In Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée(1950) there is an astonishing moment when Orpheus approaches the mirror and, instead of cold hard glass stopping his forward movement, the mirror trembles like a sheet of water and he passes through the glass to the other side. A sense of two sides to the world, and of a threshold or liminal zone through which it is possible to move or at least to imagine such movement, is a guiding principle in Pip Stokes’ artwork. The fleeting dawning experience of epiphany appears in her paintings and drawings as a kind of suspended breath.
The legendary pre-Homeric poet Orpheus, whose music could tame wild beasts and make flowers bloom, travelled to Hades and convinced Persephone with his music to let his wife Eurydice return to life on condition that he did not look back on the journey to the Upper World. Many cultures have such a story which draws together the living and the dead as well as underlining the importance of art as a link between them. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus demonstrate ‘…in the transparent radiance of Greek symbolism the apotheosis of art as a cosmic, creative, transforming force.’ 1 Stokes empathises with the poetry of Rilke as it draws on the intangible in the tangible, as well as reflecting spiritual and aesthetic understandings about metamorphosis and redemption.
In previous bodies of work Stokes has brought together Goethe’s theories on botany with Australian plants and with botanic imagery drawn from the caves around the bottom of Uluru. 2 She created, on marine plywood with oil paint, the illustrations which had never before been made to accompany the text of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) in which he sought to explain his investigations of the basic principles of vegetative growth, and his discovery of the Urplanz or primal plant of which all others are variations. In the works exhibited as Hymn to the Night, 3 Stokes showed works made in response to the writings of Virgil, Goethe, Novalis and Rilke as well as transplanting a rose from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar as part of an investigation into the long history of the symbolism of that flower.
Twilight, the poet’s hour, a zone of enchantment, when objects lose their definition and colour, when edges blur and latent meanings arise, when things become more than their external bodies and appear to be messengers or symbols of something not visible, a flickering threshold between life and death, is evoked by Stokes’ most recent exhibition Memento Mori. An inwardness, and a critically reflective stance on the world, steeped in history, literature and language, the rich pickings of a cultured European world with its centuries of writing and thinking, painting and architecture, its wealth and abundance, complexity and subtlety are layered into the sensibility that informs the work which is also accompanied by a sweet and intense regard for the world of nature, its gentle eternal beauty, whether cultivated or wild, and its place in human culture.
An interiority, a view of the world from the inside looking out, is also apparent in little places/loculi the installation by Gregory Burgess and Paul Carter adjacent, and pendant, to Stokes’ exhibition at Span Gallery. Here windows photographed from within a house, windows through which light hesitates and glows, are shown as thresholds containing a special kind of stasis. The viewer pauses on the edge, contemplating crossing but remaining in an in-between place. The installation of slides, gently fading on and off, and softened by being projected on a muslin cloth hanging apart from the wall, includes a sound component, the voice of Paul Carter speaking some of the same words as are found on the walls of the exhibition. The subject is death, the voice dry. Loculi is a Latin word for small chambers, here referring to the niches, like those in dovecotes, where cremated bones were placed in the distant past, when they were not so assiduously kept out of sight and out of mind as they are today. In this usage there is some notion of the soul as a bird, a dove, as indeed the Holy Ghost is often depicted. Paul Carter’s text little places/loculi has a somber timbre and a narrative of intermingled love and death. Carpe diem, seize the day, is the age-old lesson that we expect to learn from thoughtful reflections on death but a certain urbanity in Carter’s voice makes this message particularly contemporary even as it acknowledges its ancient predecessors.
‘Some writer has described Melbourne as Glasgow with the sky of Alexandria.’4 To a visitor from Adelaide, a city with giant drifting desert skies, Melbourne’s sky is complex and convoluted like the city itself. The stories hidden in the folds of its clouds appear again in the stains on its buildings. From Melbourne people travel to the Dandenongs, the Otways or the Grampians to see the indigenous ground uncovered by buildings, to see the bush, scrub, wildness, ragged hills against the sky, trees by water, birds screaming across the sky…
The landscapes painted or drawn by Stokes are generalized ones but are based on her extensive lived experience of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In her paintings and charcoal drawings she locates archetypes from European art in Australia, the South Land. Thus her Poussin-inspired romantic landscapes contain gum trees. The long black snake in several works, which could be the Rainbow Serpent or the infamous inhabitant of the Garden of Paradise, is present as a common experience in the Australian bush as well as a reminder of danger and the secret life within beauty. The duality of light and dark, restraint and disorder, are present in the mythologies on which Stokes draws. Here in a postcolonial nation myths and images are layered on top of each other to make a richer deeper place.
Nicolas Poussin’s painting ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ (1638) shows four neo-classical shepherds in the pastoral paradise of Arcadia finding a gravestone. Unlike Goya’s etching from the Disasters of War (circa 1820) where Death in the form of a skeleton comes back to write that there is Nothing, Nada, beyond the grave, in Poussin’s work Death speaks across time, not with fear or despair but familiarity. Though Arcadia, a mountainous region in the centre of the Pelponnese, is often used as a symbol of a bucolic paradise, it also has a darker mythopoeic status. Arcadia was where, according to some accounts, Zeus was born. It was also where ancient gods such as Hermes and Pan first got names and identities, a place connected to primal religious origins.
Stokes’ pivotal painting Et in Arcadia, Ego (Silex Scintillae) is painted in oil and layered with beeswax on sheet lead pieced together in squares. The landscape in the painting is vague and dreamlike, dark bushes and trees indistinctly frame a path on which a snake can be seen to move away from the viewer. Reminiscent of the shadowy landscapes used by Leonardo da Vinci in the background of the Mona Lisa, The Virgin and Child with St Anne and The Virgin of the Rocks, the painting induces a reverie about a journey, perhaps in a dream, combined with the instinctive response of alarm on seeing a snake on the path. This may be the path along which Orpheus trode back from Hades.
But there were rocks
and ghostly forests. Bridges over voidness
and that immense, grey, unreflecting pool
that hung above its so far distant bed
like a grey rainy sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
Appeared the pale strip of the single pathway
like a long line of linen laid to bleach. 5
The small fragments of gold leaf which dot the painting are silex scintillae, soulsparks, sparks of the divine, reflections of the intense sensations and piercing feelings that accompany our revelatory viewing of such a landscape in which we feel something within us reflected in the external world.
In the exhibition this major work was flanked with two shadowy images of ancient Greek deities, Pan and Athena, reflecting opposed principles of flux and stasis. Athena is still, like a garden statue, but Pan is trembling in the process of metamorphosis as his arms, legs and head flow into a tree form. Or is he a tree becoming Pan? This charged painting maintains a dynamic moment, Pan is ever-changing, ever-flowing.
Stokes’ contemporary romanticism is an exemplar of the yearning and longing expressed by a writer like David Tacey who seeks, in Australia, correspondences to Old World deities and spiritual understandings or awakenings. ‘The time has come, I feel, to strip away our guilt and our self-loathing and to examine the past…for its mythic and archetypal resonances…Our spiritual mode will have to be ecological, a work with nature, an opus cum natura.’6 Everyone now knows that Aboriginal culture has been here for a very long time but non-Aboriginal Australians must still continue to locate and generate their own traditions and relations to the land. Stokes is one of the many artists working in this area who have no overt religious affiliations but strong experiential and spiritual connections to Australia that are necessarily connected to the past centuries of European dialogues and relationships with the natural world. Seeking the imagery of romanticism in Australia Stokes includes in one of her drawings Memento Mori II (2000) a tiny hand-coloured scan of Caspar David Friedrich’s A Monk by the Sea (1809). The sensations aroused by the vast expanse of sea, the solitude of the figure regarding the sea and the relationship between the figure and the sky and sea surrounding it are as familiar in Australia as in the Northern Hemisphere.
In many ways the exhibition Memento Mori at Span Gallery turned the gallery into a holy place. Along one wall was ranged the work Memento Mori (The Contemplation of Bones), five Stations of the Cross consisting of large sheets of X-ray film on which complex layered and manipulated digitized images of bones and text could be seen, and seen through in a shadow that was also a projection onto the wall behind. In front of each Station was a black plinth holding a black bowl containing an elemental substance – sand, salt, oil, bird bones, ash. The thoughts of death engendered by the whole exhibition, in particular the death of a parent or someone close to us whose death marks our life in a significant manner, meant that the candles placed on another plinth near the entrance to the exhibition were often lit. The topic of death, so often excluded from everyday conversation, was here foregrounded as essential to a true understanding of life. In a further reflection of religious traditions were the predellas beneath several artworks. In the predellas Stokes’ charcoal drawings of bones are not precise still life exercises but are soft and indistinct. They make the bones appear to be dissolving, to be able to be manipulated, thus they can be seen as either ready to be woven into new life or into shrouds for the dead. Active shapes, they remind us of the bone beneath the skin, mortality, the materiality that necessitates our decay. Inseparably wound into that materiality is the spirituality that guarantees our endurance beyond death, our understanding of continuity and the oneness of existence. Letting go of the material world, letting go of a belief in its fixity and safety means that we can ‘remember to live’.
Greg Burgess, Paul Carter
19 June – 14 July, SPAN Galleries, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Stephanie Radok is an artist and writer based in Adelaide.
1. Butler, E. M., Rainer Maria Rilke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1941, p. 344.
2. Goethe’s Garden, Gallery 101, Melbourne, 24 May – 10 June, 1995.
3. Hymn to the Night, Renard Wardell Gallery, Richmond, 10 February – 6 March, 1999.
4. Fergus Hulme, Mystery of the Hansom Cab, 1886, quoted by Kevin Murray in morning star evening star, Australian Centre for Photography, Melbourne,1998, p.10.
5. Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’, Rilke: Selected Poems, tr. J.B. Leishman, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964, p.39.
6. David Tacey, Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia, HarperCollins, North Blackburn, 1995, p. 23.
This article was printed in Art in Australia, June 2002. Pip’s work can be seen in that issue of Art in Australia as well as at Span Gallery in April 2003.