Monday, 31 January 2011

Bite 49: Unknown - Female Figure, Greece, c. 4250 B.C

Female Figure, Greece, c. 4250 B.C, marble, h: 21.5 cm
Having discovered farming and the domestication of livestock, human beings in the Neolithic period (c. 6000-3000 BC) were freed to take on more diverse roles in their new settlements. Thus the creation of finely crafted artifacts became possible. This female figure found in Greece is one such, surviving, early example. 

Being over 6000 years old the work is surrounded in an aura of mystery. Not only regarding the creator of the figure or its creation (it was carved from marble using obsidian and pumice, both volcanic substances) but little is known even about the people group or civilisation (or lack thereof) by which the work was formed. 

The role of such objects was likely linked to ritual and an early form of spirituality. Found in a domestic setting indicates that the figure may have functioned as a living talisman - an object loaded with supernatural or magical properties, probably representing a fertility goddess or to aid in pregnancy. 

Abstract in its rendering, symmetrical in composition, the figure is pleasingly tactile with groves and bumps indicating parts of the female human form. Elements have been exaggerated. The arms join across the chest. It may give some indication as to what Neolithic people saw as appealing in the female body.

Furthermore, this would have been one of the first forms of representation in the lives of human beings and can be seen as evidence of a base humanity present very early in our history. Namely the urge to create, to form images of the human body, and to interpret the world around us through 'art', whatever mysterious purpose it may have held.

In the collection (of over 2 million works) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This week will be focused on five works from this collection.

30,000 Years of Art, Phaidon, 2007.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Bite 48: Méret Oppenheim - Ma Gouvernante (My Governess), 1936

Ma Gouvernante (My Governess), 1936, sculpture
Well-worn high-heel shoes lie trussed-up on a silver platter. Mini chefs hats adorn the heels as if they were legs of poultry. 

A surrealist object, it cleverly juxtaposes objects as a parody on the display of feminine vanity and the fine line between female sexuality and being merely the object of male desire. Subtly suggesting cannibalism and bondage, the bizarre, quirky object presents contrasting images of dependence and burgeoning sexuality and perversion (an almost oedipal attraction to one's nanny). 

The combination of elements is unnerving in the extreme, referencing food as well as a basseuse sado-masochism. Being used the shoes are a token of domesticity, mixed with a foot fetish. Trussed-up they present the image of a disagreeable 'nursemaid' tied up against her will, squirming against her bonds.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Bite 47: Claude Cahun - Que Me Veux-Tu? (What Do You Want From Me?), 1928

Que Me Veux-Tu? (What Do You Want From Me?), 1928
André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, called her “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” Although she produced a huge amount of work, as well as significant writings, Claude Cahun operated on the fringes of the Parisian Sureallist movement. It was not until the 1980's that she was discovered (by François Leperlier), and soon became seen as a forerunner to queer theory and feminist art. 

Born Lucy Schwob, Cahun often cross-dressed, and many of her photographs are taken by her stepsister and partner (in life as in work) Suzanne Malherbe, who went by the name Marcel Moore.

Cahun was queer, and openly so. Fully out of the closet in an era when such an identity scarcely existed. Her haunting self-portraits show evidence of this ongoing identity crisis and conflating of gender norms. In comparing her to other women in Parisian Surrealist circles Max Kozloff describes her as, "a woman who insisted on being taken seriously, while ostentatiously refusing to be treated as an object."

In Que Me Veux-Tu? a deep personal tension is made visible in a profoundly revealing portrait. An androgynous two-headed creature becomes a metaphor for a splitting of identity. In her writings she eloquently expressed her artistic and philosophical objectives: "Divide myself in order to conquer, multiply myself in order to assert myself."

This, her most revealing self-portrait, shows a sinister 'demonic' head whispering into the ear of its angelic, naively curious, twin. Which of them is speaking the title - "What do you want from me?" - is unclear. But perhaps they both are, and it is the viewer, society even, who is being addressed. For she has certainly received little affirmation about who she is from a society who didn't recognise her 'kind' as sane or healthy. 

This image represents an inner conflict resulting from a profound lack of any external identity cues - which we take for granted. In her art Cahun is creating herself. Becoming human. Figuring things out for herself. 

A true pioneer, we are able to be ourselves because people like her took a leap, and, as hard as it would have been, fought the status-quo to be authentic to themselves.

Here we see her freedom, but also the pain suffered in getting to it.

Max Kozloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Bite 46: Hans Bellmer - La Poupée (The Doll), 1935

La Poupée (The Doll), 1935
Parts from several dismembered pubescent-sized dolls have been combined to create a four legged creature, all torso. Seen to represent a private obsession in response to the artist's lust after a young girl, Bellmer's La Poupée series - all depicting 'dolls' in various positions and erotic contortions - certainly seems to stem from  a deep objectification of the female body and, an extension of this, a mentality of sexual violence. It is claimed they were taken as an open rejection of Nazi conformity.

Any 'body' that is present here is an object of desire.  The doll is living for Bellmer and it comes alive partly in his photographing of it - the camera being a tool of possession. Through this process the doll becomes a suppository of fantasy, albeit a pederastic, masturbatory fantasy at that. Yet, brutal as it is, it hits right to the heart of Surrealism: the loading of an object with profound psychological, metaphysical  meaning. The unconscious made visual.

This image is both portrait and still-life - the mirror further complicating the matter. Photography becomes a way of bringing the 'doll' to life. All is objectified by the camera (made into an object). A still-life then can begin to take on the nature of a portrait. Here it becomes all the more disturbing, in its deformed claustrophobic construction, for being a photograph. It is all too 'real'.

For Hans Bellmer each leg on this doll - the doll itself even - is a prosthetic. Of lust and desire, of a private fetish. It is an extension of his psyche.

We cannot see this image as Bellmer does. Nor do we want to.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Bite 45: Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory, 1931

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm
This is a scene from a place of strange, other-worldly happenings, a place of the unexpected, a place to get lost in. In visualising a dream-state or the hallucinatory vision of the mentally disturbed Dali embraces absurdity and surreality, creating an imaginary world using realist techniques.

A realist use of perspective and a fine rendering of detail would often be used to ground a composition. Yet here the space is made all the more uncomfortable for its 'realistic' representation. It is alien, warped, in an indefinable way, the distant cliffs bringing a contrasting solidity to an unstable arrangement of objects and figures (and which are which?).

This is a world where the human body would not maintain the physical integrity it does in this one. The only vaguely human presence here has become fluid. Slightly resembling the artist himself it is a drooping mask-like creature. Lying forgotten on the dirt, it is in an eternal sleep, collateral of the carnage of time past. 

Ants swarm over a time piece as if it were rotting meat. Melting clocks reference the instability of time, the malleability of memory, a slowing down of time in a dream-state. This is a junk yard, and time itself is decaying before our eyes. 

The very concept of the clock is revealed as a contrived illusion, a futile attempt to grasp at time when it is, in reality, mercury in our hands - continually slipping away.

A branch, the remains of a withering tree: a symbol of inevitable death. The title implies being attacked by time and memory itself, the unconscious invaded by regret. The scene is imbued with the mourning of time past.

"Death tugs at my ear and says: "Live, I am coming." 
                                                                  - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Monday, 24 January 2011

Bite 44: René Magritte - Portrait of Edward James, 1937

Portrait of Edward James, 1937, oil on canvas
In Magritte's characteristic style of realist-surrealism he presents a portrait - or rather a non-portrait - as both banal and sinister. Cleverly playing on the Freudian concept of the doppelgänger - the uncanny existence of a double, often a ghostly double, who haunts its fleshly counterpart - the subject of the work seems to almost turn in on itself creating a claustophobic, haunted space even as Edward James seems to sit calmly upright for his 'portrait'.

An 'identity splitting' is represented in the work by a mirror - a symbol used throughout art history to connote vanity or an alternate state or world.  Here it creates a visual contradiction, exemplifying a kind of losing of face, with the back of James' head repeated, his face present by implication yet, impossibly, invisible.

It can be seen as a further annunciation of the paradox of representation present in much of Magritte's work (most famously in Ceci n'est pas une pipe, 1928-29). The surface of the painting presents both 'heads' as equally tangible and yet ephemeral, existing yet merely represented, living while dead.

The concept represented here is seen throughout the film Black Swan (2010).

Friday, 21 January 2011

Bite 43: William Henry Fox Talbot - The Open Door, 1843

The Open Door, 1843
This is the birth of photography as an art form. Plate 5 from Talbot's groundbreaking photobook (one of the first ever) The Pencil of Nature - an apt descriptor for the new medium - he explained the work as an example "of the early beginnings of a new art." 

The first to see this potential, Talbot invented the calotype photographic process in England simultaneously with Niépce and Dageurre's invention in France. Although it was not blessed with the same initial success as the daguerreotype, it can be seen as perhaps a more foundational invention in the history of photography. Being a negative/positive process it was possible to create countless images from the initial negative thus becoming the basis for almost all succeeding processes. 

With The Open Door Talbot is not only exploring the capabilities of his new invention - "especially useful for naturalists since one can copy the most difficult things, for instance crystallization's and minute parts of plants, with great detail" - but he is also specifically emulating seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of scenes from everyday life. Photo-historian Larry Schaaf points out that the photograph draws on the doorway as a traditional symbol of the passage between life and light, and death and darkness. 

The broom is positioned diagonally against the doorway. The deep darkness of the interior, with only a hint of light from a window, emphasises a mystery and ambiguity.

Talbot has clearly taken deep consideration over the image's composition, and even the time of day for the negative to be exposed to increase contrast and utilise shadow as an aesthetic element - parallel to the broom - as well as to bring out texture in the door.

Although certainly relying heavily on the medium of painting - as much early photography which aspired to art did - The Open Door none-the-less represents the beginning of an ongoing exploration and tension within the medium over the relationship between photography and the history of art.

Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Lawrence King, 2002.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Bite 42: Louis Daguerre - Boulevard du Temple, c. 1838

Boulevard du Temple, c. 1838
This is probably the first portrait photograph ever taken - albeit somewhat unintentionally. During a several-minute-long exposure Louis Daguerre, who is seen as a co-inventor of the photographic medium, has captured a pedestrian who has stopped to have his shoes shined. 

No other subject or vehicle shows up. Only this anonymous figure was still long enough to become a silhouette on the light sensitive surface of the daguerreotype - a technology which was yet to be announced to the world.

With a mundane activity he has unwittingly made photographic history.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Bite 41: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce - View from the Window at Gras, 1826

View from the Window at Gras, 1826
The first 'photograph'. Although controversially regarded so, Niépce's View from the Window at Gras is none-the-less widely seen as the earliest existing photographic image.

The technology for the recording and fixing of light - through the invention of the camera obscura and the discovery of light sensitive silver halide - existed for many years prior to this image being created. Here Niépce brings the two discoveries together - one chemical, the other optic.

Taken from an upstairs window of his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône by an eight hour exposure - light can be seen on opposing buildings - the grainy image can only be seen with intense manipulation and an increase in contrast. Then a blurry landscape emerges. 

Taken as an experiment, Niépce surely had no full comprehension of how radical this breakthrough was, how world changing the birth of this medium would become.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Don DeLillo on Writing

"Writing is a concentrated form of thinking... a young writer sees that with words he can place himself more clearly into the world. Words on a page, that's all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions."
                                                     - Don DeLillo

Bite 40: Andy Warhol - A Woman's Suicide

A Woman's Suicide, 1963, silkscreen print, installation view
"There was no profound reason for doing a death series, no 'victims of their time'; there was no reason for doing it at all, just a surface reason."
                                                     - Andy Warhol
The subject matter here is not so much a woman's death by her own hand as the public consumption of that event's representation. A photographer has captured a woman mid-flight. Warhol, having appropriated this image, has reproduced it degraded and repeated referencing the simulacra of commodity culture and mass media. 

We experience the image repeating and overlapping - like the visualisation of a stuck record. Any meaning, sentimentality or individuality has been drained from the only referenced event; yet we still ask ourselves about her. In the lack of any information - or perhaps because of it - we are intrigued by the mystery of this woman's circumstance.

At the same time Warhol confines her to a cliche, a generalisation, merely referring to the reference of suicide.


Monday, 17 January 2011

Bite 39: William Eggleston - Southern Environs of Memphis, 1969-70

Southern Environs of Memphis, from William Eggleston's Guide, 1976
"Eggleston's photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis. On the weekends he searches for that lost ticket - it must be somewhere - with a haphazard thoroughness that confounds established methods of investigation."
                                                - Geoff Dyer, The Eternal Moment
There is something altogether sinister about William Eggleston's suburbia. Exactly centred in the frame, headlights for eyes, the car sits ominously by the curb of a wide street in Memphis. A cloudy Southern winter sky hovers above.

The beauty of Eggleston's work, and particularly his ground-breaking book William Eggleston's Guide (a guide to what?), is the seeming randomness of his eye. 

He confounds. It is impossible to fully grasp his aim or even overall message; yet his work is coherent in an indescribable way - like classical music as opposed to Pop.

The Guide is nothing short of a symphony, and can claim to be the first such in colour in the history of photography. Focusing on 'banal' details of suburban American life, Eggleston creates a stillness, a tone of melancholic meditation, that continues to reward the seeking, returning reader time and time again.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Bite 38: Peter Panyoczki - New Zealand Sheep in Manhattan Dreaming of Home, 2010

New Zealand Sheep in Manhattan Dreaming of Home, 2010,
 inkjet and perspex on aluminum and backlight, 150 x 150 x 65 cm

The Keeper of Sheep XXXIX

The mystery of things – where is it?
Why doesn't it come out
To show us at least that it's mystery?
What do the river and the tree know about it?
And what do I, who am no more than they, know about it?

Whenever I look at things and think about what people think of them,
I laugh like a brook cleanly plashing against a rock.
For the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning.
It's the strangest thing of all,
Stranger than all poets' dreams
And all philosophers' thoughts,
That things are really what they seem to be
And there's nothing to understand.

Yes, this is what my senses learned on their own:
Things have no meaning: they exist.
Things are the only hidden meaning of things. 

Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa)

Currently on view at the Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland.
TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre Opening Exhibition Catalogue

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Bite 37: Sam Foley - Intersection, Serpentine Ave and Canongate Rd, 2008

Intersection, Serpentine Ave and Canongate Rd, 2008, oil on canvas with projection, 200 x 118cm
A car approaches. You hear the dull, steady hum. Ghostly, appearing only as light on the canvas, headlights beaming, indicator blinking as it turns, a car passes across the painting. 

Streetlights flicking, the scene is eerily quiet - like any suburban street after dark - the only life the bright windows of houses hinting at the domesticity within, cars passing by. A window onto one such intersection, Sam Foley's highly original work captures this scene effortlessly, mesmerising in its envelopment, a simple but intelligent use of projection and sound with paint bringing the tableau to life.

Many great work of art focus on the mundane, emphasising the profundity of elements of the world around us which many of us ignore or do not see as noteworthy. This work achieves exactly this, venerating with oil on canvas a 'banal' streetscape after dark. Void of people yet populated none-the-less each car that passes speaking of loneliness and a uniquely 'suburban' frame of mind, a frustration within order.

Currently on view at the Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland.
Location on Google Maps.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Bite 36: Ryuzo Nishida - Self-Portrait, 2004

Self-Portrait, 2004, nails and paint on board, 100 x 100 cm
Each 'pixel' here making up the face is a gray or black nail driven into board. Yet despite the apparent drawbacks of Nishida's chosen mixed-media method, this self-portrait none-the-less remains remarkably commanding and highly expressive. 

In fact the use of nails seems somewhat appropriate to this mans expression - his eyes silently scream just as his wide mouth does - while the 'calming' pale blue background off-sets this tension. 

A Japanese-New Zealander who often confronts imperialist social issues in his work, Nishida may well be in consternation against racial assumptions or invisibility. Or perhaps he is angry at a constant misunderstanding of his creative endeavors, at always being put into particular conceptual boxes. 

He succeeds, however, is remaining gloriously ambiguous, staring us straight in the face, confronting us with a highly personal identity crisis. 

Currently on view at the Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bite 35: Theo Schoon - Geothermal Study No. 6, c. 1950

Geothermal Study No. 6, c. 1950
Through extreme close-up, decontextualising geothermal pools from their surroundings, Schoon is able to draw an abstract beauty and symmetry out of unique but natural phenomena found in Rotorua,  New Zealand. Altogether transcending traditional tourist imagery of the twentieth century he had an obsessive purpose - to reach past the trite and commercial to the unique, the magical, the true beauty of these areas," as Michael Dunn explains.

Arguably true abstraction within 'straight' photography is impossible, so instead Schoon responds to an abstraction already present in nature, representing a kind of Modernist vigor. The organic compositions came from months of observation, analyzing the perfect light to illuminate the glistening mud pools for the black and white negative, and waiting for the requisite combination of bubbles and flow. 

The result here is an image where the elements seem in conversation - or at least compositional equilibrium. This is photography in a pure form of its intended purpose - to freeze a moment for deliberation, to hold-still a changing surface so as to fully comprehend its inherent beauty and abstractness.

New Zealand Art From Cook to Contemporary, Te Papa Press, 2010.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Bite 34: Charles F. Goldie - The Widow, 1903

The Widow, 1903, oil on canvas
Weighed down by the burden of her 'dieing culture', as well as by the loss of her husband, an old Maori woman with a moko crouches on the floor of a thatched whare (house). By her lies her husbands pounamu mere (club) and huia feather. She meditates on a pounamu tiki, a further emblem of her grief but also of her culture and heritage. In reverie her mind is cast back to happier days.

Goldie seems to indicate that this woman's golden days are behind her, as they are for her people (or such was the belief held by Europeans toward Maori in the early twentieth century). This realist painting aims at capturing a world which will soon die out.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Bite 33: Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, 1855

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, 1855
"Once he left his studio, it was impossible for the photographer to copy the painters' schema. He could not stage-manage the battle, like Uccello or Velázquez, bringing together elements which had been separate in space and time, nor could he rearrange the parts of his picture to construct a design that pleased him better.
From the reality before him he could only choose that part that seemed relevant and consistent, and that would fill his plate. If he could not show the battle, explain its purpose, its strategy, or distinguished its heroes from its villains, he could show what was too ordinary to paint: the empty road scattered with cannon balls, the mud encrusted on the caisson's wheels, the anonymous faces, the single broken figure by the wall.
Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail. His work, incapable of narrative, turned to symbol."
                                                              - John Szarkowski
The most significant of early war photographs. It features no soldiers, wounded bodies, corpses or active conflict. This is the earth scarred after war, debris covering the ground, cannon balls scattered, the sky above stark white.

A Modernist take on war, the strength of the image is in its ambiguity, in its brutal minimalism. As Szarkowski points out, devoid of narrative or figure, the earth, the details of the cannon balls, speak volumes.

John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye, Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Bite 32: Arthur Rothstein - Mr and Mrs A. B. on their Farm near Kersey, Colorado, 1939

Mr and Mrs A. B. on their Farm near Kersey, Colorado, 1939
A farmer and his wife photographed for the Farm Security Administration by Arthur Rothstein. The purpose of the small but highly influential FSA photography program between 1935 and 1944 was to raise national awareness in the United States on the plight of the rural poor.

This couple seems immensely pleased to have been chosen to be photographed and noticeably proud of their produce, which they hold up to the camera. The fruits of their labour - a still-life of sorts adding to the success of the composition. Going from the roughness of Mr A. B.'s skin, complemented by the bark of the tree he stands against, his labour must surely be hard. Yet for this sitting he has carefully combed his hair and his wife is certainly wearing her favourite dress.

A tender image of rural domesticity, Rothstein none-the-less manages to transcend the cliche, presenting the couple in essentially human terms with honesty and integrity.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Bite 31: Rachel Whiteread - House, 1993

House, 1993, concrete
As a work of art Rachel Whiteread cast in concrete the rooms of a condemned house in the East End of London (where she previously lived). The house, as 193 Grove Road, came to stand as a memorial of domesticity and the passing of time. The space once occupied by the density of life becomes literally dense, a sculptural "multi-faceted monument to the sum of all memories," as journalist Andrew Graham-Dixon puts it. 

The paradoxical work is but the 'ghost' of a house, rendered unusable by its very veneration. It is a sculpture created by out of the absence of things.

With House Whiteread became the first women to win the Turner Prize. It was controversially demolished by the local council in 1994.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Bite 30: Käthe Kollwitz - Mother with Dead Child, 1903

Mother with Dead Child, 1903, etching
There is no condolence here. The viewer is faced with the brutal fact of mortality - death far too soon - just as the mother depicted is. She is shown as a dark, jagged, hunched-over mass, clinging to what is left of her child, who is etched as almost angelic in comparison, with delicate features and a bony shoulder emphasising his vulnerability. In many ways the child is more present here. 

The overwhelming grief of the mother is focused interminably on the corpse of her child as she desperately embraces him. A pain no person should ever experience is here made all too real and tangible. 

Beate Bonus-Jeep, Kollwitz's close friend, described the etching as, "A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-coloured corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb."

Created with immense feeling the work represents a deep understanding of its subject matter yet Kollwitz had no direct experience of this. It was only during WWI that her own son, Peter, age 21, (who posed as the Dead Child at age 7) was killed in the trenches. Her grandson died in WWII.


Monday, 3 January 2011

Bite 29: Caravaggio - The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600

The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, oil on canvas
"The Calling of St. Matthew depicts five men sitting round their usual table, telling stories, gossiping, boasting of what one day they will do, counting money. The room is dimly lit. Suddenly the door is flung open. The two figures who enter are still part of the violent noise and light of the invasion. (Berenson wrote that Christ comes in like a police inspector to make an arrest.)
Two of Matthew's colleagues refuse to look up, the other two younger ones stare at the strangers with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. Why is he proposing something so mad? Who's protecting him, the thin one who does all the talking? And Matthew, the tax-collector with a shifty conscience which has made him more unreasonable than most of his colleagues, points at himself and asks: is it really I who must go? Is it really I?
How many thousands of decisions to leave have resembled Christ's hand here! The hand is held out towards the one who has to decide, yet it is ungraspable because so fluid. It orders the way, yet offers no direct support. Matthew will get up and follow the thin stranger from the room, down the narrow streets, out of the district. He will write his gospel, he will travel to Ethiopia and the South Caspian and Persia. Probably he will be murdered.
And behind the drama of this moment of decision is a window, giving onto the outside world. In painting, up to then, windows were treated either as sources of light, or as frames framing nature or an exemplary event outside. Not so this window. No light enters. The window is opaque. We see nothing. Mercifully we see nothing because what is outside is threatening. It is a window through which only the worst news can come; distance and solitude."
                                                                                      - John Berger

John Berger,  And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Pantheon Books, 1984, p. p. 81-82.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Bite 28: Mary-Louise Browne - Font, 2009

Font, 2009, basalt
   "But all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well". 
                                                               - St. Julian of Norwich
A shallow fountain leads away from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland, directly adjacent to the altar and baptismal font. Even within this context - while quoting a Catholic mystic - Mary-Louise Browne's inspired work Font remains universal in truth and reception, encouraging stillness and thought.

You move around and over it as you read the text. The river of water continues to flow. Birds bathe and drink from it. Sitting by, it seems more made for them than for us, echoing the engraved text. "Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?" (Matthew 6:26).

A reflection on time and eternity the work remains immensely soothing, a consolation for the soul. The words, repeated over, never cease to confound, gathering new meaning, speaking to all those who are willing to stop for a moment and listen.

Further into the park the water leads down wide steps and out into the city. Blessed, it will certainly continue to nourish.


Saturday, 1 January 2011

Bite 27: Caspar David Friedrich - The Monk by the Sea, 1808-10

The Monk by the Sea, 1808-10, oil on canvas
Insignificant before nature the small figure sits just below the horizon, visually swamped by the sea and sky before him. The 'monk', sometimes seen as the figure of the artist, appears to float on the sand. Barely grounded yet centreing the composition. Originally met with bemusement and even annoyance the work is now seen as a forerunner to abstraction, appearing almost like a Rothko if the figure is removed. 

Yet the work sits firmly within German Romanticism, presenting the Sublime in its purest form, focusing on the loneliness and ambiguity of what it is to be human faced with the magnitude of the expanse of nature and eternity.

We hear the waves crash and stare towards the distant horizon, overcome by the mystery of why we are even standing on this sand.