April fools: The two Franks misfire

Justine Giles 2016 April fools The two franks misfire

Justine Giles, 2016. April fools: The two Franks misfire [watercolour, ink & graphite on paper, 297 x 420mm]

On the  first day of April 1987 NZ Post became a State owned enterprise rather than a government department.  My primary school class wrote letters to be sent on the first day of NZ post, and this is the one I received from my teacher (who was also my Aunty). The anomaly with this letter is that there is no 34 Bowman Road, it was sent to the wrong place (with no return address) but somehow got to me anyway.  As a result it bears two postmarks (or franks) one 1 April 1987 and the other 3 April 1987.  It may have been strangely prophetic as the next house I lived in was a number 34.

Frank means direct or straightforward, it is also the name for the postmark that includes the date and ensures postage.

I have an uncle called Frank.

Cockatoo Island: Embassy of the Real

Last week Mary and I travelled to the Sydney Biennale for the Vernissage where we spent three days exploring the art. The title of the 2016 Sydney Biennale is The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, the works exhibited are divided into seven embassies of thought:

  • Embassy of the Real – Cockatoo Island
  • Embassy of Translation – Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
  • Embassy of Spirits – Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • Embassy of Non-Participation – Artspace
  • Embassy of Transition – Mortuary Station
  • Embassy of Stanislaw Lem – Mobile book stall
  • Embassy of Disappearance – Carriageworks

 

This post focusses on the Embassy of the Real.

Housed on historical Cockatoo Island, the Embassy of the Real is concerned with the body, physicality, space, and oddly a bit of the psychological. There is a sense of balancing the tangible outer world with the less solid realities of the mind.

William Forsythe, 2013. Nowhere and everywhere at the same time, no. 2. [Automated pendulums].

William Forsythe’s work consists of a long room strung with numerous pendulums that move on automated tracks, so that they are perpetually swinging. The viewer becomes part of the work by negotiating the space.  In order to avoid being hit by a pendulum, the viewer must move in and out, conscious of their steps, the pauses, and at the mercy of the prescribed (and automated) rhythm. Artist and choreographer Forsythe draws attention to our understanding of our own bodies, without music, he turns us into dancers.

This work left an enormous impression on me.  Art work that can “do” something to the audience is very powerful. Despite my art education, I have to admit that I am usually resistant to art that wants me to participate in a physical way: I am a thinker, and I like to approach things in my own time and on my own terms… that and I’m pretty awkward. I cannot explain what magic Forsythe wove here, but I could have played in this room for hours. This artwork made me reassess my body not just as a vehicle to move my brain around, but as a presence in the world, a physical manifestation with sophisticated perambulatory ability (although in fairness I was hit by a pendulum once).

Bharti Kher, 2013-15, Six women [Plaster of paris, wood metal, 123 x 61 x 95.5cm each] 

Exploring the body in a different way is Bharti Kher who presents six naked women sitting on wooden stools.  The women are cast in plaster from real-life models, the detail so convincing, it is almost as though they are living participants that could at any moment shift on their stool, raise a hand, or open their eyes.

The women portrayed are New Delhi prostitutes, and for me they question ideas of vulnerability: “Critically, the vulnerability of the women stems only in part from their nakedness; Kher’s sitters were sex workers, paid by the artist to sit for her, in a self conscious transaction of money and bodily experience” (Biennale of Sydney, 2016, p. 53).

There is a certain vulnerability in nakedness certainly, but I was also struck by the apparent age of some of the subjects: wrinkles, slouched shoulders, a certain birdlike fragility… and yet, these women have an undeniably strong presence in the room. Perhaps because they are not alone, they command the space. The more time I spent with them the more powerful they seemed, their stillness, their identical positions heightened their individuality. I stopped noticing their humble stools, and the raised platforms they sat on began to suggest to me majesty.

Chiharu Shiota, 2009/2016. Flowing water [beds, black thread].

The psychological was certainly at play in the work of Chiharu Shiota.  Installed in one of the island’s barracks Shiota draws her audience into a psychological dream space. The work consists of institutional metal framed beds leaned up against the walls behind a web of black threads that repeatedly criss-cross the space.

When we encountered this installation it had stopped raining outside, and we entered through a doorway that was still dripping run-off from the eaves. Going inside was like entering a different state of wakefulness, somewhere between the dreams and the daylight.  The thick web that enmeshed the walls and lowered the ceiling also seemed to create the illusion of mist, despite the bright light and sunny skies that had appeared outside. The threads were suggestive of something organic, a web, a nest, a network of connective tissue (the microscopic made massive). The beds connected this to the unconscious, or semi conscious, and was suggestive not only of the moments between dreaming and waking (or waking and falling asleep) but also suggested sickness, hospitals or institutions, entrapment.

Emma McNally, 2014-16. Choral field 1 – 12 [graphite on paper, 215 x 304cm]

I suspect people who draw are often drawn to (haha) other people who draw. Emma McNally’s impressive giant drawings absolutely captivated me.  The works are installed on large wooden supports, and are placed facing in different directions, the audience approaches the work across a zigzag boardwalk on the floor.

The works themselves are incredibly complex charts mapping unknown (imaginary?) territories.  They vary from intricate and precise to expressive and smudgy, suggesting a complex battle between chaos and order.

  

Hunter dreamer stranger thief

Exhibition opens at the Depot Artspace gallery in Devonport.

February 6 – 24.


Themes of space and time, the ghostly, the dreamlike and the poetic criss-cross throughout Hunter Dreamer Stranger Thief and create parallel lines of investigation. The works of Anderson, Claxton, Giles and Mickell encompass a range of mediums including photography, installation, and drawing. Each artist follows a different trajectory, yet common elements have created a web of interconnectedness between their art practices.

The words Hunter Dreamer Stranger Thief roll off the tongue like an incantation, or a chant to accompany a schoolyard game evoking predictions of the future. The archetypes seem distinct: the Hunter is searching for something, the Dreamer explores fantasy, the Stranger is the outsider looking in, and the Thief takes while no-one notices. Though each archetype carries its own connotations, they all emanate a contradictory aura of both the poetic and the everyday. Looking closer, each of the characters relies upon the traits of the others: the Stranger benefits from the Dreamer’s optimism, the Thief requires the Hunter’s prowess, we are never just the one thing.

Nothing gold can stay: An essay on the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone

 

This text was written for Mary MacGregor-Reid‘s MFA catalogue Albedo. The catalogue accompanies her 2016 MFA Graduation exhibition at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design.

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

To the elements of earth, air, fire and water, Aristotle proposed a fifth element ‘aether’ or ‘quintessence,’ a heavenly substance that made up the celestial bodies and permeated all things. It was a key concept in the belief of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. Quintessence was a notion that paved the way for the possibility that nature could be separated into component parts, and in turn that there was something original and pure at the heart of everything.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) is credited as being the first western scientist, but he lived at a time when philosophy ruled and mysticism was prevalent, and often the boundaries between these disciplines were indistinguishable. Scientists, philosophers, mystics and alchemists found commonality in their curiosity in learning about the world, the cosmos, and the elements of their make up. At the intersection of early science and mysticism sits the Philosopher’s Stone.

There are a number of interpretations of what the Philosopher’s Stone is and none of them are particularly clear. Researchers are left to conclude that it could be interpreted as a literal object, such as a magical talisman; or a secret recipe, such as a theoretical formula. Whatever the nature of the ‘stone’ itself, its purpose was, essentially, purification and this was apparently twofold: the stone was supposed to have the ability to turn base metals into gold, and to grant immortality, interpreted as the purification and restoration of the body, or eternal youth.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

 Life was beautiful but fleeting; disease and death always just around the corner. Seekers of the Philosopher’s Stone hoped to unlock the mystery of prolonging life. Modern science has a corresponding objective in the study of medicine, used to diagnose, prevent and treat sickness, the outcome of which is higher life expectancy.

In 1972, in the Hunan Province of China, a 2,000 year old coffin was excavated that contained the perfectly preserved body of a woman: “its condition was that of a person who had died only a week before… The colour of the femoral artery was like that of a newly dead person” (Marshall, 2001, p. 3). The condition of the body meant that it was possible to perform an autopsy, and it was observed that the skin was still supple, the internal organs still moist. This was the body of Xin Zhui (also known as Lady Dai or Lady Tai). The scientists involved in her discovery could not explain how this incredible preservation had occurred, however it was noted that her mouth contained a jade amulet and there was a brownish liquid containing mercuric sulphide in the innermost of her three airtight coffins.

The Chinese believed in an equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone the ‘pill of immortality’ that would allow a person to leave their body and live as an immortal in the afterlife. A sign of its success was to leave behind a body that did not corrupt or decay, a body that could just be sleeping (Marshall, 2001, p. 4). Could preservation in death be seen as equivalent to prolonging life or afterlife?

Readers of fairy tales will be familiar with the idea that no magic spell or talisman works literally in the way that it is expected to. Their promises are trickier than that, keeping an essence of the intention while deftly sidestepping expectation. Immortality here is representational, difficult to verify, and yet mysteriously implied. The search for the perfection of eternal youth is paradoxically an acknowledgement (and rejection) of the fleetingness of life.

 

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

Science at its very beginning was intertwined with magic: “The magician, probing nature’s secrets, served as the template for the scientist.” Gleick, 2003, p. 104). Alchemists would conjure and discover in equal measures.

The alchemists believed in the interconnectedness of life. Everything was related to everything else in some small way:

Matter differed externally only through varying combinations of the four      elements: earth, water, air and fire. Therefore, by alchemically   manipulating those elements, any kind of matter could be transmuted into another. The conjunction of all elements would produce the philosopher’s stone. (Parry, 2011, p. 9)

Accordingly, all metals were related to all other metals. By this reasoning, if one could only discover the method, the transmutation of base metals into gold must certainly be possible.

John Dee (1527 – 1608) was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. They lived in an era where belief in angels and demons was universal, and magic was indistinguishable from science. Elizabeth’s position on the throne was a precarious one in the wake of the reign of her Catholic sister Mary, but had been predicted by Dee through astrology. Elizabeth encouraged Dee’s research, particularly his investigation into the Philosopher’s Stone, as the prolonged life and riches it promised would surely secure her station.

Dee amassed a great library of 4,000 books, and through his research came to believe in a hierarchy of metals with lead at one end, and gold at the other extremity. These metals could be understood as varying combinations of mercury (quicksilver) or sulphur (brimstone). “The elixir would rebalance those principles to purify imperfect metals into gold, remedying Nature’s defects through a process imitating its own creative force” (Parry, 2011, p. 43). Dee’s studies found no conflict between the scientific enquiry of maths and astronomy and the more esoteric investigation into the angelic language of creation, which he believed would bring unity to human kind.

Similarly, Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) followed both rational and arcane lines of thinking. Newton is better known for his work in the areas of mathematics, physics, calculus and optics, but he was also a keen alchemist: “… alchemy offered Newton, an earnest and devout seeker of truth, a comprehensive philosophy of nature and a unified theory of the universe” (Marshall, 2001, p. 402). Alchemy allowed for religion and science to go hand in hand, it was expected that an investigation into nature would uncover traces of God.

To the modern mind these subjects may seem more difficult to reconcile, but to the alchemists, it was clear. What propelled their education was not so much a search for a solid and singular answer, but a passion for life in all its seething glory “To alchemists nature was alive with process. Matter was active, not passive; vital, not inert” (Gleick, 2003, p. 101), life contained movement, and all nature contained life.

The fatal flaw in the theory of the Philosopher’s Stone was that its two proposed outcomes were both regressive or backwardly inclined: attempts to either create gold or discover eternal youth are, at heart, attempts to reverse the order of nature. Both products require a return to something that is already gone, something that cannot be gained by building, only by stripping away. Gold is not a composite. It can be a component of a composite, but cannot be created where it did not exist to begin with. Similarly, eternal youth requires the regaining of a type of purity lost to age.

These dual quests required distillation rather than creation, a metaphorical return to Eden.

 

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

What doesn’t make sense is that seekers of the Philosopher’s Stone held up gold as the epitome of perfection, and yet expected that it was possible to make it out of baser things. Likewise it could be seen as nonsensical to expect to reach enlightenment with only a base human to work with. How could enlightenment be linked to youth when wisdom comes with age?

The ambiguity surrounding the nature of the Stone itself suggests that actually the Stone was of far greater value than the gold it purported to create: after all gold was already known, the Philosopher’s Stone was a mystery. No one knows for sure if the Stone was meant to be a magical amulet or a glorified recipe, and maybe that was because it was neither. Perhaps the Philosopher’s Stone was a symbolic quest, an allegory, intangible and mysterious because it truly only represented the accumulation of wisdom. Perfection is knowledge.

Where science and mysticism diverge is while scientists ultimately must prove or disprove their hypotheses; mystics find greater value in the thought and the search beyond the desire to finitely explain outcomes: Curiosity without cynicism.

On a sheet of paper Newton wrote: “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you” (Newton as cited in Gluick, 2003, p. 190).

The great irony is, of course, that if the Philosopher’s Stone is a metaphor, then these alchemists, scientists, obtained it without even knowing: gaining and contributing knowledge (gold) and becoming renowned (immortal) in the process.

 

 

 

Poem: Robert Frost (1923) Nothing gold can stay.

Vignette

It’s raining inside. The date is the eighth of January 2016. Summer. I’m standing at the kitchen bench, and the front door is open in a futile attempt by my flatmate to dissipate the humidity. He’s sitting at the table, at his laptop, his back to the door, telling me an anecdote about Hunter S. Thompson (one day I’ll get around to reading his work). It’s about midday and I’m dressed but my hair is uncombed; parts sticks up around my head in awkward curls, other parts form odd flattened patches. Dazed. Disembodied. I’m recovering from strep throat; in fact my entire experience of 2016 is of being sick. I’ve missed my sister’s birthday. I watch in the grey light as raindrops plop into the puddle growing by the front door; it is the brightest spot in the room. I drink my tea and think about this as a scene from a book. It would make a great opening line: It’s raining inside.

Rebecca Solnit: Men explain Lolita to me.

Photographs and essays and novels and the rest can change your life; they are dangerous. Art shapes the world. I know many people who found a book that determined what they would do with their life or saved their life. Books aren’t life preservers; there are more complex, less urgent reasons to read them, including pleasure, and pleasure matters.

Solnit, 2015.

Men explain Lolita to me

80 books no woman should read

Are you my motherland?

Are you my motherland? Or the myth of nationality from the diary of an antipodean interloper.

2015 Cabinet exhibition Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design.

PART ONE: Foyer cabinet

Justine Giles, 2015, If you lived in this box     Justine Giles, 2015, If you lived in this box(detail)

Justine Giles, 2015. If you lived in this box you’d be home now [cardboard, marker pen, stick]

 

PART TWO: Library cabinet

Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind2 Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind3

Justine Giles, 2015. The things we (never) leave behind [Nana’s embroidered table runner, sprouting potatoes, dimensions variable].

 

Are you my motherland? Or the myth of nationality from the diary of an antipodean interloper.

Nationality, unlike race or culture, is arbitrary.

Parliamentary debates about changing the New Zealand flag, as well as the issue of extending New Zealand’s quota in response to the refugee crisis, have brought issues around nationality to the foreground in recent months.

What constitutes nationality? Is it a birth certificate? A passport? Citizenship? Having a family history in a particular place? In a country formed through migration, we all have stories from other places that have helped construct our identities.

If nationality is based primarily on happenstance, distilling our diversity into a cohesive symbolic identity is problematic; we don’t all fit into the same box.

And if nationality is so tenuous, how can we make decisions on who does or does not belong?