Even in our technologically dominated world and lives the lure and beauty of nature remains strong. We dream of exotic locations to which we might escape. We marvel at mysterious flora and fauna, which entrances us with its strangeness and uniqueness. We stand in awe of the power and monumentality of beasts that are familiar but imposing. We view and engage with nature as a source of respite rejuvenation and contemplation. We still, like the Romantics of the early 19th century, are enthralled by the power of nature. It is still sublime.
Walking into the installation of the work of Valerie Sparks and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah amplifies all these qualities and feelings. It is an environment, which is seductive, grand, all encompassing and joyful. It is a world of wonderment that captures our attention, holds it and prompts us to ask questions. It encourages contemplation and exploration and engages our own memories, knowledge and experience as we navigate and look for meaning.
While the works are aesthetically linked, creating an immersive and cohesive environment, the exhibition should not be read as a collaboration. Both artists have made bodies of work, which continue their own artistic investigations. However, the juxtaposing of these works creates a dialogue whereby the enquiries and conceptual framework of each artist is supported and augmented by the other’s presence.
Sparks’ constructed landscape which physically defines and wraps around the space, and metaphorically cloaks us in a flourishing exotic world, pays homage to the tradition of French scenic wallpaper made to decorate the homes of the middle and upper classes in the 19th century. Titled Le Vol, which translates from French as flight, theft or robbery, the work is a composite image of an imagined landscape, a collage of photographs taken from Sparks’ own archive. On first viewing, the panoramic seascape teeming with birds looks like an accurate depiction of a Pacific archipelago. However, on closer inspection the scene becomes curious and somewhat uncomfortable. The birds, which sit in trees, fly across the sky and rest on the ocean-surface are not of the one location. They congregate, artificially, from across the globe: only possible because of scientific explorers who harvested, taxidermied and archived thousands of species. This act of theft, committed in the name of science and enlightenment, is a symbol of colonisation. However, the act of collecting, which navigates the tension between dispersion and concentration, is just like the bird a metaphor for migration. The flight and fluidity of birds is just like that of humans, who have historically moved across the landscape, recreating and reconstructed it just as artists have and continue to do. Sparks’ ambitious and imagined panorama, which is part of this continuum, also plays with the notion of our attempts to relocate the natural world inside: a duality of space central to Abdullah’s practice.
Abdullah openly declares his Muslim identity, which is central to the framing of his work. Growing up in the suburbs of Perth as the son of a Muslim Malay mother and a converted Australian father, Abdullah had to navigate the competing worlds of the domestic and public space, both defined by differing sets of rules. These childhood memories, recalled not as trauma but rather as joyful moments, are what shaped his identity and give substance and direction to his work. A life size buffalo recalls an early trip to Malaysia where the animal, terrifying and enormous in size, was domesticated and treasured by the family. A floor-bound chandelier recalls the anticipation and excitement felt by the artist as a young boy after the crashing of the family light fixture by his father while play fighting. The black raven, so heavily laden with meaning throughout history, is a simple reminder of the birdcall as a young Abdullah walked to morning prayers. All these works, while originating from historical and personal events, play a greater role than being merely didactic representation of memory. Instead they are about the migration experience. How people transplant and hold on to culture and how inevitably such pursuits become static, suspending people between two worlds—the old and new—which have moved on from that which we hold dear and treasure. They ruminate on the notion of the other: the private space only we see, the life beyond the terrestrial one we inhabit, and the unknown which we confront daily and has the capacity to make people fearful, judgemental and intolerant. However, while serious in their intent, Abdullah’s works are, just like the memories which he draws on, a celebration of life and one’s identity.
Both Sparks and Abdullah celebrate and pay homage to what has come before them: art historical, cultural and personal. Independently, and collectively as two artists in conversation, they share an interest in nature, faith, science, history and folklore as an archetype to define the migration experience, the forming of identity and the ongoing construction of landscapes both physically and creatively. They present us with an immersive world, which invites us to stop, take a seat and contemplate the many spaces we occupy to find meaning and our own place and identity.
Dr Vincent Alessi
Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.