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Contemporary Artspace
London 1997-2000

Artspace Sydney Catalogue Essay
by Paul McGillick

tec.ton´ic (tĕk.tŏn´ĭk), adj. [L. tectonicus, fr. Gr. tektonikos, fr. tektōn, -onos, a builder.]
Structural; constructional; esp.: a Architectural. b Geol. Of, pertaining to, or designating, structures resulting from deformation of the earth’s crust, esp. faulting.

As we know, ‘art’ is a relatively recent concept. We only need to go back as far as Ruskin to see the line between art and utility as still blurred. Even the liberation of painting from fresco to an independent support (stretched canvas, for example) took place within a strongly utilitarian context – paintings were not entirely autonomous aesthetic objects, but served a number of functions. And outside the artificial world of subsidy and museums, art continues as it always has to struggle to reconcile its own intrinsic agenda with the extrinsic demands of a venal and utilitarian marketplace.

Arguably, the best art still has a dialectical modus operandum – between what is the case and what seems to be the case, between aesthetic autonomy and everyday utility, between the object and the process.

Over the last twenty years there has been a strong tendency to challenge the increasing rarification, aestheticisation and commodification of art which accompanied the separation of art from artisanship, especially during the 20th century. The major manifestations of this reaction have been installation art and art which abandons the conventional gallery and museum space to re-engage with the everyday and the built environment.

In both cases, the art is highly sensitive to its own context. So, instead of assuming the gallery to be a neutral space, it is approached as a specific physical site whose constructed character implies the fact that social reality as a whole is constructed by the people who inhabit it. The art work responds to this space and its implied social values by setting up a dialogue between the space and what is put in the space.

It is not surprising that artists who work this way spend as much time outside the gallery as they do inside. Installation art is the source of the ‘new public art’ – site-specific and calibrated to respond to the physical, social, cultural and historical character of the site. The best of this work invariably generates an intriguing tension between aesthetic autonomy and utility - between being good to look at and being useful. In fact, there is a deliberate strategy at work to make such art functionally ambivalent. The inference is that art does not consist of a rarified object detached from its physical and social reality, but is a process of re-engaging with a reality we tend to take for granted in everyday life.

Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra collaborate to work both inside and outside. Australians, they have worked in the U.K. for the last eight years. Like many expatriates before them, the disjunctive experience of living outside their own physical and cultural context has provided the starting point for their work – or, perhaps more accurately, the experience of expatriation has provided a fertile context to further explore some long-standing issues. Quite appropriately, one such issue is landscape. Landscape has dominated Australian art since European settlement. There is good reason for this: one can’t live in Australia without being conscious of landscape. Nonetheless, there is a tendency to take this for granted, especially in the cities. But go and live in Europe – London, for example – and the power and significance of the Australian landscape is thrown into high relief. Where the Australian landscape – even much of Sydney Harbour – is raw, elemental and pristine, the European landscape has been worked and re-worked, built over and layered to such an extent that landscape as a primal experience is no longer available.

Instead of the primary culture of nature, human beings live in a secondary social culture. Indeed, they live in constant state of denial because the layers of masonry and bitumen, of culture and socialisation, of industry and technology have deceived them into a false consciousness – namely, that they have somehow progressed beyond their primal animal state and that emotionally, spiritually and physically they are now secure from the indifferent, indiscriminate, irrational and unpredictable forces of nature which so preoccupied their more ‘primitive’ ancestors.

Moreover, when we do observe our urban or natural (indeed, social) landscapes, we fall easily into the delusion that we are somehow separate from the landscape we are observing. This phenomenon even has a name: the observer’s paradox. The truth is that we are not only part of the physical environment we are observing, we are also part of the ecology we inhabit.

Nature has a disconcerting habit, however, of reminding us of the facts of life – just try that intractable problem, death, for example, or the very real possibility of computer failures in systems controlling water, sewerage, electricity etc.

On a residency in the Azores in 1999 (to make a piece of public art, Tree Fountain), Maslen and Mehra spent time exploring the ruins of villages destroyed by an earthquake. Trees and grass now thrust up through the collapsed masonry as nature reclaims its realm. The experience has driven much of their recent work – artificial landscapes which act as metaphors for the difficulty humans have in overcoming epistemological delusion and acknowledging the fact that life in the world is a unitary experience.

Two previous installations – Gorge (at the Void Gallery in London, July 2000) and Woodland (at the Downing Centre, Sydney during the Olympics in September, 2000) – created landscapes which could be experienced by walking through them or by looking at them from the outside – in the case of Woodland, the installation both from the street and inside the building had an almost cinematic quality because of the framing of the window stanchions. The landscapes were of gorges whose terraced and layered sides were constructed from books, penetrated by thrusting organic, tree-like forms. Resonating in the background was the knowledge that books are made from natural materials and are themselves now threatened with obsolescence by the electronic revolution.

These two exhibitions also played with scale, both literally and illusionistically. Scale, the natural and the synthetic, and the imminence of nature even in a technologically sophisticated world were themes which Maslen and Mehra pushed even further in their next exhibition, Drift, in a church at Dilston Grove in London (2001).

Here, the architecture of the church building with its high, vaulted ceiling demanded a response. Maslen and Mehra created an environment from huge (3 metre high), out-of-scale blades of grass. While in form the blades of grass appeared quite naturalistic, they were made from translucent resin illuminated by projected coloured light.

The disjunction of scale, the clash of the natural and synthetic, together with the constantly changing light triggered a renewed sense of being in the landscape – in the world. Giant blades of grass thrusting up through the layers of civilization in the middle of London to create their own lowering landscape were a reminder of how ephemeral and transient civilisation is in the face of natural forces.

Terra Incognita – the unknown land – is an extension of this work. Maslen and Mehra have constructed large synthetic plates which seem almost to float above the floor. Like the plates of the earth’s crust they have fractured and drifted to allow pathways to open up between them. The giant blades of grass have migrated from London to thrust up through these primeval plates of the earth’s surface, lit by coloured light which is in a constant state of flux. Through its very artificiality, Terra Incognita is reminder of the presence and power of the natural world.

While Maslen and Mehra’s work can be read as a meditation on the resilience of nature and a dialectic about false consciousness, it is first and foremost an experience. As a result, their fantastical landscapes remain open-ended, allowing people to respond spontaneously and according to their own experience. Just as our ancestors used art as part of rituals to propitiate an apparently hostile and arbitrary nature, perhaps we can see Maslen and Mehra’s work as a kind of ritual to help us reconcile ourselves with our origins. And just as the people whom we might today describe as artists were actually shamans facilitating emotional and spiritual journeys, so Maslen and Mehra’s work might be seen as a re-visiting of the artist-as-shaman: the person whose social role it is to facilitate a re-connection with the creatures we are – once the layers of civilisation have been peeled back or perhaps simply broken apart by resurgent nature.

Paul McGillick

Dr Paul McGillick is a prominent, Sydney-based writer and editor in the fields of architecture, art and design. He is currently Editorial Director of Indesign Publishing and editor of Habitus and Indesign magazines. He was formerly editor of another prominent architecture and design magazine, Monument.