Fiona Macdonald

The presence of the past
Mori Gallery, Sydney
29 November -1 7 December, 1988

Fiona Macdonald's recent exhibition of collages, "The Presence of the Past" is a labyrinth of exotic fragments, each work a reliquary of European cul­ture's dream of Enlightenment through conquest. The exhibition as a whole is modelled on an eigh­teenth century natural history museum. The larger works being spectacular display cases of the collection's prizes, with the medium sized works as classificatory stations, entitled "Protagonists", plus four­teen "Specimens". The collages themselves are visual conflagrations of colour and light, the strange and the familiar, all brought together via the irrational logic of the dream, Macdonald's imaginary museum. In Macdonald's work dreams and madness are animating principles, she uses visual puns with abandon and creates a context in which the botanist’s obsession with cataloguing nature becomes a Jules Verne adventure. Macdonald herself wanders through Sydney's stores, collecting her specimens, geology and botanical journals, interior decoration and fine art magazines. These are classified and catalogued by Macdonald into an archive. It is from this archive that works such as Collector and Custodian are born. These works are members of her "Protagonists" series, collage "portraits" of archetypal authority figures, the administrative heads of the museum's archive.

Macdonald has an uncanny talent for creating a gestalt effect that remains merely the sum of all its parts. In the "Protagonists" series, the disparate ele­ments of seashells, fossils, German tapestries, ocelot and cabinetry, cohere as an image of a human figure even as they dissipate. The identity of each object is thus elaborated only in terms of the interplay between reality and representation. As in the spiral of the seashell she uses so frequently, Macdonald's visual semantics only circumscribes some purposive centre in order to spin ever out­wards from it.

If Macdonald's work is disconcerting however, it is not because it seems to reveal some arcane representational order, or repressed truth. Rather, the artist's games and scientific instrumental thought are redescribed as belonging to the same symbol1c matrix. Unlike the Surrealist collage or Heartfield's political photo-montage, both of which celebrated some alternative awareness, Macdonald's collages forcefully collapse the vital difference between dream and reality. Her work thereby 1mp1nges upon the visual catalogues of our daytime imaginings.