Earthlines: Exploring the limits of symbolic knowledge systems

Marks on paper, marks on the ground, marks anywhere can be indicative of an event or a significant change. They indicate boundaries, the intersection or meeting place of two different systems. The lines separating systems are the lace work making the fabric of the universe. They denote both the mutual interdependence and individual autonomy of systems on either side of the boundary.

They are the basic structural element of the map maker’s trade. Points extended become lines, lines extended become surfaces and surfaces extended become spaces. Maps are works of art, suffused with the meaning of representation, they guide the mind of fellow explorers, each one a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge to audiences. The symbolism is a shared secret code between artist and audience, creator and observer, a template for exchanging subtle clues to an existential puzzle shared knowingly.

Earthlines continually reconfigure themselves through time in a never ending sequence of change that proclaims the universe is alive. Earthlines are everywhere, and Nathalie Hartog-Gautier’s exhibition superbly explores the boundaries of, and changes to, systems capturing a small fragment of this eternal dance. The boundaries mapped by the works in this exhibition represent transitions, they link the cycles of the Earth exploring the boundary between day and night, the known to the unknown and between life and death.

The Earth is covered in lines. They mark a river’s course, and where the forest meets the open plain, the sandy desert meets the white salt pan, where the land meets the sea. The patchwork agricultural mosaic blanketing much of the world’s land surface is structured by economic systems. They are linked to other human systems scattered far and wide, connected by a web of road and rail lines to facilitate commercial exchange, they overlie the patterned lines of ecologic exchange in the natural world. In rural Australia Earthlines, imposed by the European colonists to work the soil on the pioneering fringe of empire slowly crept over the ancient land. Unknowingly they covered the ancient Earthlines of the First Australians.

When the colonists wanted to exploit what lies beneath the surface more Earthlines are required. Large metal behemoths puncture the skin of the landscape with industrial monotony. They dig their needles deep into the interior to discover what lies beneath. Material is extracted cutting a perpendicular slice backwards into layers of prehistoric time. The rock is criss-crossed by Earthlines representing boundaries between different environments at the time of geological genesis. The lines may be further twisted into bizarre new patterns as the Earth is contorted by the push and pull of tectonic forces. The ebb and flow of shifting natural systems, swamp land, open plain, volcanic pulses and incursions by the ocean are all preserved in the record to be deciphered by those who understand the symbols.

These Earthlines of rock from the surface to the Hadean depths are a book of history. Interpretive lines are constructed from the information revealed, concentrations of elements will be measured and mineralised targets identified. Larger machines will disrupt the earth, bust through the web of fragile lines to recover the elements needed to fuel global industrial economies. Earthlines change from a structured patterning to an abstract chaos as the ancient framework is turned inside out.

This exhibition is not only about the systems of knowledge that are used to interpret how we interact with the Earth, it is also an aesthetic reminder of the symbolic links we make between objects, settings, and personal experience that congeal into meaning.

Hartog-Gautier’s images – whether of wooden picket fence posts, tarnished iron pickets, aimlessly meandering barbed wire, rusting iron bolts, eye screws, and nuts, semiprecious stone cubes, the names of almost forgotten gold rush mining claims, regimented core samples, the ghost of a long abandoned pickup truck, soft misty landscapes or the fragmented billowing tuffs of clouds upon a darkening sky – all are laden with meaning: meaning particular to the artist as creator and meaning particular to the viewer as a respondent to the created images. The sextant of context provides counsel and direction to both.

Hill End, in central-western New South Wales was a mining boom town during the gold rushes of the 1850s to the 1880s. It attracted ‘new chums’ from around the globe eager to try their luck at the new Antipodean ‘El Dorado’. Greeks, Germans, Italians, Americans, French, Chinese, Brits and Australian-born, all rubbed shoulders in an unbridled, frantic search to strike it rich – the settlement and its neighbouring twin, Tambaroora, quickly became ‘the hub of the world’. As surface alluvial gold ran out, miners formed companies and commenced deep reef mining. But by 1900, reef gold too had dwindled, as had the number of permanent miners in the settlements. Today, evidence of the area’s halcyon mining days are found in its abandon, collapsed mines, its surface diggings, the original settlements’ streets with isolated dwellings and two wind swept cemeteries of whiskey grasses peppered with head stones guarded by fragmented picket sentinels.

As an artist-in-residence at Hill End, Hartog-Gautier’s work cannot help but respond to such a historical and contemporary context. The rotten wooden picket fence posts, the tarnished iron pickets, the names of forgotten mining claims, the thick iron bolts, screws and nuts – most probably from stamper batteries used to crush the ore, or from other mining machinery, or mine support structures – become resilient in their resonance of what once was – and also of what remains. The eerie majesty of her twilight landscapes or early morning cloud formations, reinforces the sentiment of what was and that which is awaiting potential renewal. The spectre of an abandoned pickup harks to a later, more contemporary presence. Yes, ghosts arise from these images, but also a reminder of the link between past, present and future – the earth itself. Hartog-Gautier has extensively used local clay as a print medium, and gold leaf as a refined result of that which was exhumed from the earth during the mad scramble for instantaneous wealth. The artist’s Earthlines draws in time, space and human experience to remind us that all things are connect – as is the viewer to and through these works.

Here then are the raw materials provided by the artist by which the viewer can seek their own meaning – a dialogue to and from the works, personal and yet at times, most assuredly, universal.

Andrew Simpson Leonard Janiszewski

This entry was posted in Catalogues and Statements on February 28, 2014