Nature Continually Ablaze

Renata Buziak: Medicinal Plant Cycles
Gaffa Gallery, Sydney; Gallery WM, Amsterdam
16–27 March 2017; 2 September – 7 October 2017

You could be forgiven for thinking that the images on display in Renata Buziak’s exhibition Medicinal Plant Cycles, an exploration of decay and regeneration, were actually facsimiles of paintings. One of the most striking things about them is their vivid colours, iridescent blues and purples vying with incandescent shades of orange. Their incredible amorphousness makes them appear fairly abstract, but, with nature and natural processes as their subject matter, they are simultaneously pictorial, especially where traces of decayed plant matter are evident to ground the work. They could be the output of an earthy Jackson Pollock. Although, with their level of detail, their textural range and freedom of form, one cannot imagine their conception by any human hand. As it is, in these works nature is the one holding the paintbrush… albeit with a little direction.

Buziak has been creating what she terms ‘biochromes’ for over a decade now, in an exploration of the overlap between art and science. The production of these images involves the placing of organic material on photographic emulsions which, when exposed to the elements and left over a length of time (about five to eight weeks), create a dazzling landscape of shapes and colours, a result of the reaction between the photographic chemicals and the process of decomposition (the bacterial micro-organic activity) in the plant matter. Exploring the outcomes of this rather unpredictable process, Buziak experiments with some of the conditions under which they are produced, altering plant type, temperature, level of humidity and light, to achieve various results in her work.

The spirit of nature is omnipresent as you enter the first room of works in Gallery 4. The caws and various calls of birds, the hush of the sea; all the sounds of Minjerribah/North Stradbroke Island, on which Buziak carried out her research, undulate throughout the space, helping to contextualise her images in their abstracted visual state. Starting with only a blank photographic backdrop and a sample of the island’s plant material, these biochromes have gone on to produce intricate and complex visions, beguiling to the eye and imagination. The first work (of Carpobrotus glaucescens, a plant with antiseptic properties) displays thick sandstone ridges, traces of the decaying plant, while surrounding this fossil-like outline, seas of cobalt blue swirl around orange abysses that encircle starry black islands. Other works similarly present a conflagration of colour. The leaves and stems of Abrus precatorius are flanked with fiery gradients of red and orange, giving the impression of the expiring plant ablaze. There is something cosmic in the burgeoning of multi-faceted life across the dark photographic paper; the works suggestive microcosms of creation.

Gallery 3 presents a curtained off area containing Buziak’s forays into time-lapse photography, along with a greater number of her biochrome works. Among a selection of six singular pieces, a large moody panorama arrests the attention, showing the decomposing matter of Melaleuca quinquenervia and Corymbia intermedia swept up in a black and white storm of transformation, while to its right is a trio of smaller, iridescent and microscopically detailed images that invite you to look closer. While these biochromes are only suggestive of transformation—freezing on a fixed moment—Buziak’s time-lapse work documents the process of decay usually unperceived by the human eye. Further blurring the artistic and the scientific, they illustrate just how intertwined organic degeneration and creation are; not antithetical at all but co-dependent processes. As the artist states, ‘we are part of the cycle of life. Through this decay, the regeneration at the same time of microbes, of different life, is visible’. It is a magnificent metamorphosis to behold. One of several videos shows the slow inferno of Centella asiatica as shadow spreads through its leaves, gradually losing their solidity; the growing flicker of orange in outline around the plant as it turns charcoal black, the frame, however, still full of activity. The images glow hot and cold as energies transfer and states continually change; the aurora of colour evidence to us that, through dissolution, micro-organic life flourishes, eventually creating its own self-sustaining eco-system.

As we watch these displays play out in front of our eyes, snippets of conversation between Buziak and members of the Quandamooka community (the original Indigenous people of the region) break through from the overhead audio, describing the healing properties of the titular medicinal plants native to North Stradbroke Island. These dialogues underline the anthropological as well as the aesthetic nature of Buziak’s project. Her own upbringing in Janów Lubelski, Poland, inspired her interest in the medicinal properties of native flora, and led her to investigate the plant life of the island. It is the inhabitants we hear detailing the varied uses of local plant life. Most memorable are the practice of mixing herbs with boiled ‘flying foxes’ (bats) to ease asthma, and the addition of crystallised sap from the blood wood tree in tea to purify one’s blood. The importance of passing on this ancient knowledge to new generations, of keeping the culture alive, is clearly and earnestly stated.

Cycles are obviously central to Buziak’s work, and her fascinating biochrome and time lapse experiments exemplify this through their depiction of nature’s recycling of organic matter. There is a slight disconnect in Buziak’s joint aim to ‘promote the recognition, appreciation, and value of local medicinal plants in the context of Aboriginal knowledge’ at the same time as revealing ‘a beauty in decomposition, and rais[ing] notions of transformative cycles’. Though not incompatible, the two facets do not quite unite, and perhaps a sole focus on either aesthetic displays of decay, or a documentation of the island’s culture, would further enhance the exhibition’s impact. However, if this dual approach jars slightly, it is not an unproductive union. The specific use of medicinal plants from the island as subjects of decay and regrowth only further highlights the enterprising and regenerative powers of nature; something Buziak elucidates with great insight in her work.

Renata Buziak, Acacia concurrens… anaesthetic…, 2015. Archival pigment print on paper, 66.7 x 95cm. Courtesy the artist.

Renata Buziak, Carpobrotus glaucescens… anaesthetic II, 2015. Archival pigment print on paper, 120 x 90cm. Courtesy the artist.

Renata Buziak, Centella asiatica, 2015, Time-lapse stills. Courtesy the artist.

Renata Buziak, Melaleuca quinquenervia and Corymbia intermidia… antiseptic…, 2015. Archival pigment print on paper, 90 x 300cm. Courtesy the artist.