the dreams of air I Catalogue essay: Two inches off the ground I Dr Margaret Mayhew
If a present image does not make us think of an absent image, if an occasional image does not determine an extravagance of aberrant images, an explosion of images, there is no imagination.
[Gaston BACHELARD, L'air et les songes : essai sur l'imagination du mouvement, Introduction, Paris : Librairie José Corti, 1943, pp. 5. Translation: Author]
Karen Golland’s current exhibition, Two Inches off the ground concerns the divine that may be evoked from the prosaic matter of daily life. The title comes from an aphorism by Zen master DT Suzuki about the nature of satori, or the zen moment of enlightenment being ‘exactly like everyday experience, but two inches off the ground.’
As Karen herself describes, “According to Suzuki, satori was not a state of spiritual otherworldliness, but was a state elevated only a little above that of the everyday and the mundane. And for this reason could be found in homely acts such as the making of a cup of tea or the preparation of food.”
This description of satori as connected to, but slightly apart from, the world of daily living is evocative of the descriptions of reverie evoked by Gaston Bachelard. Whereas Suzuki’s description of enlightenment as ‘two inches of the ground’ could also seem as confounding as any zen koan (provoking the unanswerable question of ‘how can we live everyday life two inches off the ground?’) Bachelard provides a more lucid evocation of the movement from the everyday into the realm of the poetic world of the imagination.
The works for this show have been developed over the past two years, as part of a broader meditation on domestic spaces and the connection between people, objects and the imagination. Karen has gathered elements of her collection of vintage ornamental materials; such as patterned lino, floral bedsheets and crochet doilies, and incorporated them into her creative practice; working over and through the materials and their ornamental elements to generate new forms and associations.
From the outside, it could seem that this exhibition is asking the viewer to reify a simple act of reminiscence over familiar and outdated materials – a little like the collection of works brought together in Lost arts of the 1970s, Karen’s last show (with Tracey Sorensen and Michelle Stockwell) at BRAG in 2008. However, this show is inviting viewers to undertake a reverse process; whereby the intimate processes of creativity in ‘fine’ art practice are translated across into the realm of everyday ‘craft’ objects. In effect what occurs is a transformation of these objects into sites where new imaginative encounters can occur.
Karen originally studied printmaking, which has an interesting historical association with lino. Linoleum was developed in the late 19th century as an accessible, durable and decorative floor covering, and used by printmakers in the twentieth century as an easily engraved plate for ‘linocut’ prints. Since the 1950s lino floors have been made from PVC and the original linoleum is now produced exclusively for printmaking. While PVC lino flooring remained popular throughout last century, many houses have stripped and replaced it with polished floorboards or stone floors. For a number of years, Karen has salvaged strips of decorative lino from hard rubbish collections and demolition sites. The faded, damaged, discarded quality of the lino remnants inspired her to experiment with the nostalgia embedded within these fragments. To examine lino as nostalgic material, provokes the question of where and how is nostalgia embedded into it? Is it the patterns? The colours? The textures?
In previous exhibitions, Karen has played with the decorative qualities of lino – scratching back and printing over half revealed patterns; juxtaposing them with new images and associations, in playfully camp collages. For this exhibition, however, Karen has undertaken a much more intense archeology of the lino remnants themselves, as if searching for the temps perdu, evoked by Marcel Proust’s meditation on the nostalgia of the everyday in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.
However, the intense affective charge in the “Blue” pieces, does not only come from a process of digging or scratching into the past, but a subtle shift into the alchemical possibilities of the present – where Karen has scratched into the lino, the scratching has taken over as a creative process, enabling the tracing of old and new forms, and the cutting and layering of patterns as sheaths of process and memory. The pixelated floral design has been transformed from a recognisable image of a flower, into a space where our imagination can shift and transform the lino fragments into something else, secretly and sacredly wonderful.
These works involve an extensive and transformative relationship with the ornament and with the pattern that is worked on and over and through. In ‘Cast to the wind’ Karen has taken faded pattern of worn and battered lino, retracing leaves and flowers through hammering of beads, sparkling along the faded trace, creating new traces. In a companion piece were the coloured pattern has faded, and only the patina of marks, scuffs and scratches remains, Karen has embellished these – the patterns of daily use - tracing the pattern of habitation, weaving a new pattern of marks over the top.
Shapes are traced, retraced, incised, removed, detached, and recombined so that pattern is no longer a surface on a square horizontal object – but the objects themselves becomes part of a larger pattern of movement and imagination. This can be seen especially in the echoes of light and form shimmering through the ‘Quercus’ pieces – small wall sculptures from dyed and treated fragments of crochet doilies. Where domestic doilies are traditionally used to embellish liminal zones – tabletops, sideboards, above, beneath, between objects such as furniture, vases and objets d’art, taken out of context – the crochet forms appear to echo the patterns in the works flanking them.
Possibly it is the spaces between the crochet forms – the spaces of air and light that are opened up through Karen’s working on the doilies as materials, rather than objects, which allow them to become part of a reverie. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘From the window of my lover’, where doilies have been transformed into light boxes. The three-dimensionality of folded lacy corners, where light passes through and around, casting a myriad of shadows, creating an imaginative space that is reminiscent of many of the observations made in Bachelard’s work ‘on air and dreams’.
Bachelard describes imagination as ‘the ability to distort the images provided by perception, and above all the ability to free ourselves from the raw images, to change images’. It is the alchemical work of art practice to take everyday images, rendered invisible by our habitual seeing of them as objects, and open them up to this imaginative seeing. How else, except through a sustained and conscious creative practice, can floral bedsheets be stretched, traced, printed and drawn to evoke the words:
“rose red breathed snow white i'm right behind you”
The intimacy of these words echo the ghostly intimacy of bodies between the sheets, the invisible flesh wrapped within, concealed by and concealing the floral patterns, as Karen’s field of colours and traces now do. Spaced apart, each small print acts as a counterpoint to the lace light boxes. Imagination is sealed within the boxes, air breathes around them, as do our own imaginative movements, as our eyes follow the traces of colour, form, and space.
Bedsheets also evoke the other nocturnal activity of dreaming. It is possible to dream anywhere – in the shops ($2 shops, op shops, even the supermarket) and everyday life under affluent consumer society’s demands that we do precisely this. This dreaming is not a reverie however – where the present can open itself up to the past and the forward march of time unravels. This is not a dreaming that allows a lot of breathing space beyond the object as an object. A true reverie, according to Bachelard, occurs where the object provokes us to open up, becoming receptive to an intersubjective relationship with the materials around us, where they enter our imaginative worlds, and merge with our being.
The pieces in Two inches off the ground reveal the imaginative space of intensely working – to transform materials through the practice of working on and with them. Where the edges of the self dissolve into the materials, into hands and substances – where the pattern of the work vanishes, reappears, re-emerges again. By taking the objects of everyday dreaming and daily objects, and allowing them to transform into new entities, Karen allows us all to experience dreaming as a reverie that is not a nostalgic hagiography of the past, but a profoundly moving re-imagining of the present.
Dr. Margaret Mayhew March 2011 Margaret Mayhew holds a PhD in Gender and Cultural Studies from the University of Sydney. She holds degrees in Science, Fine Arts and Art History and has exhibited and performed in Sydney since 1996. Margaret has taught, published and lectured on contemporary art, queer theory and feminism in Australia and overseas. She is currently based in Melbourne.