Hortus Conclusus: A critical response
Alexandra Hennig, Curator AIR Krems, Austria
“Within the garden are deceits and fantasies: nothing is lasting.
All is subject to decay: dances and dancers alike will cease.”
In the catalogue for the exhibition Hortus Conclusus, Sue Morris introduces her text with a quotation from the famous 13th Century French poem, Romance of the Rose, styled as an allegorical dream vision. The poem recounts a reverie that revolves around a rose, which symbolizes a woman. It begins with the narrator arriving at a walled garden of paradise, which soon reveals itself as having two aspects, and where the narrator, in reaching out to the beloved rose, is both supported and hindered by allegorical figures.
In Morris’ work, the theme of the walled, enclosed garden and its Janus-headed figure, serves as a metaphor for the supposed security, privacy and safety of the home - as well as a treacherous place filled with traps, limitations and restrictions - a place of great ambivalence and manifold interrelationships. In his essay, Of Other Spaces, the French philosopher Michele Foucault aptly states, “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world”.
In the exhibition at Kunstverein, Baden bei Wien, Morris presents us with her ‘parcel of the world’, her own personal/artistic/artificial garden, and poses the question how much of our perception of the world - our reality - is subjectively shaped and cultivated. Hortus Conclusus, a multi-media installation, developed from a childhood fascination with an antiquated encyclopedia. Presented in the manner of an ornithological and botanical collection in the form of botanical drawings, objects - including ‘birds nests’ and eggs - and a soundscape, it transforms the space into a supposed paradise garden filled with birdsong. Look closer and it transpires that all is not as it seems - an encrusted egg, THE symbol of fertility, gives birth to nothing alive, and remains inanimate. The detailed plant drawings while imbued with all the specifics, reflect back an imprecise botanical model. These too, spring, like the nests, from the imagination of the artist and the sweet sound of birdsong transpires to be an imitation, coming from the human throat. It is a play of illusion, on the brink of the real and the imagined; the disenchantment of the idyll is revealed, and the intrinsic belief in ones own perception is shaken.
The garden, more than any other place, is for me, charged with meaning - fantasies, mystical secrets, attributed always to women, the female gender, perhaps because seclusion, obligations and restrictions are traditionally of the female world. And as Morris is apparently suggesting, both then and now forms part of the reality of the female experience.
Morris’ work, which consists of the most commonplace and insignificant things in our environment, reveals a kaleidoscope of relationships - strange objects, drawings, textiles - and meanders between transfiguration and discomfort, locating the strangeness in the familiar. Reminiscent of the literary worlds of Marlen Haushofer, it describes the horror of solitude and confinement in the ‘I’ - the difficulty of drawing boundaries between inside and outside - between the real and the imagined - between that which truly happened and fractal memories.
Many of Morris’ objects can be considered as ‘ready-mades’, as found items that carry stories in themselves - perhaps a mystery - and a work of art transforms and generates new narratives. For example, Homage to my Mother alludes to the memory of the commanding, constantly ironing mother of three children. It recalls the work of Man Ray’s Cadeau (a gift to Erik Satie), an iron studded with nails, an enigmatic, surrealist object, said of the artist that it “could tear a dress to tatters”. But instead of nails, Morris adorns the iron’s surface with an almost kitsch, metal flower - no less destructive than Man Rays nailed iron, connoted as erotic and aggressive. The aggression of Morris’ iron is not directed, via a dress, to the opposite sex, but against the ironing, female individual, and reflected in this auto-aggression, the compulsiveness of domestic life. This slight uneasiness/disquiet is only one aspect of the work Homage to my Mother. In Sue Morris’ studio (AIR Krems) a cactus, fallen from its pot, sits upright on the crown of absurdity - embedded in an ironing board - an endearing, salutary, nonsenschen moment of the everyday - homey and uncanny, the unceremonious and the compulsive.
Hortus Conclusus was shown at Kunstverein, Baden bei Wein (24 Nov 2012 - 3 March, 2013) and transferred to museumORTH, Austria where it ran until 23 June, 2013.
The exhibition was funded by Culture Ireland as part of the International Cultural Programme for Ireland’s Presidency of the EU