FUNCTIONAL SHADOWS

Dr Maria Hynes, 2018

Artistic ventures have traditionally been associated with the idea of creativity, and the role of the critic tied up with the problem of how to evaluate creative acts and artifacts. But what does ‘creativity’ mean in what we might call the ‘age of innovation’? People in all spheres of life are encouraged to be innovative thinkers and creative problem solvers, and Design Thinking is being touted as the solution to a diversity of global ills. Today, it would seem, it is not only that we can be creative, but that we must be. What is the role of the artist in this new economy of innovation, in the face of this generalised push for novelty and creativity? 

 

What is clear is that artistic endeavours that position the artist across different social contexts and at the heart of contemporary problems are vital and, in this respect, this exhibition is exemplary. It represents the fruits of the Artist in Residence program for Craft ACT and involved time at the Australian War Memorial and at the Ready-Cut Cottage in Namadgi National Park. Ventures into these different contexts inspired Marilou Chagnaud’s creative response to a problem that is very much on the agenda, concerning our relationship as living beings to our ecological context. While much has been said about the urgent problem of ecological crisis, the question of our everyday relationship to the natural world is one to which artists still have much to contribute. Our unthought habits of seeing and being with nature, our embodied reactions to the creative processes of the natural world, the diverse ways in which we can sense and feel life in its unfolding – these are matters on which artists have some expertise! In art, too, there is space for experimentation that might well not exist in other forms of knowing. 

 

In any case, Chagnaud’s experiments in forming new habits of relating to the natural environment during her short stay at Namadgi are inspirational. They are especially engaging because of their lack of naturalism. Their immediate effect is graphic and geometric. And their expressive force does not come from the fact that they ‘look just like nature’, but from the way they position the spectator as an element within a design space. 

Sure, there are recognisably natural forms (most obviously, floral forms). Yet it is very clear that the artist’s experiments in seeing and being with nature differently are conveyed via graphic design rather than artistic naturalism. Black lines, white spaces, white lines, black spaces. Even the more sculptural paper pieces are geometric and minimalist in their lines, tones and textures. 

 

So, there is no question here that the artist wanted to merely ‘represent’ nature. The image of the Ready-Cut Cottage, for instance, is not a representation of the home of the artist. It is a trace of processes of habit formation – the artist’s experimentation with new ways of navigating and becoming immersed in the natural environs. The walking paths ‘through’ the house are, in fact, mappings of walks beyond the house, as Chagnaud walked and rewalked in and through her new surrounds. Walking was just one of the ways that Chagnaud overcame the strangeness of her isolation in a largely unfamiliar natural environment. Folding was another: folding, unfolding, refolding… as if to order, or at least slow down, the more unpredictable unfoldings of nature. 

 

When I asked Chagnaud about the impact of her time at the War Memorial, the theme of camoflage was a recurrent one. Yet again it is clear that it was not a naturalist or realist approach that was at issue in the way this influenced her art. The dominant approach to miltary camoflage is precisely naturalist and realist. It attempts to reduce the difference between the natural environment and the object of camoflage, because, of course, the point is to disguise the soldier and his or her armaments in the surrounds! The task is to blend with the contours and colours of forests in their most general form, and in doing so, a realist framework would seem to be the most risk adverse one: one needs to appreciate the way the world is, in order to achieve the aim of concealment. 

 

There is another, more minor, tradition of camoflage that much better accords with Chagnaud’s art; namely, dazzle camoflage. Razzle dazzle, as it was sometimes known, was a form of ship camoflage used particularly in WW1, which aimed not to conceal but to confuse. Achieved through the use of boldly contrasting and intersecting geometric lines on the surface of the ship, dazzle camoflage was distinctly anti-naturalist in its principle. Aiming to confuse the enemy as to the direction the ship would take, it was based on an aesthetic more akin to cubism than naturalism (in fact, Picasso went so far as to claim that the Cubists had invented it). How effective dazzle was as a form of military camoflage is debatable, but this is not the point. What is interesting is that, as a form of camoflage, it was as far from realism as Chagnaud’s flowers are from the tradition of botanical drawing. Like Chagnaud’s art, dazzle camoflage positions the spectator as an element within the space of the design, so to speak. And this space is not one in which human perception correlates with ‘things as they are’, but is the site of a disruption. Chagnaud’s acheivement is to turn this disruption to our habitual ways of seeing and being in nature into an opportunity for new habits and new ways of relating to the environments around us.