Notes on the making of Quiet/Disquiet

Sarah Tomasetti, 2016

This body of work began with my fourth trip to the South Island of New Zealand, this time to the glacial valleys and geologically young peaks around Aoraki/Mt Cook. I was initially drawn to the glaciers as simultaneously emblematic of monumental power and precarious fragility as the glacial face melts away year by year due to global warming. The river of ice sculpts the landscape as it advances, yet its retreat is rapid and inexorable, in a radical state of disappearance, sometimes violent but mostly silent. The glacial melt when in balance plays a critical ecological role, feeding rivers and supplying fresh water during dry spells, but when seasonally continuous due to climate change, it becomes a destabilising flow.

In the later works in this series I altered my working sequence, making the paintings on the fresco wall and lifting them away afterwards, so that unpredictable surface damage would interrupt the painterly image with fissures and cracks. I grew to both dread and anticipate these breakages, sometimes catastrophically destructive, yet somehow emblematic of fragility, a disintegrating dream of an elemental, uninhabitable place, resisting occupation.

Through encounters with nature I seek to measure the cultural and temporal space between the present and an historic period of romantic landscape painting in which the landscape image could be a vector for various projections; sacred sublime or psychic refuge, vision of exploration, ownership and productivity. Each of these anthropocentric projects collapses in the knowledge of an interconnected system thoroughly colonised and in a state of rapid change. In the Peak/MeltSeries I have juxtaposed panels of snowy peaks from several continents, symbolically melting down and rushing out though the ice sheet via the moulins at the poles.

Quiet/Disquiet refers to an uneasy edge between seeking a wordless space of solace in the untouched landscape, and the simultaneous awareness that this is perhaps a fugitive wish no longer ours to long for. I have sought to be more objective in relation to the structures of the landscape – to iron out the tendency of the free hand to make the peak a little higher, the valley a little more symmetrical and strive instead to deepen the seeing of how things are. This represents an encounter with the essential otherness of nature, the indifference of the landscape to the human wish to either find itself reflected there, or to conjure a longed for encounter with the divine. I found myself continually drawn to a strange imaginary point just above the mountain line, perhaps an untethered mind space drifting at the point of dissolution of matter. I am preoccupied with slippage, with disappearance, with the transition from one state to another, as water becomes vapour, as snow becomes fog, the ‘surface of last scattering’ that marks the edge of vision.

The Aoraki/Mt Cook panels have as their subject the point where mountain meets sky, and each panel holds an echo somewhere in its topographical structure of the ones on either side. The slightly overlapping images fail to line up and each records a slight shift in light and fog, mimicking on one level the way a contemporary experience of place can be mediated by the camera, the jerky process of making a panorama of digital photographs that stand in for that moment. There is nonetheless an incomplete attempt through the process of painting to reorder the information and find somewhere to rest within it, a rapid and subtle play between continuity and fracture. The peak of Aoraki itself remains fugitive, fading from view rather than taking up its place as the highest point on the land mass.

Disquiet might characterise an uneasy collective consciousness of climate change. Equally it is the interior starting point for making an image. In the sculptural work Quiet/Disquiet, I have alluded to this by placing a topographical wax relief of the glacial peaks and valleys over 392 pages of letters written to a psychotherapist that begin on that walk and continue to the present. This locates the state of interior disquiet in the subterranean zone where the Australian tectonic plate rubs against the Pacific one, pushing up the mountain range above. It is also an allusion to the unease that can drive the making of art; an urgency to create the object or image that can embody incompatible states of being. I contend that collectively the human psychic relationship to nature is shifting – one may seek eternal stillness in the mountain, and encounter instead the reality of the melt.