The cave is arguably the most complex and culturally loaded locus in Western Art; as the site of its oldest paintings and the allegorical agency of some of its earliest theorizing, the cave is the defining immersive pictorial environment and as such ground zero for experimental art, then and now. I use the metaphor of a zero here not so much for the disquieting vividness of recent imagery but because zero is most commonly represented as a circular or ovoid symbol. The O is suggestive of both the moment before commencement, of time or a mathematical sequence for example; but also as an elliptical shape with no discernable beginning or end, it is evocative of an elemental type of enclosure, or by extension into architecture, a rotunda. In so concluding this train of thought, I may end my introduction to the Indian Chamber Panorama of Anna Kristensen by inviting the Ladies and Laddies present, to cross an entirely arbitrary threshold between inside and out.
The correlation between motif, what a work of art looks like, and motive, what it connotes, is crucial to the wider relationship that the work of art has to time, place and the contextualising discourses of social and cultural history. The subject of the work you are now within is the Indian Chamber of the Jenolan Caves; a large complex of subterranean grottos, tunnels and cavities variously described as stupendous, magnificent and superlatively grand. Among the most popular tourist destinations in country New South Wales and each year attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, they are a system of caves recognised as the most important in Australia and among the most impressive in the world.
The act of going underground other than as part of the ritualised passage from this life to the next, is physiologically and physically harrowing. A visit to the Indian Chamber poetically provides a physical experience that oscillates between interment and the classically transcribed transit of the underworld. Subjectively, the cave therefore could be understood as a representation that contrasted exhumation with archaeology as concurrently creative methodology and authorial process. The Indian Chamber Panorama ironically drags the formal attributes of Foucault’s panopticon, overturning his canonical post modernity by replacing its prefix of after with a framework of the perpetual. The artist, by picturing a motif that is literally and literarily beneath the surface, allegorises investigative processes that are similarly concerned with revealing the concealed. It is true and necessary that the image surrounding you is gorgeously painted, a persuasively slick, seductive similitude congealing at the junction of Vermeer and View Master. To be a really good painter is a wonderful thing best surmised within the current circumstances as a bringing of light into dark places.
This is the subject of the object of the Indian Chamber Panorama. A cave, rendered in exquisite detail by a painter of consummate skill, its salient attributes of stalactites conscious and sublimated metaphors of compressed time, history and the act of silent witness. The cave, as well as being the site of art’s originating images, is also in and of itself a frequently represented sight. It is a place to which hermits such as St. Jerome retreated and as such an abiding emblem of contemplation and reflection. As an enclosed space they are evocative of the panorama, which in the instance of Anna Kristensen’s Indian Chamber, is simultaneously the substrate for the image and its historically validated mechanism for display.
The itinerant portrait painter Robert Baker introduced the Panorama to the early modern world in 1792 with his painting of Edinburgh, Scotland. As a term Panorama is a mash-up of the Greek pan meaning all and horama to view; as a concept it was somewhat more revolutionary than the simple juxtapositioning of extant elements. Initially audiences where transported by the illusory experience of being both at home and somewhere else at the same time and panoramas were among the most creatively and financially successful enterprises of their time. That was then, now most cultural commentators would agree that the current and accelerating tendency of art towards spectacle, entertainment and commercial emphasis on big, participatory crowds as the index of an art work’s value began with the Panorama.
A painted panorama therefore in 2011 might seem at first glance anachronistic, dislocated from time and current technologies. However on closer scrutiny (the sort of focused observation needed to discover a cave) it cleverly inverts some of the recent past’s facile assumptions about contemporaneity by reloading quite possibly the most persistent praetermodern experience – that of locating the spectator within an image, not beyond the frame looking in. The Panoramic picture is aggregated not composited; not a montage of overlapping sensations but rather a continuous, cohesive spatial extrusion. To paint this, moreover to paint this beautifully is to reprise art as a site of resistance to conformity or as Nicholas Bourriaud stated at the 2005 Art Association of Australia & New Zealand Conference, to reaffirm the possibility of producing singularities in a more and more standardized world.
The zero is the additive entity and comes before 1 in the same way the panorama precedes cinema. Corporeally, zero or nought stands in for panoramas painted periphery, reminding us that both suggest things without points of commencement or termination; inside them you are paradoxically outside at the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered.
Gary Carsley. Amsterdam. 2011