Monday, March 09, 2009

Chance is a fine thing

Metropolis by Rosalie Gascoigne, Art Gallery of NSW

It may have been the kind of week that changes one’s life. I don’t know, ask me in five years time. I do know I’m not half bad at predictions, having accurately pinpointed the global financial meltdown – an assertion easily confirmed by posts around September 2007 when I was scrabbling to liquefy my meagre assets and consolidate a debt-free future before the excrement collided with the cooling device. I just knew it was going to clobber Britain and I was right. It’s a great time to have neither a job nor a mortgage, (unless of course both are insignificant), not to mention your life’s savings in the Royal Bank of Scotland. As many of you know, my artful dodge only meant I’d skimmed that first hurdle but there was still a long and painful race of indeterminate furlongs stretching out as far is the blinkered eye could see. The Gumpish question in my head resounded like a twenty-four hour alarm clock - ‘what’s my destiny, Mom?’

This time last week, as I was meditating my headspace into a suitable state of nirvana in which to begin my studies at the Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé, (and foraging in the miscellaneous toiletries box for patchouli oil as a back-up strategy), I flicked on the newly instated television to watch Sunday Arts on the ABC. For reasons best known to its producers, Sunday Arts usually devotes itself to the championing of neo-polka but it is equally usually tolerable for its visual arts content and the neo-polka segments are useful intervals in which to mix a G&T, toss some rice snacks into a bowl and remove a slab of (pre-homemade) pizza from the freezer.

Rosalie Gascoigne was one of the featured artists last week. Beginning her art career in her fifties, she quickly became one of Australia’s most significant artists and the first woman to represent the country at the Venice Biennale (1982), a mere four years after her first solo exhibition. A sculptor and bricoleur, she created immensely rhythmic and lyrical works out of weathered materials rescued from the land, bestowing upon them an enhanced but still faithful new context. Even on the small flat screen, these pieces communicated to me a truth about the world that seems absent more often than I find entirely comfortable.

My first week as a ‘mature’ (as if) student was a revelation in many ways. Firstly, unlike real life, there were no crazies to contend with. We all sat around the reassuringly paint-spattered furniture determinedly chopping at/daubing with or organising colours, lines and shades as if it were as natural as, well, toasting bread and calling it breakfast. On Wednesday, over our free (hurrah!) but cold and demonstrably Nescafé (merde doble!) morning beverage, I happened to ask if anyone had seen the segment on Rosalie Gascoigne. One of my mature (and she actually does seem to fit the spirit of the name) colleagues, not only had seen it but had a book on the artist in her bag. Under only slight coercion, she was persuaded to lend it to me. Not only did she perform this exceptional act of generosity, she also informed me that there was a retrospective of my new-found heroine showing at the National Gallery of Victoria. I needed little persuasion to head for the train station and book a concession day return to Melbourne using my freshly minted student card.

At 4.30 am on Friday morning, it seemed a less good idea but I got up, packed a rucksack with fresh-brewed coffee, an essay on post-modernism and Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and headed for the connecting bus. By 9.30 I’d arrived in Melbourne and was perusing the works of Rosalie Gascoigne and I saw something one always looks for but rarely finds in art, humanity nestling with majesty as if they were soulmates. This was the truth that had reached out from the little flat screen and grabbed me by the throat. It was the experience I most wanted to have at the moment I most needed to have it. Here was a set of instructions for setting the world to rights. Rosalie Gascoigne, although dead for ten years, seemed to have come back to earth to explain how exactly to reorder the world so it can function honestly again.

Retrospectives are a joy because you get a speed tour of the artist’s head in an hour or so. It’s enormously stimulating, like receiving an intravenous download of a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears. Having had the opportunity to read a little about Gascoigne before the exhibition, my view was illuminated by knowing some of her story. As the educated and erudite young wife of an astronomer emigrating from New Zealand to Australia in 1943, she found herself isolated for years on a barren mountain-top with three small children to bring up. She spoke of the extreme loneliness and the need to establish purpose, which sounds perfectly plausible now, but in fifties Australia was the last thing a woman was given leave to contemplate. Women were expected to devote themselves to décor and the only fine art they were permitted to master was that of sniping each other into a highly constricting social order.

Rosalie Gascoigne found her purpose in what lay around her and became a monumental artist in part because she wasn’t prepared to compromise her vision by succumbing to the carousel of trivia paraded as a woman's lot. I could go on about her work for a month but it’s all been said already. What interested me is the single-mindedness of her journey, which was undertaken with the most astounding navigational skill and insight. Completely ignoring social convention, (as opposed to wasting her energies railing against it), she scoured the countryside for the detritus of post-industrial life, farm machinery, corrugated iron, wooden soft drinks boxes and decommissioned road warning signs, often having to negotiate courageously with suspicious males who incongruously assumed custody when they discovered a woman was interested in their erstwhile trash. From these scraps a new object was synthesised. Individually, these items were just waste but collectively they made something metaphorically powerful and always aesthetically beautiful. She had learned from the Japanese discipline of Ikebana that placement is everything in art, as it is in life. One is nothing without one’s surroundings.

What Gascoigne could or would not do in domesticity, she resolved in art. She talks about being a hopeless housekeeper, not because she didn’t try but very often because the elements diminished all reasonable effort. Dust storms, lack of suitable equipment and the severe cold all conspired to place a ‘housewife’ firmly in the red. Housework is a zero-sum game at best, an equation that’s well understood now. Gascoigne collected domestic materials (enamel-ware, linoleum, food containers and labels) and tamed them into an order that is serene and permanent. All external conflict was resolved using the same ameliorative but determined method. Of course one can never know how these dynamics really play out in families. I’m not sure I’d have liked to come home to a house full of sheep bones and saw marks on the dining room table. As Gascoigne’s career was peeking, her astronomer husband Ben was retiring after an illustrious career. He seems genuinely to have settled into a supportive role as her cataloguer, archivist and general factotum. Don’t you wish all relationships could be like that?

She said,

‘Chance is a fine thing and it serves me well.’

And I agree. Thanks to the timely intervention of my introduction to the work of Rosalie Gascoigne, the road ahead now seems far less daunting, this week at least…