Any form of nature which moves us strongly by its beauty… is worthy of our best efforts… [but] the question comes, how much do we see and how much are our ideas… made up by comparison with those we have already known?
Nathalie Hartog-Gautier is constantly searching through archives, image banks, memories and landscapes looking for new ways to ‘see’ as an artist. This process of scanning allows her to uncover unique connections between seemingly disparate elements that are in turn unified by her own major themes and preoccupations. It is through this process of knowing, of comparing her vision with that of others, that she attempts to depict nature in a new light – as if seen for the first time.
She is one of a number of artists in recent times that have turned to the archive in the generation of visual research projects. Underpinning this research has been an examination of the way that botanical material has been collected, classified and cultivated – how people have interacted with, and manipulated, their natural environments – from mythological times to the present. For the artist, botany is used “as a metaphor to explore distant and recent history.” Further, she adds, “Like man, nature also travels, colonises and kills. What is collectable in one culture becomes a parasite in another.” The period of the Enlightenment, when our current systems of classification were put in place, has been a particularly fruitful area of exploration for the artist. She has drawn upon lists of plant specimens, collected from all around the world and transplanted into French gardens, to illustrate how these specimens could be seen as evidence of the extent of French Imperialism. As Zara Stanhope has argued, “Artists working with archives, either directly, as source material, or in terms of methodology, work to expose and exhume their subjects enlarging upon prevailing curatorial interpretations.” Hartog-Gautier also does this by explicitly inserting herself into this larger narrative around the classification and collection of botany. For, like the explorers of the Enlightenment, she too has voyaged to a new land, experiencing the thrill of travelling into the unknown.
The journey itself is one of the main themes of this particular body of work. The exhibition quite literally takes the viewer on an expedition: spatially, conceptually and temporally. In a literal sense, the show documents the passage of the artist from her native France to her new home in Australia. Conceptually it demonstrates a shift in perception, a reconciliation of the artist’s preconceptions about the nature of Australia with her actual experience of the place. Finally it refers to the nature of journeying itself and its history since ancient times recorded in the annals of history and accessed both in archival accounts and in the physical and environmental evidence left by travellers past.
We begin our journey in France in the garden of the Palace of Versailles. Hartog-Gautier spent time here in 2006/07 as an artist in residence where she immersed herself in its history paying particular attention to the history and function of its gardens, their botanical collections and arrangements. In this first phase of our journey the artist is concerned with the part of the garden devoted to the classification of the natural world and the interrogation of man’s relationship with that world. The naturalist Bernard de Jussieu, for example, catalogued botanical specimens that had been collected by French explorers during their expeditions and were subsequently transplanted into French soil. His lists of plants are reproduced in Hartog-Gautier’s works Observing and Retracing where they co-mingle with existing photographic images of the gardens taken from the Versailles archives. In combining these elements Hartog-Gautier compares what is ‘seen’ through experience (and represented in the lens of the camera) and what is ‘known’ through the studying and cataloguing of knowledge within existing paradigms of thought. She has combined these elements to create maps of the gardens that also reference the charts drawn by these explorers who sought out new lands – naming and claiming as they went. Moreover she arranges these specimens in her own abstract maps, visual representations of classificatory systems, using the uniform arrangements of dots to represent the specimens and their ordered presentation. The squares upon which these grided configurations are created reference the Roman engineer / architect and writer Vitruvius who saw that architecture was an imitation of nature and believed that the square and the circle were the essential geometric models underpinning the cosmic order – this was aptly illustrated in Leonardo da Vinci’sVitruvian Man (c.1487) . Vitruvius’ classical system of architectural orders was employed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the design for Le Petit Trianon in the 1760s and is seen in the black and white image of a classical interior depicted by Hartog-Gautier. She has further reiterated this relationship between man and nature by juxtaposing this archival image of Le Petit Trianon with an excerpt of a poem by Aragon that suggests that all that is characteristic of man is also reflected in the garden. This text has been transcribed into the Utopian language created by Thomas More for his 1516 novel Utopia. More’s fictionalised island, in which a model society was the outcome of a perfect political system, provided a framework for future aspirational societies made possible through exploration beyond the known world. The edge of the known world is here represented by the columns of Hercules, through which a ship sails in search of the new.
As we sail through Hercules’ columns, our journey takes us to a different part of the garden where picturesque pursuits prevailed over scientific order and classification. This part of Versailles, Le Petit Trianon, was a place of leisure and reflection particularly associated with Marie Antoinette who was given free reign over it by Louis XVI in 1775. She in turn commissioned the redesign of the garden in the English style, championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and known for its rambling paths and mixed plantings as opposed to the formality and symmetry of French garden design and further again removed from the scientific garden of Jussieu. At her order the Temple of Love was created with a statue of Cupid at its centre. This temple is featured in one of Hartog-Gautier’s images alongside an excerpt from Ovid’sMetamorphoses which describes Orpheus’ mourning for loss of Eurydice, with all the nymphs, metamorphosed into trees, gathering around him.
The function of this garden, as a place of emotion, love, myth and poetry, is in opposition to the function of the garden as a scientific arrangement of Enlightenment thought. But even this section of the garden did not escape the classifier’s eye. While its design principles were different to those of the scientific garden its establishment was still recorded for future generations. This was done to such a degree that all of the seeding plants were meticulously documented and considered for transplantation into the Botanical Gardens in Paris during the French Revolution. By way of demonstrating this parallel, the artist has created another set of maps based on this second inventory, again overlaid upon archival images of the garden, resulting in the works Mapping and Travelling. These titles signal both the classification of these plants and their journey to and from the garden.
It is at this point that we too leave the gardens of Versailles and embark upon the remainder of our journey which is more personal in its scope, drawing on the artist’s own archive of images past. She invites us to visit the places of her childhood recalling holidays and memories – a brief moment of reminiscing upon what is known – before delving into the unknown on her epic journey across the world to Australia. The imagery here is made up of photographs taken by the artist, a photograph representing four generations of women from the artist’s family and drawings and prints created by the artist herself. These images look back to consider the worldview of a child, pivoting around their realm of lived experience. As a child, the garden path on a holiday is akin to the columns of Hercules – representing the exploration of the unknown and a mastery of pristine environments where everything is new and potentially different. A picturesque lake is imbued with Utopian desires, the possible site of a new society governed by its own rules, and the details of a landscape, like the common clover becomes a realm of fascination, grided up and studied in a specimen-like manner. Combined, these elements give us an insight into the character of the artist as a child – herself exploring, collecting and cataloguing her natural world and pre-empting her later preoccupations as an artist. Through these images she also questions the accuracy of her own memory. She draws, from memory, a map of a town from her childhood knowing that its accuracy is most likely to be vague. Experiential elements – the smells, sounds and feelings – that are known and remembered from childhood find their way onto this map. The last image in this grouping is a combination of the grid that was overlaid onto the clover field (actually a pattern for lace-making) and a print made by the artist using the trunk of the Australian native grass tree, the Xanthorrhoea. This image signals our departure both from childhood and France.
In turn, we reach Australia, the final destination on this journey and the images change markedly from those at the beginning of our exploration. The interaction between humans and nature and the way that humans have cultivated and catalogued their environment resurfaces in this final phase of the journey. In these last images we see Hartog-Gautier as the specimen collector. Not surprisingly, it is those places that are most alien that appear in these last images. Photographs taken by the artist of Lake Cawndilla and Lake Mungo are used as central representations of the Australian landscape – the quintessential visual epitome of the dry dead heart of this country. The images of these ‘lakes’ do not resonate with our actual understanding of a lake. Both lakes are dry, desolate and seemingly uninhabited – they are diametrically opposed to the lake that featured in her earlier image recalled from childhood. Australia is therefore confirmed as a land of difference.
Both lakes, however, represent the multi-layered character of Australia’s history. They symbolise man’s attempt to conquer nature through exploration and study but they also represent the long history of this continent before European settlement. They are each significant for their archaeological and palaeontologic deposits that indicate the extent and character of the people and fauna of the land before colonisation. Lake Mungo, currently managed by three Indigenous groups – the Mutti Mutti, Barkantji and Nyempa peoples – is located in the south western corner of NSW. It is home to the oldest burial site uncovered to date putting Indigenous Australian occupation of the area as far back as 40,000 years. It also contains significant remains of various megafauna (large animal species) extinct since the Pleistocene era about 50,000 years ago.
Lake Cawndilla illustrates a similar story. It is situated on the Darling River in Western NSW and also contains evidence of megafauna as well as archaeological remains of the Paakantji people, original inhabitants of the region. Overlaid onto this landscape is the evidence of the pastoral use of the land by colonisers since the early 1850s with the establishment of the vast Kinchega Station, now the site of the current Kinchega National Park formed in October 1967. Throughout its life as a sheep station Kinchega was subjected to extreme degradation of the land both in terms of the decimation of its vegetation from grazing animals and vermin rabbits as well as the pressure put on the local river systems in periods of drought to maintain the stock. In Kinchega this degradation has been extreme. As Hartog-Gautier depicts, the river red gums that were once sustained by the natural flooding and subsequent receding of the river system have now died completely as a result of the damming of the river to create a reservoir for constant water supply. With the farmers came introduced species that also took over the land with severe consequences, as 561 Weeds attests. It lists a taxonomy of noxious weeds catalogued in Australia bringing the viewer back to the original proposition put forward by the artist – that what is collectable in one context can become parasitic in another. These images are combined with what is unique of Australia’s flora, such as the Xanthorrhoea, taken by Hartog-Gautier and studied with the precision of a botanist’s eye. Prints taken from parts of the Xanthorrhoea are used to create an abstract veil over the land and are ultimately used to create images in their own right as seen in Anatomy. This is the final frontier – depicting what is known through touch, study, inspection and experience, as opposed to what is imagined before a journey has even commenced.
What Hartog-Gautier has demonstrated throughout this body of work is that the past, and our knowledge of it, characterises how we see and experience the present – how we assimilate our knowledge of things with our personal experiences. So, in the telling of her personal voyage from France to Australia she has coloured this tale with that which she knows of others; their similar journeys and their respective experiences and recollections. It has been an intensely personal account that has been underpinned by an understanding of the universal nature of voyages of discovery.
Dr Anna Lawrenson