STILL LIFE: natura mortua


Margaret West visits cemeteries ‘whenever and wherever the opportunity arises’ and observes the varying material characteristics and uses of flowers at these contemplative sites.

If you drive past the high walls of the St Kilda Cemetery, numerous granite and marble columnar tombstones ascend skywards in a display of alternatively austere and ornate needles: solemn, silent and sacred to the memory of lives and loves. It is hard not be always struck by this scene, and I was recently, but immediately thought of the contrast provided by Margaret West in her similarly sombre stone work STILL LIFE (natura mortua).

Since 1980 West has worked with lead and non-precious stones in what she informally notes are her ‘weighty works’, incorporating these materials into the experimental jewellery objects for which she is acclaimed: a counterweighted neckpiece of fine steel wire threaded with river stones at either end; ordinary rocks wrapped in paper-thin sheets of gold; slices of marble and granite cut into floral shapes for brooches. West’s work is distinguished by her continual excursions between the intimacy and scale of the wearable object, the devotional object, and large-scale sculptural installations that retain their references to the body, but that suggest, like STILL LIFE (natura mortua), an expanded potential to metaphorically embody physical and emotional states, private meditations and public statements.

Unlike the memorial columns of the cemetery, the 1, 249 basalt, granite, marble and slate flowers of West’s STILL LIFE (natura mortua) lie close to the ground, and are arranged in the same kind of loose grid one encounters in a cemetery. And while for West there are references in this arrangement to the grave, the work recalls the fecundity and fragility of the garden; the transience of nature – its cycles of degeneration and regeneration; the decorative and architectural histories of the quatrefoil and its symbolic power - combined here with the symbolism of the flower. The majority of individual elements in West’s floor piece are four-petalled. The quatrefoil is present in the decorative schemes of Gothic architecture, containing secular and scared images. As a form it corresponds with the four points of the compass, the theological and historical potency of the emblematic cross and, as West has noted, the formidable ascendency of the architectonic grid.

Each of the forms in this work pertains to the flower, though, as West’s working notes state, some are cut and shaped to appear ‘refined, carefully formed, intact; others have “lived” worn, chipped, flaked, “crumpled” (of flowers); a few have fractured, fallen into disrepair, potentially dust…Some are engraved as flowers with petals, veins. Others assume the initial texture of the stone as it was first cut.’ Though painted in bright colours, the stones have a final covering of graphite and wax paste, polished to the sensuous finish that en masse gives them what West thinks is the appearance of a ‘dark sea’. There is a gentle swell throughout this work, rising and falling between lightness and gravity. In the act of acknowledging and remembering, West reveals a political accretion to the body of STILL LIFE (natura mortua), stating that the work became ‘darker as [recent] world events unfolded’.

STILL LIFE (natura mortua) reflects West’s intimate relationship with the immensity of the social, natural and phenomenological world. This relationship is elaborated in the poetry that for several years she has produced simultaneously with her objects and is integral to our understanding of the innate humanism and range of influences that give rise to her works:

In memory, faces all
are flowers.I have known people
purple as pansies…Others as
roses dewed fresh or fallen
replete with heavy
heads, or soft-
powdered, faint, withered, and rustling beneath the touch
or kiss

Jason Smith

Originally published in the 2003 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award catalogue.
Re-printed in Three Voices catalogue, Desighmuseo, Helsinki, 2005 with permission from Jason Smith and The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.

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