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the olive branch
I am the first person in the Experimental Art Foundation today, and the forest scents are heavy in the air; a kind of purity and decaying at the same time, almost tipping over into too cloying. The lights flood on and the gallery is enveloped in a yellowish glow, the sun has arisen in the forest. The gallery manager walks around turning the incense sticks so that the end that was dipped in scent overnight now releases its scent into the air. The aroma becomes stronger and more synthetic or commercially recognisable; overnight the scent of the decaying tree had taken over, and with the advent of the day it is pushed back into the background.
After the A-bomb hit Hiroshima six Ginkgo Biloba trees survived and re-budded; Ginkgos also survived the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl. The trees today are monuments of hope, endurance and peace. In the book of ‘Genesis’, after God has flooded the earth, Noah sends out a white dove from the ark to search for land. After a few trips the dove finally returns with an olive branch held in its beak—the flood waters have receded. The olive branch is an ancient Greek symbol of peace. In Regulators Bridget Currie has transported a felled olive tree into the gallery at the Experimental Art Foundation, and laid it out to rest sideways on ply-wood sticks. ‘In the clean white gallery space the tree becomes a thing, object-tree, residue or evidence of the artist’s thought process as it works at figuring something out.’ Recently returned from a residency at the CCA Kitakyushu Japan, Currie was inspired by the Japanese practice of altering the structures of plants—either by crutches or selective pruning.1
Currie has placed the olive tree sideways so that the branches become root-like, a play of the rhizomatic and arboreal. In her artist’s notes she speaks of ‘…joining the earth and the sky: decaying on the ground, the warm smell of leaf mould and floral honey in the tips of the tree’.2 The artist’s branches stretch out sideways, a spider reaching into the space of the gallery. You hardly ever see a tree from this angle, unless it has fallen or been felled—usually one looks up at trees—here you can walk into the space that is formed by the top-most branches. Moving in close to the tree you can see that there are moss and lichen growing on its branches, most likely still alive; you start to wonder whether the tree itself is still alive—how long does it take a tree to die after it has been felled? Teri Hoskins, in her catalogue essay for Regulators speaks of trees as representing, in terms of duration, something other than historical time; a kind of timelessness or ancientness that is difficult to comprehend in terms of one human life span. There is a sadness about this work, for the loss of the life of a tree, but more deeply, for the complex entanglement that humans have with the natural. The olive tree is, after all, a pest in Australia.
The other half of the EAF is devoted to the work of Paul Sloan. This side of the gallery directly contrasts with the silent, subtle, ‘natural’ side of Regulators; Sloan’s drawings in Psychic Souvenirs are bright, noisy and energetic forays into the world of popular culture. In Ken Bolton’s accompanying catalogue essay he speaks of Sloan’s work as having ‘thrown up’3 (imagery, etcetera), and Sloan’s paintings, featuring boats, birds, statues and skeletons, certainly do seem to be thrown onto the gallery wall, complete with drips, layers and random marks. This is one of the first exhibitions in which Sloan has included sculptural installation work. While using some quirky popular imagery similar to that of his paintings, his installations are in contrast to the drawings in that they feature austere, white, finely sanded plaster and paint. Primitive Sounds – Tracks for Lescaux features a white bone-like cast plaster record with a cast bone laid on it. Odyssey and Oracle is a white painted tree, hung with microphones on a mirror surrounded by bones. The contrast between the installations and the paintings is made more pronounced when one thinks about their relationship with time: it would have taken Sloan hours to finely sand the record surfaces, compared to the quickness of gesture exhibited in the paintings. The body of the artist, the movements made by his hands and arms, is very present in the paintings, whereas the installations appear as sealed art objects. A further contrast can be found in the play on time that the exhibition seems to speak of as a whole. The quickness of the drawings, which feature flash-in-the-pan imagery of popular culture, seem out of time with the slow time of trees and the bones in the installations. There is a disparity here. This is not jarring, however, but it leads to a questioning of cultural imagery in terms of duration and temporality. Bones are featured in both Sloan’s paintings and installations—do the brightly coloured, repetitious bones of the paintings have any more valency than the sober cast bones?