Hybrid Life Forms – Robyn Stacey

Published on April 1st, 2001

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Robyn Stacey

Nature, in the monotony of its eternal growth and decay, is the embodiment of a dark, grandiose secret … born of man’s heart and mind, rising from the yearning for permanence and eternity.’

This article by Robyn Stacey is part of the exhibition hybrid<life>forms, curated by Linda Wallace and Josephine Grieve for NIMk.

In my work I explore this emotional response to nature and plants and the notion of beauty that is hard wired into us. I also look at the various traditions and genres of plant and still life work. The depiction of flowers has a long tradition in art history. In the late Middle Ages flower still lives opened up independent subject matter. The Dutch still life, the vanitas and momento mori paintings that date from the 15 century are the first secular subject matter in art. Previously all painting pretty much dealt with religious themes. The Great Big Piece of Turf is based on these vanitas paintings, where all the elements in the work have a symbolic value. These images had a moral function in society to remind us of our mortality and how fleeting life is. All the references in The Great Big Piece of Turf are symboloic and significant in a Sydney context. On the right-hand side you start withan etching of Circular Quay in Sydney from 1887 and end with the Sydney Harbour tunnel, which is how we know the site today – we literally drive under it. Symbolism in this work includes historic depictions of Australian birds and flowers combined with the exotic or introduced species which I photographed in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens.

Plant photography has a long history dating from Blossfeldt ‘s Urformen der Kunst in 1928 to Nick Knight ‘s flora in 1998, not to mention Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Robert Mapplethorpe. The significance of plants and the desire to photograph and chronicle specimens has ranged from an interest in plants as scientific tools to aesthetic and symbolic reasons that resonate through history and across cultures. Blossfeldt’s work particularly interests me — his use of close up detail, and the graphic quality of his imagery, as well as the scientific intent behind the work. His aim was to provide a comprehensive record and objective study of plant forms. He was a pioneer of the New Objectivity in photography and made some 6000 photographs of plants and plant segments. His aim was to renew the broken bond with nature through the use of technology. It is in the detailed enlargements of plants that the New Objectivity and Surrealism meet, and Bloosfeldt’s photos stand at this point of intersection.

‘Whether we speed up a plant’s growth or show its form in forty fold enlargement — in both cases a geyser of new images erupts at points of our existence where we would least expect it.’

Photography is the perfect medium to express this juncture between art and science. I am particularly interested in the idea of photography as an amplification of our vision rather than photography as a social documentary tool. The technical mechanistic device, the camera, allows us to see states and forms that we cannot see with the eye alone. The print / the still is a moment out of time which means that it is a crystallisation or concentration of experience, unlike film which is an unfolding of time. The print forces us to encounter detail and minutiae that is impossible with moving image. The combination of the moment out of time — the still with the amplification of vision made possible by the lens makes for a potent combination.

Technology at the end of the 1990s has resulted in the creation of an equivocal image: the electronic image which vacillates between the actual and the virtual and the alliance between the seen and the experienced is challenged. By exploiting this gap between actual and virtual it is possible to produce work that shows us a new way of seeing the familiar through images that are both photo-real and completely fictitious. In the electro-optic works Surface Tension, Plum Lotus in Autumn and Tulip, the transformation of the subject matter is a temporal process which leaves traces of the history of the image so that the image literally appears to develop itself as the viewer walks past it. As it is constantly undergoing a change of form, the image itself becomes metamorphosed. In the lenticular images life is not ‘stilled’ but mobilised.
Whereas silver imaging features latency, electro-optical photography (lenticular imaging) brings us images in what is called real time: we imagine seeing things not only as they occur but while they occur, at great gain in vividness. This does not mean that the image is necessarily more true or more accurate for being more vivid but the experience of the image is heightened.

In the work Surface Tension we literally go inside the flower and see the little insects crawling around. We also see things best through relative motion. Our visual systems are designed to detect motion by scanning in three ways: through movement of either the source or the apparatus or both. Not surprisingly electro-optical photography that displays images in real time mimics human visual systems. The lenticular image extends the photograph by utilising the existing qualities of the photograph (such as detail, resolution and acuity) and integrating these qualities with digital technologies to produce a new hybrid which incorporates both time and depth within a single image.

It is through the use of technology in the lenticular works that the sense of immersion in the real or natural is most apparent. The lenticular images are made possible only through their existence in the viewer’s own space and time. In this way they are unique images. They represent an unfolding of time (the opposite of the still 2 D images). It is the random combination of the material and immaterial — images, light and time and the viewer’s interaction with the work that creates the image. The technology itself disrupts the normal orientation of the viewer to the image, for experientially the relationship can no longer be neatly described with the strict opposition of subject / object. In its appearance the work emerges and transforms itself in a mutual relationship with the observer; it has no definite appearance in and of itself that is independent of the viewer.

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