susan white

golzar
Stills Gallery, Paddington
11 September - 12 October 2002

Susan White's complex installation draws on images and symbols of plant forms created by master craftsmen, many from the Middle Ages in Europe and the East. It is inspired by the idea of a meditative garden, like the walled and colonnaded gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, only this is a garden of imagery and symbolism, of cultural connectedness, rich with allusion and memory. It is an elegant visual feast in the form of a welcoming arch and a rectangle or billet laid out on the floor, constructed from finely worked metal plates, approximately six hundred 6" x 4" XPII tinted photographs, and direct inkjet scans of plants. The photographs show plants from the artist's mother's garden, stylised plant forms from Medieval, Islamic and other sources, and metallography and electron microscope images. Leaves, petals and fronds unfurl in echoing arabesques. Their formal congruence is a revelation - forms echo through the centuries from culture to culture, and are seen recurring in nature in White's photos of her mother's lovingly created garden. It is a painterly use of photography with subtle blending and gradations of tones, reminiscent of the pattern-making on the tiled floors and walls of mosques. There is light and shade, texture, the restless variations of organic form, all underlying the geometric structures of the metal plates in a complex tapestry. The sixty-five metal plates evoke Medieval heraldic shields, or board games from ancient cultures.

This work encourages us to walk around it and see it from all angles. White has placed high-key coloured fresco panels here and there to enhance the shimmering watery illusions created by the metal. Furthermore there are multiple reflections in the metal surfaces, and an underlying discourse on or enquiry into the way the eye perceives light and form. White has a long history of experimentation with electron microscope photography, and the closeups in some of these photos of the metal used in the plates paradoxically suggest further plant forms at a super-microscopic level. On the walls at Stills Gallery White placed large scale black-and-white photographs of the unfurling fronds of ferns, complementing the main installation. These images celebrate the mysterious power of renewal in nature, and draw our attention to the seasonal unfoldings of the plants dramatised in the main work.

Language, as Proust said, is a virus, and just as words spread between contexts and cultures, transmuting in meaning, similarly symbols and images travel across cultural boundaries. White is particularly interested in the transmutation of stylised plant forms from Islamic iconography that arrived in the West via the Crusades and appear in Medieval carvings and tapestries. Her work plays on Christian and Islamic crosses, pointed Gothic arches and lacy Moorish arches, images of the Garden of Eden and of Moslem 'paradise gardens', where reflecting pools and central fountains were meant to evoke paradise. For, as Lisa Heschong points out in Thermal Delight in Architecture: 'The Koran continued the tradition of Eden, assuming that it would also be our final home in Heaven, and Islamic palace gardens were modelled on descriptions of paradise in the Koran, carefully following the forms and geography, with coolness of shade and water and lush greenery' .1

Heschong also notes that for the Sufis, 'the life of a person's garden was tied to their own life, as the garden prospered, so did the soul of its inhabitants -the garden was an allegory of their relationship to God'. White's conceptual garden elegantly alludes to these Eastern philosophical ideas and to the major philosophical beliefs of the Middle Ages in Europe. One such source is Umberto Eco's text Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages where he notes how important allegory and symbolism were for the Medieval mind2 Metaphysical symbolism was an ancient tradition where the beauty of the universe 'reflected the hand of God', as Macrobius wrote. The highest pleasure in art was in enigmas revealed- art was both for the senses (its aesthetic beauty celebrating God's creation) and for the intellect (discovering the meanings of allegories and symbols). Art itself became a storehouse of images, a vast allegorical representation of the spiritual. Medieval manuscript illuminators, painters and stone carvers evolved a whole language of symbols, where a lily symbolizes the Virgin's purity, a fish symbolises Christ, a little dog stands for faithfulness, and so forth. And some of the symbols came from far-flung places and were incorporated regardless of their original meaning. White's work is steeped in these allusions, enriched by her long acquaintance with Medieval heraldry. You may find the spiralling arabesque of a vine carved on a cathedral reminds you of one from the Mosque at Cordoba. Her materials are cultural borrowings re-positioned in a new formal context- aspects of our cultural heritage are presented here for us to see afresh.

White's conceptual garden is a place where East meets West, each thing has its value - perhaps an understated beauty that is often overlooked - and symbols transmigrate across cultural boundaries. Visually literate viewers will have the pleasure of discovering a broad terrain of cultural references, but there are always some mystical symbols that remain mysterious, lending an intriguing sense of the unknown, potential further levels of meaning, reminding us that our cultures are far bigger than the individual's capacity to encompass every aspect of them. White's is an art of multiple meanings, layering and veils. The work is also an affirmation of cross-cultural tolerance, a reminder of the cultural borrowings and cross-fertilisation that occurred over the centuries, to the benefit of all – a reminder particularly relevant to us today. Above all there is a profound acknowledgment of the beauty and otherness of nature, and the rich variety of human aesthetic responses to it.

notes: 

1. Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture, 1979 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, p.66-67.

2. Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press, New Haven; London, 1986, p.54-61.