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Cyclopaedia, the showing of Fiona MacDonald's collages at Elizabeth Bay House earlier this year, encapsulated two hundred years of the construction of scientific knowledge and theory. The works—photographic collages comprised of images of shells, birds and other 'naturalia' superimposed over microscopic enlargements—were hung in the library of the house, the room where a reasonable proportion of the colony's scientific research took place under the watchful eye of Alexander Macleay. Here, Macleay classified and catalogued the flora and fauna of the colony according to Linnean specifications. One hundred and fifty years later, MacDonald reconstructs that ordering by taking the specimens out of their sterile cabinets and rearranging them according to visible qualifications of shape, colour and size and then placing them against a background of microscope slide enlargements-images of the unobservable (to the unassisted eye) structures of life. Macleay was unaware of these invisible structures when he catalogued the natural world. His classification was based purely on the observable elements of the world. MacDonald shows us that there is more to it than that.
MacDonald's earlier work was modelled on and presented like an eighteenth century museum of natural history. Cyclopaedia was actually shown within a museum-a storehouse of preserved objects arranged to constitute a picture of the past. MacDonald's images fitted in well with the overall space. The construction of some of the images actually quoted the basic architectural elements of the house: the symmetry of rooms, where each reflects the opposite; the central spiral staircase and the ovoid dome are all 'quoted' by MacDonald's use of 'butterfly' symmetry where one half of the image reflects and repeats the other; the oval frames and cutouts, and, in one piece, two spiral shells which sit in the centre of the image echoing the staircase which dominates the house. Unlike Elizabeth Bay House, where symmetry was so important that a false door was inserted under the stairway to balance the door on the other side, MacDonald likes to throw things of balance by concealing objects and skillfully blending them into the background. MacDonald upsets out expectations of regularity and order and provokes a questioning of the accuracy of our own observation and perception. Shells and butterfly wings merge into their backgrounds until they are almost unrecognisable as one or the other. Macleay's separation of organisms within the neutral ground of the specimen table has here collapsed. MacDonald is questioning the premise on which Madeay's categorisations and subsequent ordering of the natural world is based—the observation of the external elements of that world.
The sort of classifying and cataloguing used by Macleay and other gentlemen collectors in their relentless pursuit of control and power through knowledge was reliant on and limited by whatever the naked eye could see. Categorisation concerned itself with the visible—size, shape, colour and was ordered within a Tabula Rasa. MacDonald seems to be subverting those tables by presenting the images within a representational space indicative of a new branch of science—microscopy. MacDonald's work has always been to some extent concerned with the construction of science and knowledge and the structures of power that are its results. The images shown in Macleay's library deal, on one level, with basic scientific concerns of scale—size being a qualification in the process of classifying through physical description—and, on another level, with the way we conceptualise the world—restricted as we are (without mechanical assistance) to seeing only the things that our own scale will allow us.
The works are as skillfully constructed as ever—MacDonald continues to play her chameleon game, where background and loreground details merge to create a tension between what is and isn't there. The division of the picture plane into four parts, with the arrangement of beetles or butterflies over the top of them, gives the work a strong graphic quality. It is a simpler, more refined method than her earlier works which luxuriated in a kind of rococo ornateness. The restrained lines of the pictures' composition bring a new seriousness to MacDonald's images. She has eliminated any reference to the human form, which was so prevalent in her earlier work, and opted for an almost totemic style of representation. One image, birds skulls, feathers and eggs against an aerial photo background, seems to refer to ‘primitive’ rituals and practices—conjuring up images of shamanism and witchdoctory.
MacDonald's previous images would not have worked so well in the context of Macleay's library. The lush ornamentation and detail of her earlier pieces would have melded to smoothly with the ostentatious Victorian furnishings. They may well have seemed like another bell-jar filled with stuffed birds and wax flowers. The strict and clear definition of MacDonald's images into a repeated pattern based on properties of colour and shape give the work a newer, more rigorous edge. Having completely cut out the human for her work, MacDonald is left to make sense out of the bare bones of past imagery. The work is now harder, bolder and more confident, moving away from her earlier preoccupation with the power politics of colonisation and enlightenment and into a more rigorous exploration of the foundations upon which that knowledge/power is based. In Macleay's time, butterflies and beetles were pinned down inside cabinets and classified according to their external differences and similarities. Scientific observation and the construction of a Natural History was limited to what could be seen with the naked eye or with primitive methods of magnification. MacDonald's images make use of more sophisticated methods of recording and documentation that allow the eye to see the internal nature and working of organisms—the premise on which the science of biology is based. Scale has been collapsed to the point where things become either unrecognisable or resemble other things—where microscopic photos of skin cells resemble alien landscape.
Repetition of imagery creates an illusory order—it is more of a playful arrangement of similar images with no one law governing their placement. This is not to say that MacDonald has juxtaposed images at random. The order of their placement is more of an arbitrary one, based on considerations of pattern, colour, line and the interaction of shapes—in order based on external visible values. Macleay and his contemporaries ordered their specimens according to the same qualifications. The difference between them is that MacDonald is not trying to present an ordered representation of the natural world. Instead, she reveals the hidden, invisible elements of that world. Elements too complex and sophisticated to be pinned down within a single categorisation, and which leave the findings of Macleay and his colleagues somewhat outdated.