“To look at these images [the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey] is to feel them. They don’t represent movement, they move-with the movement of feeling taking form” --Erin Manning, Coloring the Virtual, Configurations, 16.3 (Fall, 2008) 325-345
Landscape has been the key subject for Australian artists, and has taken a large place in our thesaurus of belonging. Indeed you could say, more broadly, that what happens to nature is the biggest story in the daily existence of the human race. Forget Mars, our engineers have been busy terraforming Earth. As a result, our soils, aquifers and forests have got out-of-synch with the slow ecological cycles of deep time.
We need the long view, but let’s get some shorter views first.
Natural history dates back to the Greeks, Romans, and the medieval Arab world, but nature became an object to be mastered, through classification and taxonomy, over two hundred and fifty years ago. Carl Linnaeus (called “the second Adam”) collected specimens in cork-lined boxes and in glass-lidded cabinets of curiosity. Nature thus arranged, spatially and temporally, became both a perceptible domain and an object of knowledge, on top of being territory, property, resource. To define nature, in other words, you had to separate yourself from it, as mankind. As it happens, Joseph Banks, in a joint Royal Navy/Royal Society expedition, took part in the colonization of Australia at roughly the same time, with two Scandinavian naturalists, two artists, a scientific secretary, and two black servants from his estate.
Meanwhile the way artists interpreted nature at the time, was divided. Some, like the parson- naturalists (Gilbert White) took the natural theology argument for the goodness of God. Others, like the Romantic artists, saw Nature's uncontrollable power and amoral forces blowing away any notions of Enlightenment reason and order. For Caspar David Friedrich or J.W. Turner – nature, with its cataclysmic extremes, could “imprint a feeling of terror”(Edmund Burke’s take on the sublime). Nature was a shipwreck, an alpine blizzard, a blasted tree, an unbridled horse.
For us though: neither churchly order nor primal states, neither God nor Devil. Dead coral reefs, “wildscreen” nature documentaries, the chemical landscape of agribusiness (to say nothing of in-vitro fertilization, androids etc.) suggest nature has been dispossessed of its primeval initiatives. Violently gutted by colonialism, and scorched by successive generations of settlers and migrants, places (like Australia, Madagascar, Bali) can conjure landscapes that “imprint terror”, but not toward the sublime, rather the anti-sublime. What remains are haunted places, spaces of unquiet psychic power, with dues to be paid somehow.
Constantly challenging and re-conceiving her photographic practice Rosemary Laing’s effort and rush continues preoccupations with time, movement and place, begun in greenwork (1995) and brownwork (1996-97). Bringing considerable technical and conceptual skills to this new sequence of six large photographs of trees in motion, it’s as if depth charges have brought up buried bodies from all that carnage and destruction. (Destruction happens all at once. Bad things happen fast – a burnt library or a forest – and they take time to rehabilitate; good things happen slowly.)
Less a Stieglitz-like concern with matters of atmosphere and composition, according to the western landscape tradition, effort and rush is almost a psychogeographic quest. Psychogeography as a practice, not a field; and the research, and the scouting around for sites, and the shoot, are all part of that practice. The aim, it seems, is to create the imaginative space beyond the stabilized regime of representation, where we can reclaim, in psychic terms, what we’ve done to nature and ourselves in the West.
And it’s a practice that is crucially about how we see. Or don’t see. In a culture dedicated to trashing nature we become eyewitnesses to events and images that pass us by. As in trauma, images don’t register anymore, yet they retain their potency. We sleepwalk through them. We not only see things that are “not there”(like afterimages), we don’t see things that are there. When we take a photo, what’s going on? Can our cognitive-perceptual capacities be embodied directly in the shoot? Or are we, in the act of taking the picture, cut-off from it? There is, as they say, a “disconnect”. In classical terms, the situation remains Orphic: too blind to see when we are whole, alert only as a rolling head. And what lies outside the nominal spatial ground of the photo itself?
These issues expand and radicalize Rosemary Laing’s take on the still photograph. Photography not just “sampling” the world, but a retroactive appreciation of this complexity in seeing it. Laing seeks a window onto perception doubling back on itself – something as old as the Shiva Sutra and as recent as Deleuze on cinema – as an ethical precondition for reparation.
The artist adds a phantasmatic dimension to her ambivalent images, and not without an aperçu of loss: loss of nature and country, loss of stillness, loss of language. Thus Laing talks of “ghost images” in her notes, “coming at us from the future” (rather than to the future). Interesting idea: a “beforeimage” rather than an “afterimage”; or a “beforeandafterimage”? (As if the present is not framed by the past and future; the present is a former future, and the past will occur in the future.)
Situated between what we see and what we think we see, between what’s there and the imperceptible, Laing adopts for effort and rush, a kind of proto-cinematic way of seeing. She refers specifically to the zoetrope (called a philosophical toy in the nineteenth century), with its stutter-step between movement and stillness, form and dissolution. Yet we are far from the mechanistic worldview of that century with its static retinal image seen in terms of hand-cranked machines. Our eyes move, and our bodies move, in a moving world. So Laing is using the zoetrope as a metaphor to allow play between the two types of time in the single photo: historical time (in registering the appearance of the world in a still image) and ecstatic time (in registering its immanence in the painterly effects). A stand of trees, or a bit of bush, appear to fuse, melt, disappear in a blur that suggests movement in the viewer (as from a car) where we join our duration with its duration. It’s a kind of virtuality (ideal and yet real) – this time-scale beneath the threshold of representation - that allows her to play between past and present, the absent and the arriving. There’s the trace of a branch, the gestures of leaf movement, the whoosh at ground-level, that retains its memory long enough to only then slowly give way to the next trace.
The landscapes seem to belong to deep space-time. As the sumptuous dance of the trees takes form, to see is to feel-with, in these painterly effects, and it’s an entrée into the imperceptible. Laing doesn’t let go of this seeing well into the printing phase. Waves pass visibly across their surfaces. And I think the connection may be less with the zoetrope here than with the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey, especially his Air Movement studies c. 1901, with its micro-observations of things hidden within movement and time, like the smooth prolonged trails of gases, and in volutes of smoke.
The compositional model is – oddly – Rubens. To choreograph the violence of effort and rush with thrilling visual rhythms – Laing went to Peter-Paul Rubens (The Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1617) not as the painter of fleshy nudes, but for the push-pull compositional energy that equivocates between violence and solicitude in the brothers, resistance and gratification in the sisters. Trees, take on shifting tones – ghostly shadows of bracken straw, blues and silvers, charcoal greys, even rust and russet with turquoise green skies – to uncover the turbulences beneath the surface. Some to the point of looking as if they’ve taken a blow to the solar plexus. Then Nature is reforged.
Laing seeks an aesthetic order parallel to the broken desire for an imagined wholeness: Asking for sublimation, asking why sublimation cannot be.
And in the mean time giving us a sustaining demonstration of sheer photographic bravura by simply asking the question.