Tales of the Unexpected
Aspects of contemporary Australian art
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Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
The story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey: the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.
The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands . . . never coming to an end.2
Lyndell Brown and Charles Green invoke illusory worlds in their art that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, past and present, active engagement and meditative states of being. Their art involves the re-creation and layering of images from different contexts and timeframes – all drawn from their encounters with museums and research centres; from books, journals, postcards and electronic media – to create new composite realities. The flow of ideas across early and new media is heightened by their repeated references to the treasure-troves of books and to the multiple references ‘nesting’ in each work.
The dream-like qualities and unexpected correspondences within their works relate to cultural memory, to memory as archive, and to reclaiming the ghosts of the past. The artists’ collaboration, which began in the late 1980s, has involved the sharing of ideas and the blurring of the individual hand and personal identity. As Lyndell Brown notes, it was as if somehow in the process a third hand was able to emerge which in turn connected with those of previous generations.
The nervous system 1995
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After having abandoned painting for a time around the mid-1990s, Brown and Green returned to the process of meticulously reworking images as they had done in their visually and conceptually layered work, The nervous system 1995. Here, their trompe l’oeil representation of a book – an 18th-century medical text they had collected – lies open at a diagram of the central nervous system alongside an old piazza in Italy. The book floats over an aerial view of contemporary Melbourne, looking across the city towards Williamstown and Port Phillip Bay at dusk. A few years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the artists again re-created ‘forgotten works’, often placing them in Melbourne or Sydney.
The significant new dimension in Brown and Green’s artistic process has been to photograph their paintings, which are then printed from high resolution scans, without digital manipulation, onto transparent Duraclear film. These reinventions appear quite magical, like giant lantern slides. Their luminosity, transparency and drop-shadows across walls render them at once luminous and ghostly. The initial painting process involves subtle shifts in the interpretation of the archival sources, and this enables the intimacy of a sensual connection, which remains embedded in the transparencies. The process of photographing the paintings brings an additional unifying effect, accentuating an entrancing, theatrical other-worldliness.
This is apparent in the hauntingly beautiful Duraclear photograph, Sleep 2 2000–01. The predominant image is of two reclining Japanese women swathed in delicately patterned fabric. It is derived from a photograph taken by Felice Beato in his studio in Yokohama in Japan in the 19th century. Charles Green notes that Beato was the first foreign photographer to produce folios of views in Japan. Further, part of what is so intriguing about the image is the way it has been carefully, deliberately constructed. As Green points out: ‘This is obviously a simulation of sleep since the sisters are posed in Beato’s brightly lit studio, but we are alerted to the subject by the props – the lantern and the pipe nearby. They have become Madame Butterfly stand-ins.’ The ‘sleeping’ women are set against the mystical blue of Sydney Harbour just before nightfall. This adds to the theatricality of the whole, suffused with the ambience of a dream in which fantastic images from different places and times coexist.
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Floating in the sky of Sleep 2 is a trompe l’oeil book, opened at a page illustrating one of Yves Klein’s famous performances, his first Anthropometrie, in which a woman smeared in blue paint is the active protagonist, creating an art work with her naked body. This image is also at the centre of another work, Psyche 2000–01. Here, she is set against a fragment of a Claude Lorrain painting of Psyche, in the National Gallery in London. This Duraclear is clearly focused on the representation of contradictory states – of active engagement and contemplation – and this was the criteria in the selection of imagery. The notion of specific imagery overlapping and unfolding not only within each work but from one work to another – the concept of the dynamogram that the artists have located in iconologist Aby Warburg’s late writing – suggests the profound continuity of experience implicit in Brown and Green’s art.
In Ghost 2000–01 the open book that floats in front of the same Klein performance includes re-creations of Edvard Munch’s photographs – a self-portrait and a portrait of Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohne in Warnemünde, Germany, 1907, in which the model stands alongside a luminous apparition. On the facing page, the image is obscured by shadow. Although Munch stated in his famous aphorism, ‘The camera cannot compete with the brush or palette so long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell’, he did make use of photography throughout his career. For him, photography was essentially ‘a medium of meditation’ in which time was never fleeting but flowed through his photographs. They were images in which the real and the illusory often appear to inhabit the same space.
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Brown and Green’s art reinvents such illusions and phantoms. Their particular form of conjuring involves the retrieval of iconic or lost images, setting up ‘streams of analogy, like cultural matrixes’. The integration of analogous images in their art may be likened to pre-modern cabinets of curiosity, open to continuous reinvention. The archives that inform their works are also integral to the contemporary world of real and virtual travel, of exchanges across geographical boundaries. The illusion in their art is as much to do with the crossover of media as with the creation of spaces for contemplation, in a spirit of continuous collaboration and conversation. As Lyndell Brown says, ‘It is almost like this huge village of artists has created us. It feels to us as if we are part of a city of voices, all talking to each other.’
The artists acknowledge the assistance of Parks Victoria, Arts Victoria, the University of Melbourne, and the University of New South Wales.
Selected futher reading
Greenstein, M.A. 'Greetings C.G. & L.B.!' in Indicium: Identity in Australian Contemporary Photomedia (ex. cat.), eds. Lyndell Wischer and Wan-Jae Lee, Penrith Regional Gallery & the Lewers Bequest, Emu Plains, NSW, 2001
Hoorn, Jeanette The desiring phantom: contemplating the art of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green Art and Australia, vol.35, no3, 1998, pp.374–81
Miller, Alex Sanctuary - and other island fables (Lyndell Brown, Charles Green & Patrick Pound, ex. cat.), Herring Island, Parks Victoria Gallery, Melbourne, 2002
Papastergiadis, Nikos Towards a theory of everything (Lyndell Brown, Charles Green & Patrick Pound, ex. cat.), Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 1999