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For the French people, poppies are a wildflower. The scarlet flowers of the Flanders poppy signal the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer, much as do our jacarandas. Nicole Sylvestre's installation of ceramic poppies, Poppy Field, at the Queensland Art Gallery, stemmed from her realisation of the very different cultural interpretations the poppies of her native Flanders have in Australia.
Though blue cornflowers are as common in Flanders as the blood red poppies (the French actually remember the Australian soldiers by the cornflower) it was the traditional association of poppies with oblivion and death, and their long history in English pastoral poetry, that made them an obvious choice for a commemorative symbol after World War I. The most popular poem in English of the period was John McRae's "In Flanders Fields", where " ... poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row ."'
In time for Anzac Day, Sylvestre 's red ceramic poppies were mounted on wire stems and "planted" in a field of turf in the Gallery's sculpture courtyard. Initially, a pleasantly poetic image was conveyed, the red and green posing no immediate challenge to the viewer. The juxtaposition, however, of Anzac Day, of the visual elements of the work, and of its nature as an artwork, implanted the sense of reflection which the artist had envisaged.
In the last 200 years Australians have been involved in ten wars2, a war every 20 years Gallipoli being the most famous. Does it come as a surprise, then, to learn that poppies also symbolise fantastic extravagance? For every soldier who dies, how many more are hurt, and how many women and men sorrow at home? What could we achieve if resources were not channelled so hugely into destruction? Obvious questions, often repeated. Just as poppies repeat their cycle, year after year, raising their blood red heads out of the earth, like the ghosts of dead soldiers.
Ceramic poppies, however, will not decently drop their petals and die. The medium chosen fixed these blood coloured gobbets into a permanence that echoed the reality of wars; every generation , soldiers and civilians have their blood, their lives, their bodies, blown to flesh coloured bits.
This appropriation of flower imagery is at once apt and subversive. Traditionally a decorative subject in art, flowers here symbolise oblivion, memory, and bloody realities. The art is political, yet transcendent. Sylvestre's message was more overtly stated in the exhibition, Poppies, which was shown concurrently at the Palace Gallery. Poppies and earth in an old ammunition box (still serviceable), with a red line from floor to ceiling. An unbroken stream of blood? In another room, an oblong of raw earth on the floor, with alternating mounts of red apples and poppies, "row by row". The apples wither, die of old age, return to the earth; the ceramic poppies will always be there, until removed by the artist. "They will not grow old ... " Yet, in Still Life with Poppies, there is a garden chair (or was it a wheelchair?). This icon waits on fresh green turf, covered with grass which has grown and died. Repose is displaced; the chair is alone, empty.
Nature Morte, the title of three works in this exhibition, connotes the dialectic inherent in Sylvestre 's Poppies ; absence/presence , life/death, nature/culture, art/reality. Conventional expectations of art and still life are thwarted by this exhibition. The work is not presented as a commodity; some of its elements belong "outside" to nature, where they will decay into the life cycle. The permanent elements, the poppies, may be an embarrassment in their endurance-how do you deal with such a persistent manifestation of an idea?
The last room contained a small white table with a white urn at the centre; on the walls were unframed photocopies and collages, derived from newspaper images of the invasion of the Kurds, and of flowers, off centre, blurred . A caption: "They laid the babies out in rows". The clinical white in the centre of the room seemed to wait, red was conspicuously absent. The photocopies, via their medium, convey a strong sense of the now. The latest bloodbath can also be repeated with machine-gun speed and mindlessness. The white urn waits: the subtext of blood is flowing. A fixture, it seems.
1. McRae, John. "In Flanders Fields ". The Golden Book of Modern English Poetry. 2nd. ed. Ed. Thomas Caldwell. London: Dent, 1935. p. 255.
2. Firkins, Peter. The Australians in Nine Wars: Waikato to Long Tan. Adelaide: Rig by, 1971.