The Nature of Things
The nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom.¹
There is something particularly intriguing about London gardens. Invariably small, many have tall protective walls which, while cutting down on light, also offer shelter from the wind, creating in some cases a delightful suntrap and a semi-tropical climate. Once smitten, London gardeners tend to scrutinise their plots with a concern rarely found in more rural settings, poring over every unfolding shoot as a matter of wonder and enchantment.
Carefully tended, such modest gardens can be surprisingly fecund. My own pocket sized patch, squeezed between houses, yields only a mass of summer ferns, but others, such as that carefully tended by Liz Rideal, are redolent with colour, greenery and shrubs. Rideal favours a pleasing combination of the wild and cultivated, which even in winter, when foliage has gone, still offers the marvel of the skeletal tracery of plants and, like fine drawings, take on a quality of their own. Below the surface there are the intriguing shape of roots, only revealed as the garden is cleared and the summer plants dug up.
Roots are powerful signifiers. Among many other connotations, they can convey solidarity – as in rooted or taking root; exploration – as in rooting around; and excavation – as in rooting out. In addition roots are perceived to be a source of strength and nourishment. Roots are that part of a plant normally hidden below the surface of the earth and, tempting though it may be, we do not pull plants up to see how they are faring for fear of disturbing and loosing them. Even apparently dead-looking roots can later yield new life if left alone. Roots hold us, anchor us, bind us, feed us, and to expose them is to transgress into areas of the forbidden.
But roots are also a part of the cycle of change. We acknowledge our own roots and on them build anew. In the garden, when they have served their purpose, roots either wither in the course of seasonal change or are pulled up, and are often to be seen poking cheekily out of plastic bags put out as part of the rubbish. Nevertheless, roots carry a powerful resonance in their ability to evoke life and death, creation and destruction, growth and decay.
Admiring the beauty of the dried roots and crisp shapes of bleached dried twigs revealed in the course of gardening, Rideal photographed them in the photobooth. In some she adjusted the background colour to create soft, graduated hints of green to give a particularly ethereal, woodland quality of its own. The photobooth is programmed to produce a standard sequence of four identical but unique shots, and though this can of course be repeated, there is no negative from which endless prints can be made. Like the root, the image can only be copied not reproduced.
The roots in such images as Quadrille and High Kick, juxtaposed by Rideal in repeating sequence, appear to be the remains of animal life, perhaps an exotic but little known arachnid that has finally been caught on camera. For one photobooth series Rideal has used roots to explore the ambiguity of form and content much as she had done earlier with hair or flowering plants, which when taken out of context become objects with no fixed meaning.
A closer look reveals something more complex, for while our eyes anxiously seek to make sense of what they see by creating patterns, identifying shapes and imagining objects, the realisation that we are looking at natural form in an unlikely situation adds an intriguing surreal element. In arrangements of four sets of four images, Rideal paradoxically gives the roots new life, in some providing them with an almost figurative quality as they appear to dance in silent harmony, a dance that is both elegant and bizarre. Like much of Rideal’s work, the use of multiple images evokes a strong sense of rhythm and movement.
In Rhizome Balance, the root is set against a delicate shade of green, the colour of the old baize of a billiard table, the images so arranged that they appear to be linked together. A rhizome, unlike other root systems, emits both root and shoot, in effect becoming the heart of the plant, the drawer in and the pusher out. The characteristics of this particular rhizome are well illustrated with black, strong, tentacle-like roots sprouting from one end, while a white/green stem bursts from the other in a poetic evocation of its unique qualities. But Rideal, while aware of and fascinated by the botanical peculiarities of rhizomes, is equally concerned in her assemblies of images to explore the object as a formal arrangement of line, form and colour to create a hybrid in which a single plant appears from two identical pairs. The idea of mutation, of fiddling with molecular structures to create ‘impossible’ growths is here elegantly evoked.
Echo is altogether more sinister. The close-up of a root, deep black against a pale mushroom background, has such a strong sense of the earth that you can almost smell the air of decay. The pattern-like quality of the four images suggests a brooding silence, like an insect waiting to pounce. Its slightly menacing quality, in which the edges of the photobooth image appear to divide up the object, is creepily effective. The magical/medical/ritualistic qualities associated with roots is further explored in the Mandrake Tango series, in which the roots seem caught up in a ‘dance of death’. The mandrake, with shapes that are often thought to resemble the human figure, is often imbued with powerful life giving and death-inducing qualities, while merely uprooting the plant is thought to have fatal effects.
So intrigued was Rideal by the sturdy quality of the up-rooted remains of Night Scented Stock, with the crisply pruned twigs, that she had twelve cast in bronze using a process in which the original was destroyed leaving only the metal form. Just as photobooth images are produced without a negative, so each bronze is the only evidence of the original root-twig, as no mould survives.
The process also results in an object that is virtually identical in appearance to the original, retaining all but the finest of the roots. Using a dark patination on the surface, Rideal’s series of bronze root-twigs look uncannily like the real thing, though the heavy weight and cold touch quickly reveals the difference. The sense of verisimilitude that makes these sculptural pieces so engaging is akin to the photographic process where the image may appear to be an unmediated reproduction of the ‘real’, echoing the popular perception that ‘the camera cannot lie’. Rideal also ‘planted’ – root end up – the bronzes in her garden, further perpetuating the idea of the ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, of nature and artifice in uneasy harmony.
When she placed the bronzes in front of the lens of her camera rather than the photobooth, Rideal bestowed on them a different status. No longer were they props in an exploration of rhythm and pattern, but objects of interest in their own right. In one series, the individual pieces, set against a plain white background, are arranged root side up to stand as upright objects leaning one against the other, either locked together in pairs or threesome or even foursome, each needing the others to support themselves, echoing the way farmers arranged stooks of corn to dry in fields. The bronzes take on a triffid-like appearance, objects in which the natural world is literally turned on its head.
Although we may assume that what are photographed are ‘real’ twig/roots, we are seeing a representation of the ‘real’ in highly displaced and manipulated form. Some images are cropped to lead us into the centre of these objects, adding to the tracery-like feel, evocative of a tree in the middle of winter seen against a cool, bleached sky that casts the sinuous forms in graphic simplicity, whilst others, such as Geisha Go Go and Forest, are set against ‘dramatic’ landscapes or almost lost in a plethora of stripes.
Like the nineteenth century early photographic pioneer and botanist Anna Atkins, whose drawings and photographic nature prints of flora and fauna combine both academic study with artistic sensitivity, Rideal’s concerns lie as much with the processes of photography as with the structures and references of natural form: whether Rideal works with ferns, fabrics and flowers to reveal formations and textures virtually impossible to achieve in a drawing, however closely involved her techniques become.
Atkins’s involvement with natural form has been taken and sensitively explored by the contemporary American artist Philip Taaffe, who in addition to printing plant and sea world images taken from nineteenth century natural history books, arranges them in pseudo-scientific sequences to create rich, textural narratives. Rideal, continuing an earlier photographic concern with drapery and its ability to suggest three-dimensional form, has also looked at the qualities of the weft and warp of fabric for a series of monoprints in which the material is first inked then passed through the press.
Like photobooth images, a monoprint is a ‘one-off’ and each has its own qualities and characteristics. Rideal’s tarlatan monoprints appear as fine, delicate tracery that seems to move like op art in sensual formations. In some prints where fabrics overlap, there is a moirÈ effect that is particularly beguiling. These Aurora diptychs have connective imagery separated by a slender line making two halves, which in their dicotyledonous formation are separate but inextricably locked together.
In Forest and Do You Want To Dance the monoprints serve as background for the bronzes, the knarled bronze roots appearing surprisingly substantial in comparison with the delicate, almost tentative quality of the print. Scale is inevitably distorted in these works, the roots/twigs with their roots interlocking in loving embrace (or combat?) soaring and sturdy, contrast with the soft, elusive quality of the fabrics.
In such images the components parts, be they bronzes or monoprints, play a central role in exploring ambiguity and uncertainty, whether in the objects themselves or their relationship to the natural world, but in the series Mandrake Tango it is the photographic process that has suggested new ways of blending fact and fiction. Here Rideal has printed two 21/4 transparencies of the standing bronzes sandwiched together. The result is a form in which the different arrangements of the bronzes overlap to create a single, linear plant-like shape, albeit one that while defying rational analysis is sufficiently plausible for us to take seriously. Some appear to be made up of two repeated halves, and it is only on closer inspection that subtle but important differences are apparent.
Others are seen as if from the side, moving into or out of the frame, giving them an edgy, chorus line quality, while others are closed up as if caught in some strange, intimate ritual. All are titled with the name of dances or dancers – Fred and Ginger, Jamming, Pirouette, or more ambiguously Ride a Cock Horse evoking the idea of movement and rhythm. The ethereal quality of these square format images and the strong but not entirely architecturally persuasive formation with their elusive, delicate tracery seem part of a world in which the real and imagined, actual and created are closely combined.
Rideal’s work touches on both the form of objects – be they plants or woven fabrics – and on the photographic process and its ability to imitate, to yield simulacra that takes on an independence quite apart from the subject shown. In seeking to explore the nature of things Rideal offers alternate ways of looking at the natural and the fabricated in which one is intimately bound up with the other.
¹ Francis Bacon quoted in Richard Patterson, The ‘Hortus Palatinus’ at Heidelberg and the Reformation of the World. Part II: Culture as Science. page 179. Journal of Garden History Vol.1. No.2
By Emmanuel Cooper, 2002