumi)Three Women Went to China. These five words suggest a mythical journey: a crossing of mountains and oceans; the possibility of danger; adversity overcome and the getting of wisdom. It evokes legendary heroines. Pilgrimage. A fable, perhaps, or a metaphor. Alternatively, it’s a bald factual statement. Three women did go to China, together and separately, more than once. And returned, but not unchanged.
Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti are established artists with distinguished exhibition histories. The convergence of three such very different women, one living and working in the Wedderburn region of New South Wales, one in the Upper Hunter Valley, one in Melbourne, may have seemed unlikely except for a serendipitous event. In 2012, each artist showed her work in ‘From Paper’, an exhibition organised by Sydney’s Janet Clayton Gallery in Beijing, and travelled to China as part of an artistic exchange. Each returned to Australia to find that her work had been imprinted by this experience, in ways both subtle and profound, like the red seal stamped on a misty ‘Shan Shui’ ink landscape that showed it had been pored over by a scholar....
Hanna Kay’s life has been marked by significant journeys. She left her native Israel to study in Vienna, spent a decade living and working in New York, another decade in Sydney, and now makes her home in the beautiful landscape of the Upper Hunter. A prolific practitioner, her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and throughout regional Australia. Her work, too, maps memory and experience. An interest in landscape and natural processes of growth and decay are central to her practice.
In China, Kay was more interested in mountain and desert landscapes than the urban centres. Travelling west, to the start of the fabled Silk Road, she became fascinated by Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, and its relics of the Tang Dynasty. She saw the Longmen Grottoes, with their legendary ‘Caves of the Ten Thousand Buddhas’, and travelled to see the vast Labrang Temple Complex in the Tibetan area of Amdo. In Xi’an she was awed by the entombed terracotta army of the first Qin emperor. Visiting museums and mausoleums of the imperial past, she reflected on her own past life in Israel, her experiences as a soldier in the Six-Day War and of the ancient sites of the Middle East. Kay has returned to China several times since to develop her research. Her experiences there have become central to her work, which shifts between her first medium of painting and new, experimental forms of sculpture.
A series of works on fine Chinese rice paper reference traditional scrolls. In ancient China the subject of landscape was deeply imbued with philosophical and spiritual meaning. Taoist and Buddhist beliefs about the harmonious structure of the universe, and scholarly ideals of a retreat from the chaos of dynastic collapse and the political machinations of the imperial court, each played their part in ensuring the primacy of landscape painting during the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties. It is still important today in China, when the subject of landscape sometimes becomes a lament in the face of pollution, environmental destruction and corruption. Kay, too, shares such concerns, in earlier bodies of work that reference the environmental destruction of the Hunter Valley due to mining, and the consequences of climate change and human interventions in the landscape. She has a longstanding interest in diasporic histories, with a major body of work focused on the Jewish cemetery in Maitland. The Chinese references in her recent work add further layers of meaning.
The ‘Cline’ series (2015) consists of long vertical compositions on rice paper. Photographic prints of serried rows of terracotta warriors are juxtaposed with slivers of forest, lonely, spindly limbs and branches emerging out of darkness. The growth of the forest, mist rising between ghostly trees, is contrasted with entombed soldiers, symbols of mortality and the inevitable fall of kingdoms and rulers. Layered with subtle washes of ink and acrylic, they evoke mourning and memory. Yet the term ‘cline’ possesses both a biological and linguistic meaning: it refers to a continuum with an infinite number of gradations from one extreme to the other. Kay sees connections between the ancient landscapes of western China and those of her adopted Australian homeland. In some panels the soldiers emerge from behind tall grasses, as if they have been transposed across time and space to an Australian paddock.
These works are solemn, recalling the experience of entering the archaeological pits in Xi’an and seeing the partially excavated figures of soldiers and horses emerging from the earth, awe-inspiring and melancholy. Like Chinese paper itself, they are at once fragile and strong. Kay says her work is focused on the liminal: ‘Between liquidity and solidity, between absence and substance, between deserts and forests, caves, rocks and remnants of rocks, between dust, mist and smoke.’ Order and disorder, past and present, transience and permanence are the poles between which her practice is suspended. Kay’s work is a dialogue between cultures, and between states of being.
A series of three-dimensional works refers to Kay’s interest in Chinese burial practices, and the materials used by the craftsmen who made the terracotta inhabitants of the vast imperial tombs. Her ‘Repository Boxes’ are like reliquaries; tiny clay figures of animals and male and female angels are nestled within their hollowed forms, the artist’s response to the tomb guardian figures of ancient China. They recall the Han Dynasty tomb artefacts –terracotta houses, temples and farms that contain tiny human figures, horses, oxen and pigs. Angels appear in many religious traditions, and in secular iconography as well. Kay plans to make one thousand of these simple ceramic forms. They are guardians of souls, intermediaries between one world and the next...
Apart from their recent experiences of the Middle Kingdom, there is another significant connection between the work of the three artists. For each, the materiality of their work is central to their practice. Immersed in painterly traditions, yet re-inventing them, working with tempera, acrylic, oil and fresco, their works are imbued with a haunting sense of the passage of time. Each is dealing with memory and loss: the memories of personally transformative journeys, things witnessed and people encountered all too fleetingly. In the fast-paced contemporary world it is well to grasp at semblances of the permanent – human connections around a dinner table, journeys over mountains, or through forests – even though we sense that these things too are ephemeral, and will pass just as surely as the Qin Emperor and his army of clay soldiers, buried under the earth for thousands of years.
Sydney, April 2016