Guest Curator: Robin Close
When Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless entered into the collective consciousness. McCandless, giving $25,000 of savings to charity and abandoning most of his possessions, went into the Alaskan wilderness in search of something. When he found it, he attempted to return. His attempt was a failure - the frozen river he crossed on his journey in had thawed and swollen and become impassable, blocking his escape route. This predicament resulted in his death from starvation. His journey into the wilderness is like the artists journey into the imagination to gain vision and inspiration. Where art manifests, the journey into and out of the wilderness has been completed; what the artist discovers is returned to civilisation and expressed. The title of the Bloc Member’s Show 2010, Out of the Wilderness, is suggestive of this return journey, the one that McCandless was unable to make.
Shelley Jamaine Iqbal’s piece mirrors McCandless’ failure to return from the wilderness - it expresses the pain associated with the inability to communicate deep experience. It embodies the wilderness as desert, recalls The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, and speaks in lonely pencil tones of a landscape of desolation devoid of communication. People are distinguished from animals by language, and an ideal of art is expression. But is language of any kind sufficient in bridging the gap between the experience of individual minds? So often language fails, and Iqbal’s piece speaks volumes about this. It laments the individual alone in the wild, trapped and unable to share experience with others. The small size of the piece and the fact that it owns a whole wall of the gallery to itself reflects this also.
Cosmic, by Luke Alexander Chapman, demonstrates how the intangible experience of backcountry inspiration is captured then radiated by the artistic consciousness. The bodge-job nature of Chapman’s piece suggests that this process is not scientific, despite the fact that it was inspired by the Holmdel Horn Antenna. Chapman’s piece demonstrates an ability to receive that which lies beyond ordinary sense perception. The original antenna discovered the microwave background radiation that is intangible to the senses. Language, whether visual or otherwise, can only ever serve as a metaphor for such inaccessible sources of creativity. Chapman’s antenna represents both the ability to receive the influence of the source as well as the ability to communicate it to others – antennas both receive and emit.
Antennas are distinctly modern phenomena. I’m not sure how old the medium of watercolour painting is, but the Bloc Member’s Show is the first time I’ve seen it used in the context of contemporary art. The construct ‘art’ is tied in with cultural context, and Sean Williams’ Castle, in this sense, is out of context; Williams’ medium resides in a wilderness outside of contemporary convention. With its outsider status, Williams’ piece belongs to and represents the artistic unconscious: the Castle is in the wilderness. As an object, it expresses a vivid eccentricity. The barn in the painting, ramshackle like Chapman’s Cosmic, is the artist’s subjective response to creative inspiration. This is the voice of the individual. The phrase ‘a voice in the wilderness’ connotes an unheeded advocate of reform. Should we sit up and listen to this voice?
As previously mentioned, art relies upon historical and cultural climate. Yet history is always being reformed, either being re-written outright or becoming a palimpsest. Daniel Fogarty, in his piece Spinario, demonstrates the urge to pin history down and fix meaning. His piece consists of a page of art history relating to the sculpture Spinario, which is firmly stapled to the wall with an in-situ heavy-duty stapler. The fickle, changeable and subjective nature of narrative history is another wilderness of the imagination. History connotes the search for the truth of the past, yet, in one sense, remains forever as fiction. The act of stapling history to the wall represents the paradox of a cultural need to fix meaning, and the resistance of phenomena to this fixing.
When fixed meanings are undermined, their origins become called into question. The Old English origin of the word ‘wilderness’ means ‘land inhabited by only wild animals’. Louisa Jane Harris’ print from her collection Roadkill questions this notion. Her image shows a lizard squashed, presumably by a car, on a concrete-aggregate. The locating of the wild animal in the urban environment suggests, in this context, a reconsideration of the word ‘wilderness’. The juxtaposition is augmented by the fossil-like nature of the image. Given time, our cities will return to the earth and new fossils will be created. In a post-human future, the planet will return to wilderness in the traditional sense. Harris’ piece shows how the modern context can change everything.
A static and permanent object is ultimately illusory. All things succumb to the sands of time. What we may think of as finished works of art are part of an endless process of birth and decay. Susanne Palzer’s contribution to the show, a fragment of her work Postcards from Bloc, attempts to trace a continuity between the creative flux of the wilderness and the necessity of producing fixed pieces of art for display. In her fragment, the table refers to the wilderness. It serves as a metaphor for the artists studio and surroundings as an environmental locus of inspiration and practice. The blank postcards are the vessels upon which the ‘art’ will be produced after the active artist has responded to and become steeped in her environment (it is worth a mention that Palzer did a secret residency in her studio, living there for two months). So the ‘art’ has not yet been produced, or has it? Palzer’s piece points directly at the wilderness, evoking its ubiquitous and understated presence in the everyday environment, and praising its unsung value.
The wilderness of the imagination is not a place, though paradoxically it may be. For McCandless, Alaska was a metaphoric landscape that beckoned something other. This other cannot be fixed or circumscribed conceptually. It is ontological in character, a lived experience, a process. It is a passion of life.
Mark Doyle, May 2010