Paradox in a Paddock: The art of synecdoche

5 September to 19 October 2013

Elizabeth Paterson

Elizabeth Paterson, Paradox in a Paddock (detail), 2013, paper, grass matting and glue. Photos: Brenton McGeachie.

Paradox in a Paddock: The art of synecdoche by Zsuzsanna [Zsuzsi] Soboslay

Elizabeth Paterson has long been concerned with perspective, and with questioning how and what we see or don't see around us.

In 1998, I performed with Roland Manderson in an outdoor performance piece Paterson devised. The vehicle we trundled through the crowds of Floriade was a contraption made out of two bicycles and beaten biscuit tins. The odd Jalopy even delivered songs and birdcalls from different countries, thanks to an old fashioned pop-in, push-out cassette deck handled by the performers.

The roof unfolded to reveal a rich hanging redolent of Persia, a window-box appearing to the sound of a fountain's cascade. Other scenes – a woman hanging washing on a makeshift line to the tune of a gypsy violin; a picnic rug spread out beside the car accompanied by crow calls – evoked equally distinctive "elsewheres", clearly shifting us from Europe to Australia. This technique of synecdoche [part standing for the whole] was one of the work's greatest strengths, a challenge to our empathic imaginations. Paterson wanted the spectator to witness a slice of people's histories, glimpsed from a distance, viewed from middle-ground, or overheard by chance through their proximity to the passing car. It was an innovative if gentle examination of Australian multiculturalism, and the gaps in our understandings of others' histories and experiences.

 

The works Paterson devised between then and now belong more clearly within the visual rather than the performing arts, yet retain the struggle to define a sense of place, of belonging or not belonging, and of how we give shape to ourselves in different environments. She created The Commonplace of Canberra for the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2009. The work is a 5m x 3m bas relief, a cartoon-like road-map of the regulations put in place to determine the balance between people, space, roads and trees in the planning of this city. Made entirely of papier maché, it includes depictions of people, animals, bulldozers and birds. Its very materiality is a joyously wry comment on the amount of paperwork required to realise such decisions.

Her earlier Street Trees of Canberra, hung in the National Botanical Gardens in 2008, is another papier maché relief, this time a 20metre-long scroll specifically depicting the planning and planting of Canberra's trees. Its narrative spans the blasting of the limestone plains with gelignite, the planting of native versus introduced species, the laying out of roads and the changing fashions in cars over eight decades. There are fine distinctions in the colours and textures of bark and leaves. A well-researched piece of work, it too is not without its humour: the arborist Charles Weston is portrayed in a face-off with his bete noir, the destructive rabbit. And anyone who knows of the aesthetic conflict between Weston and Walter Burley Griffin could recall Griffin's iconic statement, 'nature above all', and delight in the irony of it all.

The city of Canberra's paradox is that its spaciousness is both its virtue and the object of its ridicule. Pioneering [and later] politicians dismissed the town as a 'paddock'. Yet Canberra's spaciousness remains the predominant feature of this city and, thanks to National Capital Authority ordinances from the 1970s, remains regulated into the city's plan. It is a quality Paterson relishes—'How lucky we are!' she insists, even whilst acknowledging it as a characteristic many struggle with.

 

Coming to the present exhibition, Paterson issues a further transformation: Canberra's narrative of how it creates space gives over to the verb, spacing, or even, being spaced. She reflects on a city of trees that makes us as much as we make it. It is a liberating paradigm.

Whilst the work of Jyll Bradley and Jonquil Panting currently on exhibit at the National Library of Australia [a Canberra 100 event] harvests oral histories about people's relationship with Canberra's trees [both in audio files broadcast in the exhibition's 'listening cones' as well as downloadable via iphone apps which one can take walking outdoors], Paterson's work focuses on the act of being present to her created spaces without such mediation. She achieves this by irritating us [much as an oyster is irritated by grit to make a pearl] with a series of juxtapositions of size and texture as we traverse the room.

To begin with, the way we approach the gallery encourages a gathering of information via peripheral vision. Paterson cites artists who have provoked her thinking in this, most notably the architect Juhani Pallasmaa who insisted that whilst 'focused vision pushes us out of space, peripheral vision integrates us with it' [Pallasmaa, "The Eyes of the Skin"]. From the corridor, through the glass partition, we glimpse a bas relief mountain, small as in the far distance. But this vision shifts as we walk into the room, becoming juxtaposed against objects too big by contrast, side-ended or curved over [oh those crunchy cauliflower-headed trees], or a fringe of grass growing out of nowhere. Indeed, the room is sweet with texture: corrugated board rubs against frayed rattan knotting and gnarled canopies. Our viewing becomes a performance. The installation triggers a series of cognitions such as we subconsciously make, navigating the rugged outdoors. I am like a child, tripping, drawing, turning, my eyes scribbling across textural planes, much as my hips are rolled and body re-formed, passing over uneven ground.

Fragility is part of the experience. I approach one of the 'trees' and almost want to blow it like a dandelion. When the exhibition is over; Paterson says, 'everything can go in the bin.' Of course, such ephemerality is a great challenge to the value of a work. Is great art always about longevity? If we are always looking to how something lasts into the future then how deeply present to it can we really be?

I am reminded of the way glass artist Kirstie Rea [in homage to Fred Sandback] recently eschewed her own medium to represent the spaciousness she experienced as a Craft ACT artist-in-residence in Namadgi with nothing but string1; Paterson's mapping via contrasts of texture is a striking understanding of the way texture per se is as powerful as colour or line in eliciting emotion. In a room of doormat greys and lunch bag browns, her skill is in highlighting the significance of this process.

Paterson says she remains as excited and refreshed by this project as she did when she first proposed it to Craft ACT in 2010. 'I didn't want to know the end result. I wanted to keep it like drawing: fresh, unfinished; to know is to kill it.' And significantly, as for so many artists, she has realised in years past she was 'creating through fear', which is an often crushing determinant of both result and process. This work is different, both in execution and perception: a textural and perceptual relishing, replenishing and refreshing of the mind's eye of a capital vision.

Happy Canberran Birthday to anyone visiting this exhibition. Happy journeying.

Soboslay is a writer, performer, reviewer, exhibition curator and illustrator with a special interest in ecology, perception, memory and immigration. www.bodyecology.com.au