Isabelle Cornaro at the South London Gallery
It seems peculiar to want to walk through a graveyard. To read the names on gravestones that mark the lives of unknown people. Died 1772. Died 1843. Died 1912. Died 1723; buried with his wife. The gravestone whispers to us something about the shortness of our days, a mute and unblinking witness to the tide of life.
Such gravestones are present, standing to attention, in the South London Gallery. The dark, satanic monoliths that command the space create a complex landscape of intricate, funereal beauty. The architect of this installation is a young French artist; Isabelle Cornaro. Having studied art history before becoming an artist Cornaro is steeped in a deep knowledge of art history. This particular work comes from a series based on Nicolas Poussin’s 17th century landscape paintings. It is filled with as much baroque monumentality and pathos as any of Poussin’s; it is truly their worthy successor.
Cornaro reinterprets the two-dimensional surface of Poussin’s picture into a spacial arrangement of ordinary plywood pedestals on the top of which she meticulously places objects of powerfully symbolic value. The work is a brilliant response to landscape painting of the past; part minimalism, part baroque landscape. Veering radically towards abstraction, yet retaining the same presence of the epic and the tragically melancholic.
Scattered throughout the landscape are small urns, not large enough to hold the ashes of a body but small enough to suggest the death of something private and intimate. These beautiful tiny objects, protruding from the darkness, show us our desire to keep the memories of departed loved ones close. Perhaps however, the silence of the gallery is what is most powerful. The atmosphere is similar to a church. The silence is symbolized in the blank white surround of the gallery walls played off against the static black objects of its interior.
The work is loosely organized according to the principle of linear perspective, with the foreground, middle ground, and background signaled by the increasing heights of plinths and the deceasing size of the objects as they move further into the composition. For the viewer it is an intriguing journey across the universal rules behind the composition of an artwork.
In the foreground the corpse of a tree lies on its own epitaph like the effigy of saint laid to rest in perpetuity on his tomb. Directly behind which is the concrete form of a bouquet of flowers, in ridicule of its once transient beauty. Two miniature obelisks, verging on becoming an oxymoron, are diminished in symbolic value as they recede into a far distance that does in reality not exist. The scale, both literal and symbolic, of an obelisk is used to reference the importance of person it commemorates. Here it is barely taller than a miniature urn.
The work bares heavy reference to the formal qualities of perspective painting. In landscape painting, as in this work, the vast scale of the horizon and mountains in the background recede into smaller and smaller scale. Depicted in miniature, a parody of their true magnitude. At the back of the installation hang black funereal drapes. Hung vertically alongside similarly-scaled wooden panels, like a flag-draped coffin, they serve as the eye’s final resting place.
Echos of renaissance perspective hang heavily in this room. The rapprochement of forms, the sense of harmony and composition, the single unmoving onlooker.
The popular notion during the renaissance was that the two-dimensional picture could give the viewer the illusion of entering into a three-dimensional space. The single viewpoint presents the world as though you see it through a keyhole; simultaneously present and distant. Everything converges on the point of the viewer. With Cornaro this is first enacted and then completely turned on its head. The illusionism provoked by their initial perspectival display posits an ideal viewing position and a similar fixed spectator. However, this is in essence a fiction. As you walk through the work the landscape recedes and simultaneously towers vertically above you.
Throughout the work bands of brilliant gold punctuate the proverbial horizon and into the deep midnight of blues and blacks, like the dawn of a eternally breaking sun forever frozen on the horizon between day and night. It is not as soft and insistent as the slow glow of gradual light, it is a burst of gold from within the darkness. The light touches the gallery floor at the very foreground of the work, close to our feet, implying that where we stand is illuminated too.
Almost a year has passed from when I first encountered what was waiting for me in that room. Ever since that moment the landscape has obsessed my memory, as a similar monolith obsessed the apes in Stanley Kubrick’s own Odyssey. The apes saw the world from a primal and survival-based intelligence level. Then, one day, they saw something in a way in which they could not describe. It captivated them in a manner which superseded all that in the background. The haunting geography of Kubrick's bleak landscape and the intangible power that emanated from his monolith is expressed in his use of music. The sun creeps pervasively over the horizon as the pounding drums of Richard Strauss seem to, in a similar way, reverberate around the mental space of this room.
And what of the gold?
Should we see this work as a Vanitas, as a symbolic work about the meaningless of earthy goods? In my opinion, no. The work is a meditation, its not a statement. It allows you to look but never truly to understand. Because in reality, like life itself, it has no definable meaning. It doesn’t give you answers but does allow you to ask questions.
The work says nothing about the state of current politics, or of social and personal improvement, and why should it? Art has no ethical purpose. Instead art serves to promote ecstatic consciousness, to offer us a heightened articulation of our senses. Therefore, we see it for no other reason than to bask in the philosophy that emanates from it.
Leaving the gallery we look back at the work once in front of us, feeling ourselves both part and not part of it. Just in the way the gravestones tell us about our future by telling us about someone else’s past.