Lead and Gold


The Philosopher’s Stone

On first consideration, lead and gold seem remote from each other. Lead is the grey stuff of common applications ― plumbing and plumb-bobs, coffins and funereal lettering ― malleable and toxic, protective density its major virtue. Gold is the substance of universal value, the epitome of beauty in many languages, the glory of women and their wealth. The gulf between the two materials is immense. Yet they have persistently coupled. Before modern science sketched other poetries, alchemy was central to the study of natural elements. Since then, the alchemical doctrine that lead may be transformed into gold through the agency of the Philosopher’s Stone had proved almost as stable as its two principles ― at least in popular imagination ― because the desire sustaining it has not yet been banished from the human heart. Riches beyond expectation, magical wealth unearned by the gruelling exigencies of daily life: these promise to fulfill the dearest wishes of women and men today as certainly as they did centuries ago. (Australia’s national obsession with gambling is a contemporary proof.)

Straightforward hopes of material wealth are only the most literal promise of the Philosopher’s Stone. The principle of transmutation suggests other possibilities: that a tawdry currency may be converted into something precious through the agency of hope, and that knowledge is the key to a better vision of life. Between the two notoriously ponderous substances ― worth her weight in gold, as heavy as lead, another agency intervenes, as insubstantial and elusive as they are both solid, but remarkably strong nevertheless. Imagination finds beauty, no, invents it ― and thus the artist’s work makes many kinds of value, rich complexities where previously there was nothing. (Actually, this is a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.) Perhaps alchemical formulae could turn lead into gold. But Margaret West’s materials are truly transformed. Thus all the caskets are golden, but in another sense altogether; the skin of one life is transmogrified into the glorious raiment of another; and Icarus’ golden feathers take flight once again.

A Poetry of Opposites

In a world where lead changes into gold, where that which is heavy takes flight, where opacity stands for transparency and shadows are solid, a principle of paradoxical opposition emerges, a double negative of sorts. I need to speak now of those apparently contradictory voices invoked by Margaret West’s work, of a way of working through contradictions to a rich, unpredictable polyphony. There are numerous instances: the components of Australian Arm Jewel are clearly visible yet also perfectly inaccessible in their frame. Australian Arm Jewel is lovely but its blade is potentially lethal. Lead, first used for the bibs begun in 1982, offers protection but at the same time is highly toxic. In Equation of Obsolescence scented rose petals encounter tiny voluptuous figurines, inviting the idea that death and life may be equivalent ― or at least equally unavoidable, if not entirely understood.

What is the resolution of this incantatory strategy? In every case neither potentiality is denied ― both successfully insist on recognition. Unlike the polarising dichotomies of Western thinking, these oppositions are not disabling. On the contrary, other possibilities emerge. One may gaze at the closed casket and wonder at its secrets, like Pandora, or dare to inspect its contents, but the fullest sense of the work is in the moment of taking off the lid, not in the stasis before or after. Consider this notion: that from intervals between oscillating ambiguities in works by Margaret West one may conjure unsuspected possibilities. Spaces between moments, cracks between objects and images: in these hidden spaces lie secrets as in Interstices: O.E.D. 1. An intervening space (usu. empty); esp. a relatively small or narrow space between things or parts of the body; a narrow opening, chink or crevice. 2. An intervening space of time; an interval between actions.

Recent theories of interpretation emphasise the jostling world of texts and images as a shared space, one in which each utterance lives with many others in a subtle and constantly changing social environment. Each image in its particularity will be recognised, but which, with grave courtesy, allows the particularity of others. This idea of inter-textual space, across which books and ideas and images resonate and speak to each other, is recalled by the persistent recognition in Margaret West’s work that while one may not completely understand one’s perceptions or desires, they demand a hearing, nevertheless.

Julie Ewington

From her catalogue essay Three Speculations prompted by the work of Margaret West, accompanying the exhibition INTERSTICES: Works by Margaret West from 1981-1992, curated by Julie Ewington, Canberra School of Art Gallery, ANU, 1992; Artspace, Sydney, NSW; Jam Factory Adelaide, SA, 1993; Art Gallery of Western Australia, WA,1994.

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