It’s a long way – a very long way – from Australia to the northern part of the Canadian province of Alberta and its capital city of Edmonton.
It involves a kind of planetary inversion, if you will, a shift between geographic, seasonal, and ecological extremes. But it’s an inversion artist Lyndal Osborne made, living now as she does on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River which winds along just behind her property in a rural part of Edmonton.
And the two extremes – Australia and the more northerly reaches Canada – truly inform her sculptural and installational work at the most fundamental of levels.
Osborne’s installations are as binary and in many ways oppositional as her trans-equatorial shift from southern to northern hemispheres. Within their sculptural context, she combines naturally sourced materials from different environments and ecologies on the one hand, with the artefacts of human invention and engineering on the other. Aesthetically, her work stands in place of place. It represents – sort of. It’s about landscape.
Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice demonstrates this. It’s a work Osborne created in 2003, and which was recently exhibited again at the Art Gallery of Burlington just outside of Toronto. It’s a floor-mounted piece largely comprised of glass jars and bottles – 7,500 of them, to be exact – set on the floor cheek by jowl in an enormous, irregular shape. Punctuating this veritable sea of glass at various points are kinds of “islands.” Most are raised slightly above the gallery floor, and can also be likened to platters, of a sort, for their surfaces harbour accumulations of things – small bowls filled with nuts, the stems from gourds (like squash), even small, empty shells of scallops. It’s a rich bounty of nature’s plenty Osborne has laid out, like some sort of offering, or the elements of a feast.
Other islands in this glass sea are more singular, each comprised of but one thing: the remarkably large seed pods of some species of plant or tree on one, pieces of what seem to be tree branches arranged vertically to form a pyramidal shape on another. They’re all islands of organic materials, save for just one comprised solely of pieces of metal, artefacts (like springs and gears) of something mechanical. It’s a jarring, but, alas, apt and accurate inclusion of humanity’s incursion into and reworking of our planet.
Some contextualizing background to Shoalwan: as part of an artist residency in which she participated in 2002, Osborne spent time living along the Shoalhaven River in the Australian state of New South Wales. The area had been ravaged by forest fires, and during her time there, Osborne experienced their lingering after-effects. Some of the organic materials included in this sculptural installation were collected there.
The second source of aesthetic reference for the work is the North Saskatchewan River that wends its way behind her home, and the irregularly shaped sea of glass is, in fact, denotative of the shape of the river, as well as reflective of Osborne’s observations of how it begins to freeze over as winter sets in, forming independent pancake-like ice forms before eventually freezing solid.
There’s yet another reflective element, here: the apparent underlying organizational principles in Shoalwan – accumulations of materials and artefacts in clearly separate containers – are clearly indicative of Osborne’s strong collecting impetus. In some ways, her installations are like aesthetically re-engineerings of the so-called “Cabinets of Curiosities” (or Wunderkammer) that date back to the 16th century and which mark the very beginnings of the scientific methodology (as well as museology). Osborne is a collector, a kind of hunter-gatherer, actively seeking out and accumulating the things of the natural (and, to a lesser degree, the not-so-natural) world, organizing and categorizing them as elements of her installations, like Tableau for Transformation (1998), an enormous display case with over 300 separate compartments containing small, organized accumulations of natural and artefactual objects.
But this isn’t just obsessive collections of things that make up her art work. Osborne’s is an organizational scheme further reflective of the deeper structure of our world (indeed, our universe), a structure that is “granular,” cellular, one of fundamental discontinuities. Our universe is discrete. Osborne’s sculptural installations cannot but be representative of that very reality.
Her Archipelago, a piece dating back to 2008, comprises everything from dried grapefruit rinds to wire and thread, and even the connectors for models of DNA structure. Again, it’s a floor-mounted work. Like Shoalwan, it has an island-like structure of 16 discrete circular structures of wire and thread each containing an accumulation of objects that range from shell-like dried grapefruit rinds and dried sections of the stalks of sunflower plants that have been individually lithographed, to painted seed pods. The wire and thread structure completely encloses each island, and atop them rest tiny bowls, each complete with its own miniature garden.
Nature and its primary, essential elements. But science has arrived here, as well; test tubes, beakers and Bunsen burners rise like a strange forest amidst the islands of the organic, and while they are explicative of the very underlying structures of our world, simultaneously they of course pose a threat to its very being.
A planetary inversion, if you will. Something a hunter-gatherer like Lyndal Osborne would know all too well.
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By Gil McElroy