Essay below written by Isobel Wise, Art Curator, City of Perth. “For The Nautilus Is My Boat” 2014.
PCP Opening 21 August 2014
Carine Thevenau “For The Nautilus Is My Boat” and Jim Naughten “Hereros”
This may come across as somewhat of a history lesson, however both of these series have their roots in history and the presentation of identity through objects even though they come from very different contexts.
Carine Thevenau’s series For the Nautilus is My Boat makes reference to the illustration of the same name by Warwick Goble. Thevenau’s series continues a long line of artists who have responded to one another’s work. I am not sure if Thevenau is aware of how far back this story goes, but it appears to have begun in the early 1800s when the artist Henry Howard created the painting Fairies on the Sea Shore, although I have to admit I do not know where Howard sought his inspiration. The poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon responded to Howard’s painting in verse and this was published in the 1825 titled The Troubadour; Catalogue of Pictures, and Historical Sketches under Landon’s pseudonym L. E. L. The book was a collection of poems that reinterpreted paintings in text and in the chapter Poetical Sketches of Modern Pictures Landon included the poem Fairies on the Sea Shore By Howard. It has since been republished in collections of the poets work, and in 1920 it was included in The Book of Fairy Poetry, which was illustrated by Warwick Goble.
The illustrations title is taken from a line in Landon’s poem and it depicts a fairy floating upon the ocean in a nautilus shell. She is wearing treasures in her hair, the same treasures which are spoken of in the stanza which describes this scene. Generally speaking fairy tales denote perfection and Goble’s illustrations in particular show idyllic scenes where women appear to be innocent; when there is a powerful presence it is generally embedded within the realm of fantasy.
The poet Landon has been noted for writing the narration of feelings and experiences as opposed to recounting the feelings or experience of her characters.[i] By this, it is suggested that she described an external view of feelings rather than immersing her readers within the feelings of her subjects. Similarly, it is the external, or the objects rather than the subject in Thevenau’s works that relay the narrative; that is the things rather than the people. But this is so frequently the case with fairy tales, it is often an external force bound to the protagonist that brings about harmony.
In Thevenau’s work, like Landon’s poem, the nautilus is the vessel that brings life and provides safe passage. Thevenau’s images are constructed in order to convey the shell as the fertile presence. This is shown within photographs that have a still and serene quality, much like the illustrations of Goble.
While the objects convey the story in Thevenau’s works, the objects and subjects are intrinsically linked in Jim Naughten’s Hereros. The subjects’ connection to history, identity and place is evident in these photographs; which are somewhat theatrical yet not in a fictional sense. The desert forms a stark backdrop much like the plain backdrop of studio photography, which allows the focus to fall on the subject and their attire. However unlike fashion or studio photography, this backdrop holds history for the Herero people, who were driven to the desert by German forces in the early 20th century during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide. These present day Herero stand proud and strong on the site of past atrocities having donned the garb of their former oppressors making it their own.
Much like Naughten’s earlier series Re-enactors, these works demonstrate how our attire can be rather incongruous in terms of speaking to who we are. There is a suggestion that our identity in this moment is a result of our own past experiences as well as those of our forebears. Like Thevenau’s work there is stillness here, yet the Herero are not immersed in fairy tales and their alternative meanings. The cow is sacred because it truly sustains life, the attire is worn as a mark of history and these men and women are powerful without drawing on any fictional force. So within these two exhibitions we can see how objects can become icons of meaning, whether it is from the fanciful perspective of the fairy tale, or the absolute truth history.
[i] Letita Elizabeth Landon. (2014). In All Poetry. Retrieved from http://allpoetry.com/Letitia-Elizabeth-Landon