|For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in a stream of stars – pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across the eternal seas of space and time. – Henry Beston(1)
Gazing into the night sky is one of man's most enduring means of contemplating the sublime nature of existence. The vision of a field of stars appears not only timeless; it inspires and affirms the true order of reality, placing the decidedly worldly in true proportion with the sheer scale of what is beyond.
Even with the important advances in observational astronomy, from the Galilean view of the solar system to the Hubble telescope's ability to peer back to the early moments after the Big Bang, we are nonetheless at a loss to explain how and why the universe exists. A limitless horizon lies ahead – one that continues to offer artists and thinkers an infinite wealth of new inspiration and inquiry.
The contemplation of time and space creates a sort of liminal state of awareness. Being capable of both abstract and literal interpretations, the seemingly certain ideas they carry are also capable of bending or distorting. Depending on the ideological, creative and philosophical beliefs to which one is open, black holes and metaphysical loops abound. In some Eastern and Indigenous cultures these dimensions can be interpreted as operating in a temporal or sacred cycle, while in Western theory they are most often understood to move in concurrent and straight lines. In both instances however, these two dimensions are intimately linked in a fabric of relative space-time.
Encounters with the concept of time can be portrayed through the explicit, such as the movement of hands on a clock face or the passage of the sun through the sky. If our examination of time is intended to explore ideas such as the sublime, our inner lives, our means of ‘weaving together complex threads of highly elusive experiencing, remembering and anticipating’(2), time then becomes an archive of the retrospective relic and a catchment for the remains of a moment.
Notions of space are capable of traversing a variety of realms. Expressed through its relationship to the body or the lived environment around it, space can be understood, felt and logically located with the relative surety of reality. Within the plane of a two dimensional image, space becomes an abstracted concept in which a sense of depth, perspective or distance is achieved through the use of illusion. Warping the pictorial implications of space enables artists to enhance the dynamic of an idea by offering multiple perspectives of an experience. In essence such images are ‘not concerned with the way the artist sees the world but with the sensations’(3)associated with the act of looking.
Notions of past, present, and future, the seasonal cycles, metaphysical questions of existence, the ability to recall memories and to understand our physical sense of ‘being’ all operate within the perceptual fields of time and space. While the artists in each exhibition explore these notions in a highly individualistic manner, together their works represent the unlimited potential of such an enquiry.
The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future. – Hermann Hesse (4)
Our comprehension of time occurs in a slippage somewhere between the present and passing moment. Always moving forward, time perhaps is best felt when we are at our most still, when the moment is allowed to unfold in slow, palpable units before us. The opportunity to witness a momentary event with clarity, to observe and hold onto something of its essence, be that the changing quality of light or the fleeting movement of a cloud, is an almost sublime encounter. It is within this flow of duration and change that the truly ambiguous nature of time reveals itself. The intersection of the event and its recollection constitutes the seed of artistic enquiry.
The artist is capable of manipulating these temporal structures. By slowing down or speeding up the trajectory of time the moment can be viewed in a state of suspension or reverberation. From the utter stillness of Vermeer's domestic scenes to the haunting pre-dawn activities in Georgio Di Chirico enigmatic landscapes, painters have a unique ability to manipulate the scenes they depict. The urban landscapes of William Breen reveal such a confidence, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Having deliberately removed any trace of human life, traffic or debris from his scenes, Breen transforms the normally bustling streets of inner city Melbourne into dreamlike landscapes of uncanny quiet. Captured in what appears to be the near horizontal light of early morning, these uninhabited built environments take on an immobile quality. Breen succeeds in halting the moment, freeing it from the urgencies and anxieties of the everyday.
In contrast to Breen’s suspension Callum Arnold presents a series of manifold images to explore the memory of a moment in time. Often formed through a composite of mental and photographic images – what is felt and what is documented – the lasting impression of an experience is never static. Arnold makes this convergent cognition explicit in his multi layered landscapes. Separate visions coalesce in a single scene, overlaid in a time sequence that appears more cinematic than painterly. The experience of looking becomes blurred, less concrete and more ephemeral. The fragmented memory of a moment repeats, hovers, and stretches within a single picture plane.
Within a vast field of sea and sky, split by a shimmering divisional line, the changing tones of daylight form the basis of Ken Smith's painting practice. Interested in the transient nature of light, Smith's canvases carefully document the subtle variations of tone and colour that unfold through the course of a day. As soft blues gradually slip to grey, these minimal landscapes demonstrate an acute awareness of the subjective condition of perception, and the relentless certainty of change. Often returning to the same site, Smith's paintings, when viewed as a series, offer a diaristic account of unfolding time and demonstrate how ‘colours can be used pictorially to evoke such encounters’.(5)
Observations of light and the passage of time also play out in the work of Naomi White. Focusing on the quality of shadows from morning to late afternoon, White depicts rambling driveways, garden sheds and the kerbsides of suburbia to gauge the fleeting effects of light on the day. In many of these works the bleaching effect of summer plays off against the cool dark shade offered by trees and awnings. Dappled shadows intersect with the hyper-real rendering of tree trunks, pebbles and leaf litter. What at first appears to be the representation of a spontaneous, almost inconsequential lived moment, a simple observation on the way to the letterbox perhaps, begins to harbour a more intentional purpose. A poetry of the everyday unfolds; crisp and alert in a passing moment.
Since the early 18th century explorers and artists have earnestly attempted to annotate momentary encounters with the sublime – the sensation of awe and humility that commonly arises when the individual is faced with the grandeur of nature. Caroline Rannersberger's practice seeks to explore the transformative power of such direct engagements with nature. Working in the rugged landscapes of the Northern Territory and Tasmania, she states that her practice is not so much about recording a moment in time as being completely in that moment, of painting the unfolding event of ‘being’ as it happens. Combining subtle gradations of earth with ethereal motifs of wind and sky Rannersberger fuses the self within the landscape to capture ‘the very element of a passage of life’.(6)
Objects of antiquity are also capable of conjuring up a sense of the sublime. Imbued with the residue of past achievements the artefact operates like a kind of time travelling device. Having collected the dust of centuries they become a vehicle by which to come closer to an epic experience of human endeavour. The installations and paintings of Peter James Smith exploit such readings by transforming the antique object into something once again living. Standing in the stream of time, his practice releases a ‘meridian line back to the enlightenment’(7) and deliberately reels objects into the contemporary moment. By subtly altering the surface or context of these found objects Smith distils the past with a new visual language and cultural meaning, rendering the present as potent as the past.
With a similar antiquarian concern Christine Willcocks invokes the work of the curator within her practice. Calling on museological methods of collecting, her objects and installations assume the guise of the historical and replicate the archiving techniques of natural history. Her sculptural forms sit beside found objects and annotated drawings. Together they serve to create a fictitious collection of fossilised finds. While they hold the physical appearance of the aged and worn, their true meaning as a collection remains elusive. To encounter her cabinets of curiosity is to critique the very nature of preservation, to question what makes some things meaningful and therefore of value, and others not. Subverting of the notion of preciousness allows the slightest and most decayed of objects to become a coveted memento, embedded with significant personal meaning.
The enduring and sacred traditions of Australia's Aboriginal culture are ancient. Unlike Western notions of time, in which the desire for change and progress are driving motivations, Aboriginal artists find the logic of their practice in a grounded ability to place the self within a continuous story deeply linked to past ancestral customs and beliefs. Charged with the task of preserving oral and visual storytelling, the work of artists Judy Watson Napangardi and Alma Nungurrayi Granites both speak of the importance of timelessness. Granites' paintings depict the creation story associated with the Seven Sisters Dreaming. Within these stories the movement of the Pleiades star system serves as a link to the creation stories of the Warlpiri women. Watson's complex and brightly coloured works depict the Napangardi and Napanangka women's creation story of digging sticks and the subsequent dreaming into being of her ancestral lands. For both women their visual practice directly links them to the lives of those who have gone before them.
Formerly the painter depicted objects which were to be seen on earth. Now the real nature of visible things is revealed in terms of the universe, what is visible is but a fragment of the whole. – Paul Klee (8)
Paul Klee's commitment to abstract paintings demonstrates the desire of early 20th century artists to visually express their emotional rather than literal responses to the world around them. Line, colour and form became an abbreviated, symbolic language through which ‘the rhythm of a man's walk, breath, heartbeat...the cosmic rhythms of day and night, of year succeeding year, of the moon in relation to the earth’(9)could now be implied.
The impulse to represent the metaphysical possibilities of an environment, beyond the fixed or neatly understood, led French born artist Christophe Stibio to immerse himself in the vast and silent landscapes of the Australian desert. Through a painstaking process the artist pieces together small torn and cut sections of paper to map out a new topography of space, laced with personal longing. The resulting abstract forms and colours suggest a distorted, distant realm that shimmers with endless, complex spatial problems. As memories become embedded within the fragmented shadows of colour, geographic truth collapses. The landscape becomes one of the mind rather than any physical reality.
Collapsing, expanding and fragmenting a given site to affect a set of physical responses in the viewer has been exploited by artists since the invention of perspective. Creating unstable visual grounds forces a rupture between the known and the assumed. The illusionistic quality of much of Richard Blackwell's work ‘activates the mind to consider the transformation of the object from the physical to the virtual and back again.’(10)Responding to architectonic forms and urban design principles Blackwell combines the disciplines of drawing and sculpture to suggest warped perspectives, complex vanishing points and linear convergences found within the built environment. Line is used to maximum effect, suggestively bending and folding spatial perspective in much the same way as the impossible designs of M. C. Escher. Oscillating between the physical and the represented, Blackwell's virtual spaces exploit notions of accessible and impenetrable space, creating a kind of playful optical banter with the viewer.
Also working with the quality of line to suggest illusionary depth, Agneta Ekholm’s seductive paint surfaces operate in the margins between tactile fact and immaterial possibilities. The trace of the artist’s hand, moving in slow and fluid order, lays down translucent ribbons of colour. As the luminosity of individual colours shift and slide against one another, light and dark begin to create new, internal space within the canvas. Like looking through the frozen sheet of an icy river, movement within gently carves its own trajectory out of the stillness.
Central to Charlie Sheard's dynamic abstract works is the tactile reality of paint itself. The spaces depicted are those of the canvas, the physical impact of materials on that surface and the relationship between the body and the pictorial frame. These works allow paint to move under the force of gravity, to drip and pool in response to the tilt of the canvas, or in keeping with the dynamic motion of the hand. Layers dry at different rates and colours seep within a maelstrom of paint and canvas. Representing a desire to activate and experiment with the sensation of movement and colour, these works are also maps of the mind, each element reflecting the thoughts and emotions of the artist, be they outbursts of excitement or the explosion of new thought.
The space between image and object is blurred in the sculptural paintings of Terri Brooks. In many ways a flâneur, Brooks absorbs the physical qualities of the built environment, delighting in the accidental textures and material surfaces of concrete, building materials or bitumen roads. She is not a landscape painter, but works to reflect the truth and beauty of the utilitarian surfaces around her. Her canvases offer a sort of spatial dislocation or inverse trompe-l'œil of reality, as isolated sections of the everyday are reborn within the gallery setting. Like the ruins of antiquity her remnants are ‘palpable, not pictorial…their presence shifts with vitality and springs forth into awareness’.(11) As replicas of the factual world, in all its decay and innate ordinariness, these paintings subvert the idiom of preciousness and make the certain uncertain.
A lived, momentary experience of space is articulated in Dion Horstmans' highly strategic sculptures. Fascinated with delineations of open space and implied movement, these works operate on both physical and implied levels. Stretching out to cover multiple points in space, their iron frameworks elicit ideas of architectural elevations, flight trajectories and the temporal pull of line and distance. From the implied movement housed within the static form comes a secondary dimension, as light plays amongst the armatures and voids. Imbued with a sense of freedom and action the resulting shadows shift ideas of projection into action. Tinged with a futurist aesthetic these minimalist sculptures playfully bring the dimensions of time and space into unison. Working with the fall of light to produce a kinetic reflexivity, Horstmans’ sculptures recall the style and function of a sundial. Time and space at last operating within one form.
Sitting partway between the definitive and the meditative, Jo Davenport's practice depicts both the physical truth of a landscape and the suggestive, subjective experience such spaces can evoke. A sense of immediacy drives the fluid and gestural quality of her mark making. As natural forms morph with a painterly, almost expressionistic concern for colour and composition, her drips and spills translate the observed qualities of rivers in flow, the sway of foliage in wind and the changing colours of light. Space and the experience of it becomes a multi-layered, translucent experience, devoid of definitive boundaries.
1 Beston, H., The Outermost House, 1928
2 Rawson P., 'Cyclic Time and the Proximity of the Past', Art and Time, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005
3 Gombrich E., 'Mirror and Map: Theories of Pictorial Representation', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, March 1975, p.122
4 Hesse, H., Siddhartha, 1922
5 Smith, K., The enigma of the offing: the representation of light and colour in sea and sky, Monash University, 2011
6 Zourabichvili F., in Patton, P., ed. Deleuze: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell,1996, p.196
7 Smith, P. J., 'Rediscovering lines of longitude', Visual Animals, (ed. I North), Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2007
8 Klee, P., Creative Credo [Schöpferische Konfession], 1920
9 Haftmann W., The Mind and Work of Paul Klee, Faber and Faber, 1967, p.92
10 Walter, T., 'Richard Blackwell', Australian Art Review, Sept 2011, p.52
11 Ginsberg, R., The Aesthetics of Ruins, Rodopi Amsterdam, 2004, p.158