Parlour Peeps: Fleur Sandbrook and Kirsten Dryburgh

Parlour Peeps Nov 2011



The Trees

For we are like the trunks of trees in the snow. Apparently they rest smoothly on the surface and with a gentle push we should be able to shift them. No, that one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, that too is only apparent.

– Meditation, Franz Kafka

Kirsten has rigged up the tree in her backyard with a motorised cement mixer, ropes and pulleys. With its new appendage, the tree is now able to flap its branches even while no wind blows. The only kid in class giggling at a joke. An isolated storm.

Recently for an exhibition, Kirsten made an instrument (comprising harmonica, tubes, pail and a found plastic bottle) that emitted sounds every time a wave made its way to the shore. Seawater went up the hose and pushed air through the harmonica attached to the tip of the hose. This simple gesture made one aware of the sea as a living entity taking regular breaths, perhaps even singing. But see, that too is only apparent.

There’s an impetus behind Kirsten’s anthropomorphic gestures. With her makeshift apparatus and simulations, Kirsten assumes the identity of the tree, in order to understand it better. It was only by rigging up the tree, like a puppeteer, that Kirsten could get a sense of the strength of its trunk, the tension of its branches, its locus of movement, its pliancy and firmness.

From apothecary gardens to naturopathy, Kirsten’s interest in the healing power of trees and plants has a connection with the kinetic work in her backyard. In fact, the tree, this silent member of Kirsten’s family, is a plane tree — the very same species which Hippocrates taught his students under in Kos, Greece, or so goes the tale.

It’s also worth noting that this work developed from an earlier sculpture Kirsten made of a plant that she had similarly animated with a smaller motor. It was a manuka tucked inside a filing cabinet and it shivered at intervals.

Since then, she wished to see the tree in her backyard perform in some way. Fitted with its industrial dress and flapping about, the sheer scale of the tree makes it even more animated than the people watching from indoors. Thus the usual frenetic activity of the household is transferred outdoors and with the childlike enchantment of the natural and familiar.

– Written by Lydia Chai

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Célestine Dars states that trompe l’oeil is a genre which is “essentially decorative and ambiguous and purely practiced involves the following principles: an intent to deceive, perfect perspective in rendering the subject in order to achieve three-dimensional illusion, the exclusion of stylistic interference, and a surface treated as a whole entity” and she says that the trompe l’oeil artist ‘”will not allow any interpretation on beyond what he represents.” Within trompe l’oeil the focus is on accuracy and the idea of deceiving the viewer into thinking about the technical skill of the artist. It is a genre which demands consciousness of your own perception and interpretation in seeing.

In New Zealand’s own art history colonial trompe l’oeil painters William Gordon and Harry Wrigg presented tabletops filled with correspondence, newspapers, cigars, playing cards, money and the odd conversation lozenge. These images illustrated the ephemera and banality of the everyday and have become known as “bachelor’s still life”- an easy and entertaining visual experience as well as a historical portrait of life in the colonies.

However within Fleur Sandbrook’s artworks the idea of trompe l’oeil it is not that simple. What is interesting about Fleur’s work is that they demand attention and consideration beyond initial deception of the trompe l’oeil. They oscillate between being sculptural objects and studies on the methods of painting.

There is a meticulous process involved of acutely noting the way lettuce drapes, the haphazard nature of the edges and the translucent veins that make up the being of the lettuce. They are organisms with their own inherent and guided sense of composition and rhythm akin to the way paintings are thought about and executed. They depart from Fleur’s usual practice of formal and minimalist non-objective work. Despite her current work’s resemblance to something we are familiar with, they are no less abstract than her earlier pieces.

I recently went on a drive through the Auckland Domain with my flatmate who remarked how it’s amazing that public art can never look as good as a tree. I think there is some truth to this and truth to Fleur’s painting practice adapting to vegetation. They respect the processes and tradition involved in the construction of an image, they reference materials and the visual structure of representation itself and the way this unfolds within our process of viewing. She does not deceive the viewer into thinking they would be anything else, there is no attempt to hide the painting process. They do not deny the formalities involved in being paintings. Her lettuce and cabbage leaves are paintings about painting.

– Written by Vera Mey

Dars, Célestine, Images of deception: the art of trompe l’oeil, Oxford: Phaidon, 1979
Blackley, Roger, Stray leaves: colonial trompe l’oeil drawings, Wellington, Victoria University Press and Adam Art Gallery, 2001

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You can read about our previous Parlour Peeps event here, here and here.


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