Sarah Tomasetti’s works are a welcome antidote to the contemporary obsession with filling to the brim all the awkward silences in our lives. Acoustic, visual and ideological noise floods every conversation; inundating every image, every thought, every quiet landscape with human signification. No place or time, no entity, no history or memory is spared the torrent that constitutes our insidious imposition of meaning and reason. By contrast, in Tomasetti’s abstracted horizons and veiled mountainscapes we find, paradoxically, the monumental presence of nothingness. In the stillness of these between-worlds we come to question the nature and pervasiveness of everyday dichotomies: the rationalised divides between the here-and-there, past¬and-future, absence-and-presence, terrestrial-and-celestial, and between the natural and human worlds. And like the immortal Yellow Emperor, in whose honour the mountains depicted were re-named, we discover the infinities these dichotomies disguise.
On producing a telescope fit for celestial observations, Galileo’s first port of call was to demonstrate it to the powerful men of Venice. This new instrument promised the early identification of merchant ships by enabling its user to see their mast flags the instant the ships emerged over the horizon. The image of a ship appearing like an actor from behind the curtains certainly adds credence to the primitive impression that the horizon is a real physical boundary. However, imagining oneself out at sea on that same ship, at the time of its apparition is enough to convince us otherwise. Yet the world between the celestial and terrestrial realms is neither illusory nor empty. It is filled with an infinite number of points; the natural resting place for a myriad of vanishing points, an infinity of perspectives. A world filled with entities that are without extension; in short a world filled with nothingness. And if Galileo had turned his telescope to the edge of a billowing cloud, here too he would have found infinities. Nature has nested in every contorted boundary – in the edge of a misty cloud or the silhouette of a mountain against the sky – another contorted boundary, itself harbouring new boundaries: ever downward into the unknowable.
Tomasetti’s horizons and mountainscapes are not signposts for those seeking to appreciate the dichotomies of sea and sky, form and ground, light and dark, or even what distinguishes Oriental and Occidental cultures and practices. They are worlds that draw us willingly into the stillness of infinities-in-miniature in which the division between humans and nature, between ourselves and others, and between the past, the present and the future dissolve. At a time when the natural environments of China – as elsewhere – are becoming increasingly humanised, we cannot afford to use our human capacity to dichotomise in order to rationalise our abdication of duty to the natural world of which we are inextricably a part.
In drawing inspiration from the contemporary works of Wang Wusheng and the sublime subject matter of China’s Yelow Mountains, Tomasetti has opened a dialogue with a tradition in art that seems far removed from that which is commonly associated with fresco painting. Her works, while clearly influenced by Romanticism, are nevertheless sympathetically tethered to Eastern art forms in both their metaphysical foundations and methodology. With her depic¬tions of sea-sky horizons and mountainscapes, Tomasetti’s paintings form collectively their own landscape, the word for which in Chinese (as Seigo Matsuoka reminds us) is a union of the pictograms for water and mountain. And, as is characteristic of Chinese landscape art, the works are generated through a synthesis of memories and interpretations of what has been seen rather than what is being observed. In paying homage to places never visited, Tomasetti reconstructs inaccessible realities while recognising both the ‘timelessness’ and ‘placelessness’ of the subjects and objects of her work.
The titles of her paintings, drawn from diary entries of visits to China by her grandmother Muriel in 1936, and her mother Glen in 1958, recreate two itineraries that offer another way to reflect on the spaces between worlds, the gap between one generation and the next, China pre-and post-Revolution, the Winter Palace that became the Pei-hai Park. There is a sense that Tomasetti directs a mournful gaze into this interstitial space that is neither here nor there and is by its nature incomplete, resting somewhere between history, myth and memory. It has taken the passage of remarkably little time for Muriel’s turn of phrase and her prejudices to read like an unfamiliar language. By contrast, in Glen’s words we read the intellectual force of one who not only came to witness but also to attest. Here too, like the images of the Yellow Mountains, Muriel’s memories and Glen’s histories speak of inaccessible times and places. And perhaps they serve as a powerful metaphor for the dark between-world of death – what Heidegger referred to as our own-most possibility. Tomasetti does not use her late mother’s collection of words to bring her back to life. Rather, in the vein of Eastern (if not universal) philosophies, in remembering she generates a dark world for her ancestors to inhabit – a world in the present tense – co-existent with our own. As the ephemeral mist veils the eternal mountain, in the dark between worlds presence and absence are unified.