Elizabeth Thomson

At the beginning of Day One, the earth was formless and darkness lay upon the deep; then the Spirit started moving ‘upon the face of the waters’ and, in a blast of light – a prototypical Big Bang – there was blueness, a vast oceanic expanse upon and around which the creator then went about the rest of his/her prismatic business.

The afterglow of this originating moment lingers in the meditations of Wellington-based Elizabeth Thomson. Her recent relief sculptures are centred not only on the blueness of the oceanic realm but also its immensity and its immense detail, its mind-bending scale and scope as well as its minutiae. In the process, Thomson also finds herself exploring the particular yet elusive place that blueness holds in the human subconscious, and its residual power.

Blue is not a territory new to Thomson’s art – her work has received earlier infusions of cosmic blueness (see La Planete Sauvage, 2009); earlier mural-sized wall installations incorporated the turquoise and ultramarine of skies and ponds. But never has the immersion been as total as it is in ‘Voyage Sauvage’ and the recent ‘Numinous’ and ‘Solaris’ works. If her oceanic reverie hints at a raft of cultural antecedents from Genesis to Coleridge to Jules Verne and onwards to Andrei ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky, it also moves in broader territory, reaching into the realm of natural history, optical science, narratives of discovery and philosophical inquiry.

The topicality of the ocean, with its imaginative as well as its material resources, was the impetus behind the much-discussed exhibition ‘Aquatopia – the imaginary of the ocean deep’, at Nottingham Contemporary then Tate St Ives in 2013–14. In the book accompanying that exhibition, curator Alex Farquharson observed that ‘the ocean is to land what sleep is to wakefulness: at its deepest and most opaque it is analogous to the oblivion of deep sleep’. Writing in the same publication, Philip Hoare eschewed such a Romantic approach, offering instead a radical but entirely plausible scientific prehistory in which humanity’s ‘vestigial webbed fingers are a physical memory of this aquatic life’. Even our organs contain a memory of the sea, Hoare continued, and the ratio of our body fat is comparable to that of the fin whale. New-born babies can hold their breath and swim. ‘Homo aquaticus’ might not be such a far-fetched notion after all.

Thomson’s new works are the slow-release outcome of a 2011 voyage on HMNZS Otago to the Kermadec waters, north of New Zealand (see Artist Profile Issue 16). She recalls, with relish and acuity, how, several hundred kilometres short of Tonga, there was a disconcerting but quintessential moment when the engines stopped and the ship came to an abrupt halt. With the stabilisers no longer operational, the vessel started rolling in the oceanic swell. Eventually, a crackling voice over the ship’s intercom announced: ‘Hands to bathe’, at which all the officers and crew were suddenly stripping down to their shorts and leaping, diving and somersaulting over the ship’s railings. Caught up in this age-old naval custom – which marks the crossing of the Tropic of Capricorn – Thomson followed suit and found herself falling headlong into mid-ocean blueness.

She remembers this swim, hundreds of kilometres from dry land, as being both an out-of-body experience and also an experience of being absorbed into the body of the sentient, living waters of the ocean. Thomson has spoken of how the encounter saturated all her senses: the dizzying blueness; the warm, effervescent buoyancy, the briny scent and salty taste; the sensation of seawater forcing up her nostrils after a four-metre drop; the muffled wave-music. In the warm embrace of those teeming, life-giving waters, Thomson felt both strangeness and intimacy – the same qualities her works have courted, explored and elaborated upon since she graduated from Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts in 1988.

This mid-ocean experience is re-enacted in the dense, clotted bluenesses of her panels, and in the play of light as it is caught or refracted or set on its way through the marvellous, flickering circuitry of her art. In works such as Star Map 1, the surface is augmented with a layer of glass spheres which cling like oxygen bubbles or re-enact the atomised moment of bodily immersion in water.

The miracle of these works is that they somehow manage to compress a sense of the mind-boggling Kermadec region – 640,000 square km of New Zealand’s territorial waters, in fact – into relatively small-scale, luminous panels. How is it possible to make art that is so expansive and immersive without working on a huge scale? The answer, I suspect, lies in the optical intensity of these works, which have as much in common with jewellery as they do minimalist painting. The works manifest the reductivism and detail of the jeweller’s craft; such is their compression, refinement and carefully calibrated effect. Each work can also be thought of as a miniature – a token or keepsake of an infinitely larger reality. Further to that, the works speak of endearment, of an emotional/existential closeness. Their blueness is also that of the eyes of someone cherished or beloved. And therein lies the notion of sanctuary, the sanctum, which is also at the heart of Thomson’s oceanic meditation.

The undulations on the surface of Thomson’s works (Numinous/ Transitive Blue V) mimic the sea – pulsing and patterned – yet they are also the pores of human skin; they resemble the goose-bumps I have seen her works elicit from some viewers. It might even be possible that her works incorporating glass spheres invoke some deep cellular memory – beyond cultural memory or muscle memory or motor memory – that links human and marine realities, that returns us to the cradle of all life on the planet.

The works are an intellectual conundrum as they are a perceptual puzzle. In them, we enter the artist’s headspace as we do infinite ocean-space. Divers and swimmers, all of us – in her mind’s eye and the eye’s mind. We throw our heads back and see the sky; we open our eyes underwater and blueness fills them. Blue seeps into everything. The optic nerve, like a ship’s rope, drags the brain, the body, the entire being into the oceanic encounter.

Elizabeth Thomson’s wall-works might be the most aesthetic of creations, but they also hammer at the door of the contemporary world. They ask that we think about the present state of our marine environment. With research vessels plying the oceans for oil, natural gas and minerals, and with the spectres of over-fishing and pollution looming, not to mention patterns of illegal seabound migration, humanity’s capacity to manage (and fit into) the oceanic scheme of things is set to be a defining issue of the 21st century.

Thomson’s relief sculptures are challenging but only in the way a deep-sea swim is. Freedom is frightening; beauty can be challenging, just as, to quote Al Gore, truth can be inconvenient. In this regard, further implications can be drawn from these seemingly ‘abstract’ works. They infer that humanity needs to stop thinking of the ocean as something that lies, inherently, beyond or outside us. In fact, we are its citizens – we are immersed in it, connected to it, and answerable for its fate. It exists in our present, future and past.
In Elizabeth Thomson’s recent works, we linger in rooms and squares of the temporary blue palace in which she resided briefly, one day south of Nuku’alofa. Her works insist that we consider her mid-ocean swim not as a few moments of transformation, nor as an apotheosis, but as a moment of becoming, of being human – and facing up to the responsibilities as well as the euphoria inherent in that oceanic encounter.

Elizabeth Thomson is represented by Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney and Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland.

Voyage Sauvage
8 to 31 May, 2014
Dominik Mersch Gallerywww.dominikmerschgallery.com

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