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Tau Blau Blue Dew

6 Mar

The text below is reproduced from a catalogue essay I wrote for Barbara Beisinghoff’s latest artist book Tau blau Dew blue which will be shown in Bad Arolsen, Germany in the coming months as part of what is perhaps the largest exhibition of her collected works to date.

Barbara Beisinghoff at work on an artists book

Barbara Beisinghoff at work on an artists book

In her creation of Tau blau Dew blue Barbara Beisinghoff reveals herself as an alchemist of the art world, taking base materials, finding in them an inner beauty and revealing them as a precious treasure via a process of transformation at times considered and exacting at others experimental. The printmaker like the alchemist is concerned with the world of chemicals and metals in the forms of ink, plates, resists and acid etches. In Tau blau Dew blue Beisinghoff continues her sensitive attention to materials and processes creating artworks informed by a keen intellect and bringing us a masterfully realised work of delicate beauty.

Sensitivity to materials is central to Beisinghoff’s practice and the handmade nature of the paper itself is highly important to the integrity of the finished works. She comes from a tradition of accomplished craftspeople who value the skill of the hand and her hand is very evident in every stage of the process. For Beisinghoff, paper is not merely a surface to work upon, it is a sculptural medium in itself. Beisinghoff creates her papers both independently and in an active relationship with her paper-maker John Gerard. She treats the newly laid fibres of the pulp as a sculptural material when she turns her water-jet on the work, forcing the water through the pulp and displacing it, creating the forms that will later allow light into the surface. In the case of Tau blau Dew blue Beisinghoff blasts the Fibonacci numbers into the papers. The surface becomes a seemingly ethereal picture plane in itself (something like a tiny cathedral window) when light is cast upon it, illuminating the Fibonacci numbers and revealing their magic and glory.

Beisinghoff inking an etching plate

Beisinghoff inking an etching plate

Much like the stars alluded to in the cross-sections of the flax stems, the watermarks cast and sewn into the pages add a further play of light and thus an additional sculptural and spatial dimension to these works. The three watermarks also refer to the beauty of mathematics as represented in their visual forms and especially as found in the natural aspect of the flax plant itself. The first is the golden ratio showing how the leaf is positioned in relation to the stem so as to allow each one equal access to the sun. The next watermark shows the flax stem as a cross-section and reveals its star-like shape and the fibres within the stem which becomes the paper pulp. The final watermark shows the plant with its seed case reminding us of its connection to the life-cycle and generative properties.

The beauty of mathematics as applied to the natural world is apparent in Tau blau Dew blue as is the value of the spiritual in human life and in our understanding of the world around us. Beisinghoff shares a sensibility with 17th century monk, inventor, and alchemist Robert Fluud who essentially recognised the micro world in the macro or universal when he espoused the belief that for every star in the night sky there was a corresponding plant on earth. Beisinghoff further elaborates on this spiritual dimension to our relationship with the world by accompanying her etchings with text from the Russian poet Marina Zwetajewa. These words describe the growth process through the seasons of a year, through a dew drop on a single morning all influenced by the stars and all knitting together like the teeth of the cogs of some massive mechanical representation of the universe.

The thoughtful attention to detail one has come to expect from Beisinghoff continues in the design and binding of the book. She has chosen a narrow format leporello with sown layers that allude to the swaying of the delicate flowers of the flax plant flexing back and forth in the wind on their long stems. The case acts as a protective seed case enclosing, protecting yet also releasing the gift inside. Tau blau Dew blue is a complex many layered work, the product of much time, thought and labour, it rewards unhurried contemplation and is a beautiful embodiment of the interrelated nature of all things.

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Maria Sibylla Merian: Nerdgirl Heroine

24 Aug

map

Almost 350 years ago the city of Amsterdam was home to the world’s first multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company, the city’s bourse was akin to today’s Wall Street and traders dealt in commodities such as tea, sugar, porcelain, opium and slaves. The city had newly acquired co-ownership of the South American colony of Suriname thus securing its interests in sugar and slaves. Along Amsterdam’s network of canals stood the grand homes of the wealthy burghers whose salons hummed with news of discoveries in science and exploration.

burghers

Yet it was also a centre of cultural production where Rembrandt and others less famous were hard at work in their studios. Amsterdam had a free press (printing works by radical philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes) and promoted religious and political tolerance (allowing Jews to build synagogues) making it a magnet for refugees from persecution elsewhere in Europe, this liberal atmosphere further allowed the economy to flourish. Amsterdam had money, power, style and street cred; yeah…it rocked!

Maria Sibylla Merian as depicted on a German bank note.

Maria Sibylla Merian as depicted on a German bank note.

This spectacular city, was at that time, also home to one Maria Sibylla Marian. If you had met her on a bridge over the Amstel and she asked you back to her place to “look at her etchings” you’d have been crazy to decline. Not only was she from a rich and powerful family (so the coffee would have been great) she was one of Europe’s finest botanical artists and international explorers so she’d have had a few good stories to entertain you with too.

Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt in 1647 into the Merian family, famous engravers and owners of the largest publishing house in 17th century Europe. In 1630 they had published the Merian Bible, hugely popular because it was this first Bible to include hand coloured engravings alongside the text.

Tower of Babel, hand coloured engraving from the Merian Bible.

Tower of Babel, hand coloured engraving from the Merian Bible.

It wasn’t quite the same as being born into the Murdoch empire but the Merians certainly had wealth and status. Her father died when she was just three and her mother re-married to the still-life painter Jacob Marrel who encouraged Maria to paint and draw.

As a young woman she was fascinated by insects, collecting them to draw. She began with silk worms but also collected other butterflies and moths, soon having a house full of insects in various stages of their life cycles. This might seem outlandish now but at that time it was downright dangerous because the caterpillar was associated with the devil, so a house-full of them could warrant burning at the stake (remember the height of witch-burning fever in Europe was the early 1600’s with significant trials continuing into 1700’s). Because of their association with evil very little was known about insects and it was generally believed that they spontaneously appeared from mud.

451px-Metamorphosis_of_a_Butterfly_Merrian_1705465px-Merian_Metamorphosis_VI_

Merian’s research proved this was not the case and despite her reckless behaviour, her meticulous studies of the metamorphosis of the butterfly have made her one of the most significant contributors to etymology.

Audacious behaviour in the pursuit of art and science seems to have been the norm for Merian as she was also reputed to have stolen a tulip from a neighbour in order to study and draw it, relying on her family name to keep her out of trouble. At the height of the tulip craze in the late 1630’s a single tulip bulb could fetch a price equivalent to ten times the annual wage of a skilled craftsman but by the time of Merian’s theft speculation on the tulip market had caused their value to plummet to somewhere nearer to € 500 in today’s money. Never-the-less, the theft of a tulip was no small matter.

couple with bulb

In 1665 Merian married her step-father Marrel’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff, with whom she had two children Johanna and Dorothea. During her marriage she continued to paint and draw and gave drawing lessons to the daughters of wealthy families. However, her marriage clearly did not satisfy her because within a few years she did the unthinkable and divorced her husband. It is likely that once again she was able to take such radical action largely on the strength of her family connections.

Following her divorce Merian relocated to Amsterdam with her two daughters and worked as a botanical artist publishing collections of engravings throughout the 1670’s and 80’s. Her publications describing the life-cycles of insects were very popular in wealthy circles because they were written in the vernacular (rather than the language of science: Latin) and thus enabled non-scientists to engage with the booming fashion for natural science.

GuavenzweigMerian_insectes_Surinam

On the strength of this work Merian was sponsored by the city of Amsterdam to travel to the new Dutch colony of Suriname in 1699 to study, collect and document the plants and animals. Scientific expeditions were at that time still rare and to receive state funding for such a venture was remarkable, all the more so because Merian was a woman. Her younger daughter Dorothea travelled with her for the two year duration of their journey before Maria succumbed to Malaria and the pair were forced to return to Europe in 1701. Upon her return Merian published a collection of her engravings about the insects of Suriname called Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

Merian_Metamorphosis_Titel

In 1715 she suffered a debilitating stroke from which she never fully recovered. Although Merian continued to try to work she died just two years later (aged 69) and her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.

Merian_Portrait

If not for her gender I’m sure the remarkable exploits and scientific contributions of Merian would be much more widely known. Her botanical drawings and engravings are at once skilfully and accurately rendered and exquisitely beautiful. May she be celebrated as a role model for nerd girls everywhere.

wandeln im Lustgarten

15 Aug

Liebe deutsche Freunde, hier ist eine bearbeitete Übersetzung der Ideen hinter meinem neuesten Projekt Skulptur.

wandeln

wandeln
Die australische Künstlerin ist seit 4 Wochen im Atelierhaus Beisinghoff in Rhoden zu einem Druckaufenthalt.  Außer der Arbeit in der Radierwerkstatt hat sich Rachel im verborgenen Garten auf dem Lustgarten-Kunstpfad im Sandstein verewigt.  Ihr Eingriff in die Natur (site specific work) ist absichtlich unauffällig und mag sogar zeitweilig von Blättern, Grass oder Schnee bedeckt sein.  Die Verfremdung muss vom Betrachter erstmal gesucht und gefunden werden.  In einen breiten Sandstein, welcher die Rampe vom Grünen Weg hinunter in den verborgenen Garten festigt, hat Rachel das Wort wandeln eingemeißelt. Das Wort befindet sich zu Füßen des Betrachters.  Der Ankommende muss langsamer gehen und anhalten zum Lesen. Diese bewusste Verlangsamung soll die Aufmerksamkeit des Fußgängers schärfen.  Der Betrachter muss sich zum Entziffern andächtig oder ehrerbietig beugen, so wie man es beim Betreten eines besonderen Ortes zu tun pflegt.  Der physische Akt des Sich-Beugens verbindet den Betrachter mit dem künstlerischen Eingriff.  Er verwandelt ihn. Aus dem Gehenden kann so ein Wandelnder werden.

wandeln, detail

wandeln, detail

wandeln in the artists garden

15 Aug

wandeln (German) verb. to walk,  also to change or convert.

wandeln is a site specific sculptural work I have created for the Lustgarten (pleasure garden) project of Barbara and Rudolf Beisinghoff in the town of Rhoden, Germany. Their intention in restoring the historic garden (which dates back the 1650’s) is to combine nature and art in the form of an artist’s trail or Kunstpfad incorporating not only the Lustgarten itself but the nearby palace and Holpergrund forest as well.

The text wandeln is carved into a paving stone of local sandstone located on a pathway leading from one of the main entry points to the Lustgarten and is intended to be discovered by the viewer. The work can be seen from the entry point to the hidden garden although it is deliberately unobtrusive and may at times be partly obscured by grass or leaves. This is in part because of its situation on the ground but also because it is incorporated into an element of the landscape rather than sitting outside of it.

wandeln

wandeln, detail.

Because the work is set into the ground the viewer must slow down and perhaps even come to a complete stop in order to read and understand the text. This deliberate slowing of pace is intended to bring the viewer towards a more peaceful and calm experience of the hidden garden. When pausing to read the text inscribed in the paving stone the viewer must bow their head as if in prayer or reverence, thus further adding to the feeling that one is entering a special place. The physical act of bowing in response to wandeln makes the viewer a part of the work itself, in a sense they have been changed by their experience of the work and become part of it. As an element in the Kunstpfad (artists trail) wandeln is an important choice of words because it means not only to walk but also to change or convert and the hope is that people who enter this garden will be changed by their journey through it.

The arin progresstist with the work

The artist with the work in progress.

At Arms Length: conceptual framework for a print folio.

28 Jul

at the wheel
At arms length; since the industrial revolution that is how Western society has interacted with the natural world. There has been a gradual and seemingly inexorable process of distancing ourselves, removing our selves and more definitively of “seeing” ourselves as separate from the natural world rather than as a part of it. Industrialisation marks a turning point in our understanding of our place in the world, as being distinct from it, not part of it.

Industrialised societies have used a variety of lenses to get closer to, yet further from, the natural world. Think of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, etc. they all seem to bring the viewed object closer, yet when viewed out of context the object, in a sense, becomes more distant from us.  Viewed via a lens our experience becomes disembodied. We privilege one sense over all others and we de-contextualise the looking we do by filtering it with a machine. For instance, when I look with my naked eye at a little patch of yellow lichen on a stone wall and I know what it is and my relationship to it. When I look at the same yellow lichen through the eyepiece of a microscope I am confronted with a mass of yellow disks isolated from any context.

lichen and tiny stone

Without prior knowledge of this object I cannot understand it or my relationship to it. The same thing happens with a telescope when I perceive a star through its lens; I loose the constellations that form its family and I cannot follow its path across the sky accompanied by the stories that would explain its dance through the seasons. How many times have you returned from holidays with the sneaking suspicion that in your endless quest for the perfectly captured moment you have failed to fully experience where you were? The entire trip viewed down the lens of a camera, the de-contextualised eye privileged above your other senses and certainly above a holistic sense of an embodied experience.

ash seed

The ubiquitous presence of cameras in our lives means that many people spend much of their time viewing the world via their smart-phone taking pictures, editing them and uploading them to another screen in a de-contextualised virtual space. When we use cameras mounted on remotely controlled drones we can so separate ourselves from the actual viewing experience as to remove ourselves from physical danger; perhaps this is a good thing? Or does it merely make it easier for us to distance ourselves from responsibility for our actions? In his novel Homo Faber, Swiss writer Max Frisch describes technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it.”

birch bark

Yet certainly there are benefits to be had from this technology, indeed I owe my life to the superior surgical skills of neuroscientists guided by tiny cameras manipulated through my blood vessels. However, we should perhaps be wary of privileging a disembodied viewing experience because of the lack of regard it seems to foster in us for our relationships with the world around us.

Why does this matter?

Context, it seems, is important. It’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it. It gives us spatial, social, cultural (and any number of other kinds of) meaning. Context also brings us an awareness of consequences. When one’s interactions with the world are mediated by a machine, a de-contextualising lens, we are divorced from an experience informed by contextualising meaning. Without this sense of place or relationship one cannot have an awareness of consequences. Perhaps it is because of the saturation of such disembodied viewing experiences in our culture that we so often find ourselves looking without seeing, viewing our world without an awareness of our relationship to it and with scant regard for the consequences.

checking proofs

At Arms Length: A Residency Project at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff

28 Jul

At Arms Length:

A Residency Project at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff

Image

“Let’s build a bigger telescope so we can see things more up close, further away from where we really are,” sings musician Michael Franti in his song Water Pistol Man. These lyrics returned to me when I began thinking about the work I might make during my current residency at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff in Rhoden Germany. As a sculptor my work has often been concerned with human constructions of space and place and how we make meaning from our relationship to the world around us. Lately I’ve come to ponder the way that industrialised cultures increasingly seem to experience the world via virtual mediums. I wanted to explore what this might mean for the way we view the world and our place in it. To this end, I decided to buy a pocket field microscope to take to my residency and find out what happens when one views common objects through a lens such as a camera, telescope or in this case a microscope. I have discovered that privileging the visual sensory experience over other senses and viewing objects in isolation removes them from their context, making it difficult to understand how they relate to us and we to them. Through the lens of the microscope a flower or feather may look beautiful but it will certainly appear alien because it no longer has any context. From my field studies I made a series of drawings that later became etching plates and have now further developed into a series of colour prints called At Arms Length.Image

These works will be exhibited, at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff upon completion of my residency and also in Australia later in the year. For further information about my work please visit my website www.racheljoyartist.com

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Exploring Our Feral Hearts

3 Jul

The text and images below will appear on an academic poster that I am presenting at the Impact 8 International Printmaking Conference in Dundee, Scotland later this year. The conference theme this year is “Borders and Crossings: The Artist as Explorer.” My poster responds to this theme using my latest suite of prints, Feral Family Portraits, as a spring-board to provoke discussion about making art within a cultural legacy of colonial violence. To purchase the prints from this series please visit http://www.etsy.com/au/shop/RachelJoyPrintmaker.

Exploring our feral hearts:

non-indigenous artists and the legacy of colonial violence in Australia, a multi-disciplinary approach.

Bullocky.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Bullocky.
Wood engraving and digital print.

From an Australian perspective the idea of exploration is, or at least should be, fraught. Exploration implies the discovery of the unknown. Certainly, there was plenty that was unknown to Europeans when they arrived in what would become known as Australia. The seasons were back to front, the animals were outrageous confabulations, the trees shed their bark not their leaves. None of it made sense to European minds but instead of asking the locals how it worked they murdered them then pretended they didn’t exist and stole their land. Today’s psychology journals would describe such behaviour as sociopathic.

Australia was built on the lie of “terra nullius” the concept of an empty land. This was a convenient lie the British colonists told themselves in order to justify their thievery. The Australian Government’s continued categorisation of indigenous Australians as native fauna until the 1967 referendum is evidence of just how far the self-deception went and for how long.

Historically European explorers set off into territory that was, to them, unknown. Many found the land hostile and difficult to negotiate, some even perished because they didn’t seek the help or heed the advice of those for whom the land was deeply known and understood.

What was the purpose of European exploration? Sometimes, perhaps to understand (for scientific purposes and to fulfil that peculiar European desire to collect and categorise) but more often it was to assess its potential as grazing land to be possessed and exploited for material gain.

Wood engraving and digital print.

Feral Family Portrait.
Wood engraving and digital print.

When thinking of exploration one might imagine crossings such as fording a river, traversing a desert or mountain range in a romantic quest for an Aussie El Dorado or equally improbable inland sea. In Australia these are the crossings our pioneers are famous for. We’d rather not talk about crossing the line of human decency with invasion, land grabs, genocide, child stealing and racism.

White Australia would do well to explore its own soul in an attempt to understand the mentality, the collective psyche, if you’ll allow, that perpetrated the evils of colonialism and then denied it ever happened. In some parts of the world today holocaust denial is again rearing its ugly head; in Australia we built a nation on it.

Printmaking has often been political and its many low cost incarnations make it a very versatile and democratic medium. Printmaking has become a powerful medium in the hands of indigenous Australians with many dedicated studios emerging to sustain this interest. However, as a white artist engaged in a multidisciplinary art making practice I see printmaking colliding with sculpture and street art to create something both beautiful and challenging. My work is an attempt to engage in a meaningful public dialogue about the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

My latest project Feral Family Portraits explores notions of the foreign, outsiders/insiders and the feral. It posits European Australians as the ultimate feral animal. Using a combination of wood engraving and digital print technology I have created images that strongly reference and borrow from iconic colonial landscape and portrait paintings and photography. The original colonial images were created to represent a construction of truth about the colonial experience. By replacing the heads of the protagonists with those of feral animals I hope to re-present another truth regarding colonial experience.

Wood engraving and digital print

Madonna and child on the wallaby track.
Wood engraving and digital print.

This project challenges the idea of exploration as a heroic or noble endeavour and posits it, within the context of Australian colonialism, as a rather more fraught element in the construction of our national identity. Drawing inspiration from Theodor Adorno’s famous quote about the difficulties of making art after the holocaust, the goal of the project is to acknowledge the genocidal nature of the Australian colonial experience and ask how non-indigenous artists can make work that recognises this history and its ongoing implications.

Contemporary Australia has a fragile fragmented identity but it sometimes comes together in beautiful and unexpected ways. A multidisciplinary approach to making art reflects this and by opening up the process allows exciting possibilities to emerge. My own practice of colliding printmaking with sculpture and street art underscores the value of taking print out of the gallery and onto the streets. In particular the recent suite of prints and printstallations Feral Family Portraits, shows how the multidisciplinary approach of the work aids in exposing the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

Billy Tea.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Billy Tea.
Wood engraving and digital print.

One incarnation of the project involves the works being installed as life-sized paste-ups in locations around my city (Melbourne) that have relevance to each particular image. For example, the work Bullocky has appeared on walls on the site of the former stock and sale yards in Kensington and Angler has graced the arches of the Queen Street footbridge over the Yarra River. Bullocks were the beast of burden most relied upon to pull the cartloads of materials required to open up and settle the land and European Carp were introduced to the rivers for sport, as a food source and reminder of “home.”

Angler. Wood engraving and digital print.

Angler.
Wood engraving and digital print.

The project highlights the importance of the social and historical value of the sites chosen to install the work and the democratic nature of a public viewing space. It also asserts the role of humour in drawing an audience in, to consider the deeper elements of emotionally challenging works. Here I would draw your attention to Bakhtin’s theories around the carnivalesque and it’s role in upsetting power dynamics. There are many examples of subaltern groups making use of humour to draw attention to injustice and my project continues in this vein.

Wood engraving and digital print

Trapper.
Wood engraving and digital print.

Powerful art should cross boundaries and explore ideas. So to that end I am taking this opportunity to problematise one possible reading of the conference theme in an effort to open up discussion about the issues faced by non-indigenous artists who acknowledge an inherited legacy of colonial violence.

References and further reading

Adorno, T. Aesthetic Theory, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 1993.

Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984.

Grimshaw. P, Lake. M, McGrath. A and Quartly. M, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Melbourne, 1994.

Jung, C.G. Essays on Contemporary Events 1936-1946.

Lake. M and Reynolds. H. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008.

Moses, A.D. ed. Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian History. Berghahn Books, Oxford. 2005.

Reynolds, H. Dispossession: Black Australians and White invaders, Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1989.

Salzman, L. & Rosenberg, E. eds. Trauma and Visuality in Modernity, University of New England Press, London, 2006.

Schama, S. Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1996.

Tumarkin, M. Traumascapes: The power and fate of places transformed by tragedy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005.