Shifting Horizons 2016
The artworks in this exhibition were inspired by several trips to China I’ve made since 2012. The most significant experiences that influenced me were encounters with clay relics in various imperial burial pits (such as in Xian). In addition to being moved by these ancient cultural practices, I was also impressed by the techniques and use of materials by both traditional and contemporary artists. Consequently I have embarked on a body of work, both two and three dimensional, that engages with a cross cultural dialogue using materials which are new to my practice.
In a series of painted rice paper scrolls, I juxtapose digital images I took in the burial pits with elements of the landscape. Having grown up in one environment and then migrated to live in several others before ending up in rural Australia, my artworks are mostly inspired by my encounters with the natural world. Much of my artworks have been exploring our relationship with the landscape, believing that the landscape is an essential element in the formation of a culture’s distinctiveness. Looking at the terracotta warriors and their horses emerging out of trenches filled with sand, ashes, and fragments of yet to be restored warriors, it was clear that the natural context had been pivotal not only in deciding the location for an emperors’ burial site, but on the preservation and wear of the monument. Mountains, forests and rivers that surround the city would have provided an auspicious setting as well as materials (clay and wood), and ease of transport. The shifting dunes of the deserts have added a temporal element to the confluence of forces that have since acted upon the place.
As a direct result of my experiences in china, I have turned to making three dimensional works, in particular exploring working with clay. In response to the emperor’s clay army I am making a clay army of angels. The terracotta warriors had been placed around the emperors’ tombs in order to protect his soul from calamities that might befall them both, on earth and in the afterlife. Thus, like angels, they exist in between worlds. The angels have become a metaphor for some spiritual and secular elements in our contemporary societies. Furthermore, they act as messengers of communications, and some believe they are in control of the natural forces.
In response to the burial pits themselves I made the “repositories”: 3D objects shaped like an open book. In making the repositories I have drawn on the idea of the concave and the convex to create a place of a historical repository and contemplation. It is a structure that welcomes a dialogue between the two sides of the piece, engaging with different practices relating to burial and commemorations.
This body of work is a nexus of the immeasurable age of the natural world, and reflection on the fragility and transience of human perception on which that experience is dependent.
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