Channelling the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, theosophical thought forms and a residency at the Bundanon Trust, this series of photographic works by Bronia Iwanczak takes the still life as memento mori to a new pitch of aesthetic entanglement.
The Bundanon Homestead, built in the 1860s, part of Arthur Boyd’s former estate and now a creative retreat, draws on very particular associations with nature and the environment as the subject for art. Set amidst the pastoral lands and pockets of native bush that line the hills and gorges leading down to the Shoalhaven River, this is a landscape already encoded by the colonising vision of the white male artist as creator figure. Added to this, as anyone who has spent time on the property knows, the idyllic space of contemplation can at a moment’s notice be overwhelmed by the manoeuvres of the Australian Army helicopters flying overhead from the nearby Jervis Bay Military Base.
Prompted by the associations of this display of military might with the dominant subject of the landscape as vista, Iwanczak turned inwards to the feminine space of the English-style heritage garden for inspiration. Here, she found herself following in the footsteps of previous generations of Bundanon ladies who practised the arts of watercolour painting and flower arrangement to create poetry and beauty as a tenacious hold on place. For these gardens (like pale European skins) life is a struggle, a battle to resist the vicissitudes of the Australian sun. Under her creative ministrations, the flowers, prematurely faded, dried and desiccated are given an artificial boost through the injection of an excess of water and colour, pooling as the mire of substance to create form.
Fixed as fluid, these arrangements also treat the landscape as an event: after the fire and the flood, disaster and destruction is made palpable through the stains and scorch marks left for residual effect. The wash of colourant and of life torn asunder, dismembered and defiled, also suggests a peculiarly feminine form of madness. Like the remnants of Miss Havisham’s ravaged bridal bouquet, the cut flowers are presented in wanton abandonment and disarray. Yet, for all their savagery, there is still a trace of beauty in the tortured face presented to the world.
The floral bouquet as tribute, left in a public place, is all too common a sight now as we so readily memorialise death and disaster in public displays of grief. Marking this, Iwanczak takes us beyond the inertia of the feminine to reflect the heightened physical and psychological trauma of life in a conflict zone, through reference (the helicopters) to Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s compelling restaging of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the Vietnam War, supported by the pyrotechnics and coloured smoke effects of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, is a vision of the mayhem and psychedelia of this monsoonal, testosterone-fuelled alternative reality. Drawing on the cinematic and synaesthetic dimension, to invoke the aura of the bodily human presence and of decomposition like “the smell of napalm in the morning”, Iwanczak’s watery florilegium as flower forays represent “the insidious evil of war, its destruction of beauty and effect towards moral and spiritual disintegration”.
As inspired by theosophists Charles W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant, through a reading of their 1901 treatise, Thought Forms, Iwanczak attempts to document the aesthetics of “Paranoia”, ‘Revenge”, “Deep Regret for the Suffering Caused” or the more war-specific scenarios of “Brute force” and “Combat stress’” among the examples provided. The point of theosophy is, after all, a striving for wholeness and spiritual attainment through the interpretation of auras and of colour-form polemics. The contributions of the anonymous hands of participating Bundanon “ladies” invites us to decode the results. Yet these colours, as an amorphous fluidity of washed-out blues, tainted yellows, muddy lilacs and madders, amongst the real-world vegetable matter, are no match for the theosophist aspirational soul, based on the hierarchy of bright, clear colours.
The heroism of the early twentieth century that inspired artists such as Wassily Kandinsky to view the path to abstraction with a messianic, almost militant zeal, carries the theosophists’ mantra to its logical conclusion. Notwithstanding, the development in the latter half of the twentieth century of a more material view of art and everyday life, Iwanczak’s expressions as participants in the flat bed approach to painting stripped of its transcendental status ride a similar wave of historical reassessment and re-enactment, tracing the well-worn path of abstract expressionism and art informel, that is tachiste in effect.
In particular, I am thinking, of the recent reappraisal of the French painter Jean Fautrier by Yve-Alain Bois, who discusses the loaded brush turning in on itself through the impurity of separation (in his case, of colour and texture) and the horrors that cannot be represented (the screams Fautrier overheard of the victims of Nazi torture in the forests of Châtenay-Malabry) that led to his Otages (Hostages) series. Bois, quoting art critic Francis Ponge, linked Fautrier to Georges Bataille’s tainted view of the Marquis de Sade who had “the most beautiful roses brought to him only to pluck off their petals and toss them into a ditch filled with liquid manure”. Such is the richness of accumulated association that it is not the perfect composition of blooms that attracts us, but those which in their very debasement register loss, love and bereavement.
Eve Sullivan is Executive Editor of Artlink.