Threads Across Waters

an essay by Phoebe Colley
“The task of real, effective presentation is just this: to liberate knowledge from the bounds of compartmentalised discipline and make it practical.”
- Walter Benjamin

Carola Colley is not one for writing about her own artwork. She is far more a doer than a describer, and this motivation is clear throughout her creative process; from first glance to final product, what Colley depicts is never a landscape that she has understood, or mastered, but rather a representation of how what she has seen has impacted her. There is no set image to work from and no final success to contemplate. In a work titled Garlanded Entrance, Walter Benjamin suggests “What there is to see should never be the same thing as, or even approximate, what the inscription says it is. It must bring with it something new, a twist of the obvious which fundamentally cannot be achieved with words.” Whether the following piece of writing will prove him right or not remains to be seen, but ultimately what I think Benjamin takes issue with is the self reflexive nature of language: when initiating a discourse with art each statement made affirms both its own and the artwork’s legitimacy, turning the ‘practical’ product into a ‘compartmentalised discipline’ that can be ratified. But this also may be a consequence of the way words are read.

Where alphabets necessitate construction, with the imperative of conveying a specific word, thought, or message, their archaic counterpart, symbols, invite the interpreter to actively participate in their meaning. As researcher Carolyn Marion Mitchell Stancioff once maintained,

Symbols are ambivalent, often multivalent, and therefore are not susceptible to dictionary treatment… They cannot be studied one at a time because they are not an alphabet but a form of speech, and it is impossible to understand a language by studying unrelated letters and words only… [It is] only possible to study the language of visual symbols as a whole, each in relation to the rest.

Not only are symbols a language of their own, but they are a language that has throughout history infiltrated more cultures and continents than the West.1 Mythologies from every ancient civilisation we know of have common threads that can be traced through icons, laments and events now long preserved into social memory. To attempt a full elaboration of a visual symbol is to acknowledge its passage across waters and through centuries; “each in relation to the rest.”

An example of this is the number 9, which has had a specific resonance across cultures. Strongly associated with the Chinese dragon (who has 9 forms and 9 sons) and the 9 muses of Ancient Greece, 9 can also be found within Hindu astrology, in the form of the 9 Navagraha - the planetary Gods that echo our own solar system.2 The title of Colley’s latest series of paintings, 9 Threads Woven is thus not a reference to a finite collection or the specific canvases. Instead it hints at a back catalogue of influences that have intersected within her practise and that continue to expand, ranging from celtic knots and mussel shells, to the poetry of Usha Kishore and Rainer Maria Rilke, and the histories of landscapes.

Tim Ingold, when discussing ‘the meshwork’ of existence in his collection Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, argues

…we must cease regarding the world as an inert substratum, over which living things propel themselves about like counters on a board… Whatever surfaces one encounters, whether of the ground, water, vegetation or buildings, are in the world, not of it. And woven into their very texture are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants. every such line, in short, is a way through rather than across.

9 Threads Woven illustrates this sentiment completely. By utilising a multitude of locations and view points to create these scenes, Colley taps into spaces that exist between stagnant snapshots of landscapes; the artist liberates her habitat from the primacy of our visual ideals and returns it to a multiplicity. Benjamin states that montage was invented “…when it became clear to the avant guard that reality could no longer be mastered. The only means we have left, for gaining time and keeping a cool head, is above all to let reality have its say - in its own right, disordered and anarchic if necessary.” It is with similar intent that Colley allows her environments to exist outside of representative schemas. They are strands, rather than subjects.

1 Just kidding, nothing has infiltrated more than the West.

Phoebe Colley
Sept. 2015