First and foremost, look, let the eye absorb forms and colours, moving from one work to another, some immediately recognisable others not, preparing to appreciate the atmosphere emanating from them, walking through this Garden of Memory that Nathalie Hartog-Gautier invites us to visit. Each work, surrounded by its metallic frame like some greenhouse structure, resembles a plant, a product of horticultural science, cunningly and delicately created by the artist-gardener. On the humus of memory, she proceeds in fact by sowing, propagating, transplanting, and above all multiplying techniques, thus creating “places of memory” situated between France and Australia; France whence she comes, the space of childhood and family and Australia where she lives and works; but also between the epochs of discoverers and of today.
Places of memory? It is an old idea, coming from Ancient Rhetoric, later used in the Arts of memory in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, before experiencing a recent revival, in particular, among French historians: since Memory has come to occupy a key place in our public spaces. Over the last thirty years, memory, heritage, and identity interrogations have occupied, or better, have preoccupied and influenced our societies. Who are we? – those of us who are not from this place? Those of us who are both from here and from elsewhere? And those of us who are so much from here that we have been locked up in the identity of our origins for so long: the Aborigines? Nostalgia, doubt, bad conscience, repentance, forgetfulness, victimization, all demand to be recognised for what one is, but also the duty of memory and the right to memory are so many attitudes, expressions which, here and there, traverse and give form to our contemporary life. They punctuate our interrogations, inspire our politicians, interrogate the citizens. And with artists as well, these words arouse echoes, incite gestures and engender works. Through this exhibition, Nathalie Gautier-Hartog invites to walk along the roads of the French-Australian memory.
To be more precise, for the author of Rhetoric to Herennius, the place of memory is a location – for example, the rooms of a house – in which the orator, preparing his speech, comes to situate an image of what he wants to retain (subject, arguments, order of exposition, etc.). Then, when starting his speech he has only to run through these places in order and to recall these images for the words to come back to him. We are in an artificial memory, above all visual, with its mnemonic processes. The author of the treatise (unknown) advises, in addition, the choice of active images, alive (imagines agentes), likely to remain for the longest possible time in the memory.
Following the orator’s example, Nathalie Hartog-Gautier chooses (in fact, creates) active images, to which souvenirs are attached, sometimes hers, but only sometimes, traces, “impressions” themselves carrying discourses or past narratives, really held or simply possible. For, unlike the orator who, in Rome, was an advocate pleading to convince, she has at her disposal signs that the spectator, only if he wants, can decipher and explain, in a developed discourse. He can remain, so to say, on the surface and only consider the aroused images: their vibration, associations, transformation, anamorphoses and metamorphoses; it is enough for him to be receptive to their power of evocation and suggestion.
To make this art of memory more comprehensible, the author of the treatise also uses a comparison. “The places, he writes, resemble much these wax-covered tablets or papyrus sheets, the images resemble the letters, the arrangement and the placing of images resemble writing, and the fact that the discourse is pronounced resembles reading.” Yes, Nathalie Hartog-Gautier’s places are certainly like wax-covered tablets on which the scribe disposes the letters making up the words and phrases. She practises a graphic art: her supports can be certain types of paper, photographs or, even better, these splendid and somewhat enigmatic photographic plates, kept in the archives of the Palace of Versailles. And on these supports come, over-printed, spots of colour, little objects, letters of known and unknown alphabets, other images, words, texts … They are so many strata, but far from being kept separate, they mix, and the eye seizes them as a whole, on the same plan, as if one were in front of a palimpsest where all the levels were visible: all, at the same time, being visible in the present, of an individual or cultural memory.
One thus leaves the garden for the Cabinet of Curiosities (Kunstkammer) or, rather, a revisited cabinet of curiosities. From the Renaissance onwards, these cabinets played a capital role in the constitution of knowledge. In them, could be found, in fact, gathered together, natural objects as well as products of arts and techniques, from elsewhere and from distant times. Their assembly was at the origin of the Collection, and classifying them raised the question of their classification. Voyages of discovery disrupted the medieval framework of reference and, increasing in an incredible way the proofs of the variety of the world, rendered indispensable new classifications and new forms of appropriation. It was, in particular, the development of Natural History, borne by a passion for giving names and a concern, continually renewed, for taxonomies. Even in 1785, to classify natural, terrestrial and marine curiosities, as well as objects, was explicitly mentioned in the Instructions given by the King to Lapérouse. Just ten years earlier, in 1774, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu had completed his great work on the Genres des Plantes (Genera plantarum),from which, shortly afterwards, was drawn a Tableau du règne végétal and a Carte botanique de la méthode de A.L. Jussieu. In the centre of the Natural History approach one finds the apprehension, as precise as possible, of objects, in their materiality and their distribution in a given space. Observe, name, classify and distribute and “thus to render one master and owner of nature”, according to the Cartesian maxim.
Why this digression or this reminder? Because, in her way, the artist places (literally) her approach against this background, backdrop: she apparently acts like a naturalist. But, with the important difference, changing everything, her cabinet of curiosities is a place of mixtures and blending. She brings together elements that were separate: the Naturalia and the Artificialia, the vegetal and mineral worlds, the near and the far, the past and the present, naming and toponymy. Hence the “estrangement” effect provoked by some of her compositions. Where are we? At Versailles or in Botany Bay? What can we see? It’s a map, and it’s not a map! This marine map, on which one can see the trace of a coastline, with a whole succession of place names, gives first of all the illusion that one is looking at some ancient “Portolan Chart”, such as those used by the early discoverers. Then the map dissolves and the foliage of a tree appears (from the park of Versailles). Or rather a photographic image of foliage, which is itself like an old photograph, found one day in an attic: both unknown and vaguely familiar, a support for a reverie or an invitation to memory. Through this well-ordered practice of anamorphosis, the orders mix and the signs become blurred. It is without doubt a way of revealing, of dismantling these gestures and these procedures, formerly so sure of themselves, of a new science, modern (the one inaugurated by the name of Christopher Columbus, and resumed in the name of Francis Bacon), marching side by side during the conquest of territories, captured in the name of a King and of a Faith. Symptom also, I consider, of a disorientation of the epoch?
The time of the discoverers was also that of wonder before the grandiose landscapes and a vegetation whose variety and luxuriance stupefied them. Lapérouse disappeared a long time ago, Versailles is no more than a vast museum, and the collections of the Cabinets of Curiosity, carefully labelled, have been distributed among the different institutions of knowledge that have charge of them. To each one his territory and its disciplinary competence: no mixing! The last photographs, taken by Nathalie Gautier-Hartog, those of Australian landscapes, in their nudity, speak for themselves. From now on, no montage, no interference is necessary. Desolation takes over, the Gundwilla Lake is dying. What memory could attach itself, in the future, to the twisted branches of these withered trees?
Translated by Geoffrey Capner