Ink Blot Test
A consideration of Caroline Rothwell’s recent work
Shadows are not part of the real world, but the appearance of a shadow testifies to the solidity of an object, for what casts a shadow must be real.
E. H. Gombrich, 1995
But there is one thing which the severest and mildest cases all have in common, and which is equally found in parapraxes and chance actions: the phenomena can be traced back to incompletely suppressed psychical material, which, although pushed away by consciousness, has nevertheless not been robbed of all capacity for expressing itself.
Sigmund Freud, 1904
For some time now, a shadow has been abroad in Caroline Rothwell’s work. It first appeared three years with a disconcerting literality in an installation of three sculptures (Shadows, 1999). Roughly figure-shaped and of human scale, these pink pearlescent fibreglass works purported to be casts of the artist’s own shadow. It’s impossible, of course, to draw one’s own shadow, let alone to cast it and render it as a solid form, but there remains something extraordinarily emotionally compelling in the idea that perhaps one could—and as if by analyzing the resultant form, one could approach a new method of character divination, a kind of psychomancy in three dimensions. A shadow is a projection of oneself into another realm. Subject to the laws of the natural world and yet somehow supernatural in its manifestation as an analogue of the self, the shadow is at once familiar and ungraspable, an uncanny image. It is this spectre of an alter ego—the dark possibility of an alternative self shadowing one’s ‘real’ life—that haunts Rothwell’s recent work.
A digression: there is a historical, or at least mythological, precedent for Rothwell’s solid shadows. In his Natural History of the world, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described the first work of art, which he attributed to a Greek woman who drew the silhouette of her departing lover by tracing the shadow of his head cast by candlelight on the wall. Her father, a potter from Corinth, filled in the outline with clay and modelled the man’s features in relief so that his daughter would have a likeness to remember her lover by. Two millennia later, Marcel Duchamp’s self-portrait Quand on ne rit pas à se décrocher la mâchoire (1959) may have borne more than a passing resemblance to the shadowy head of the potter’s daughter’s lover. In Duchamp’s work, a plaster cast of his cheek and jaw is affixed to a line drawing of his profile. It refers to the late 19th century vogue for mysterious facial impressions cast in wet plaster which mediums were claiming to have received as talismans from the spirit world in seances. The English language title of Duchamp’s portrait, With My Tongue in My Cheek, suggests an ironic reading of the work, which was produced towards the end of his life as he withdrew from the world while being pursued by the demi-mondaine, a fugitive from the cult of personality—With My Tongue in My Cheek is a message from the not-yet-dead, a pre-post-humous relic of the aging artist.
Like the mythical clay relief and Duchamp’s mid-twentieth century plaster mould, Rothwell’s shadow self-portraits are occult objects, supernatural talismans that guard against loss and which keep memory alive. And like the plaster impressions of departed spirits from the late 19th century which inspired Duchamp, there is an undertow of fin de siecle decadence in Rothwell’s twenty-first century practice. This cranky quasi-Victorian sensibility is most clearly evident in the large wall drawings of flowering plants first seen in her 1999 exhibition at Artspace Auckland, ‘Measure of Strangeness’, which have subsequently burgeoned across the country.
Rothwell’s flower drawings are shadow projections; simplified botanical line drawings taken from old books or drawn directly from nature, photocopied on to acetate and projected on to the gallery wall using an old-fashioned overhead device. Often wrapping around the corner of a room, the resulting drawings, made with vinyl tape which follows the cast shadow-lines, involve an expressionistic distortion of the original image, like the looming ghostly shadows of film noir. While the medium, commercial signwriters’ adhesive vinyl, is slick and contemporary, the effect of the work is far more idiosyncratic and a-historical: hand-cut with a scalpel and placed piece by piece on the wall of the gallery by the artist, there is a neurotic, tentative quality to the line, the traces of false starts and burrs and multiple cuts—the pathology of making—left clearly visible.
Lily0.0;0 / (2001) is the most distinctly ‘gothic’ of these tape drawings. The image depicts an enormous arum lily writhing across the walls, a sinuous, fecund image of blooms, leaves, stems and roots that dwarfs the viewer. For the Victorians, the lily was a funerary flower, indelibly associated with death. While the white lily is traditionally a symbol of purity and is commonly used today in wedding bouquets, the rare black lily has more sinister connotations. Virtue’s dark twin, the black lily intimates a symbolic decadence and at times an actual deliquescence: various of its botanical forms, including Arum dioscoridis, the Mediterranean species pictured by Rothwell, exude a carrion- or dung-like perfume.
Lily recalls Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century equation of the modern, the artificial, and the decadent. Author of Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil (1861), Baudelaire argued in favour of artificiality, suggesting that vice is natural in that it is selfish, whereas virtue is artificial because we must restrain our natural impulses in order to be good. By doing so he extended the Marquis de Sade’s philosophy of evil, expounded in his erotic novel Justine (1791), the first draft of which he wrote while incarcerated in the Bastille for an ‘unnatural crime’: ‘There are two positions available to us—either crime which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy. I ask whether there can be any hesitation, lovely Therese, and where will your little mind find an argument able to combat that one?’ De Sade’s fictional characters, the sisters Justine, the pitiful victim of virtue, and the corrupt and villainous Juliette who triumphs in a cesspit of degradation, can be seen as two halves of a whole, the good and the bad twin. With this construction, De Sade anticipates the theories of early 20th century analytical psychologist C.G.Jung, who identified the shadow as an integral component of the psyche—an unconscious, instinctive aspect of human personality, the dark side that we keep hidden, expressed only in dreams and fantasies, and which, if kept repressed for too long, will incubate within the fetid dark and manifest itself in a spree of criminal action. Sinister and gravid, operating in the dank and shadowy side of beauty, Rothwell’s hot-house flowers unleash the troubling, amoral sexuality of the natural world into the artificial realm of the gallery.
A related series of exterior works by Rothwell are Shadows (Flowers and Weeds) (2001), produced a few months after Lily. Beginning by tracing the shadows cast by iris plants and toy missiles, Rothwell constructed and stitched fabric moulds reinforced by fibreglass in which she cast solid concrete forms. In this process, the moulds bulge unpredictably with the heavy weight of the poured concrete, deforming the shadow drawings still further. Rothwell arranged the resulting objects in formation like a battalion on the ground, casting indecipherable shadows of their own as the sun moves around them. Hovering between likeness and abstraction, between the decorative and the frankly monstrous, with their strange protuberances and tumescences the cast concrete botanicals are oddly phallic in relation to the unabashedly vulval quality of the flower drawings.
Like Rothwell’s earlier works, Shadows (Flowers and Weeds) and the more recent giant Weed 1-4 PVC wall hangings(2002) can be related to Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unheimlich, or uncanny, a psychological phenomenon whereby the familiar is made strange. In his famous essay of 1919, Freud traced the etymology of the German word and discovered that it simultaneously referred to the domestic environment and also to what is kept hidden, or repressed. Freud posited from this that the uncanny represents the reappearance of repressed material from childhood, surfacing as if from nowhere but with a strange feeling of prior knowledge in the subject; and it is the combination of the known and the unknown to create a new, third thing, that induces unspeakable fear and unease in the subject.
The genesis for Shadows (Flowers and Weeds) is an installation from 1999, Psychodiagnostics, in which Rothwell made three-dimensional versions of Rorschach ink blots. Translated from two to three dimensions, and given an almost monumental scale, the familiar ink blot shapes are made uncanny. There is a surrealistic quality to them, like Dali’s soft watches given sculptural body. Standing each about two metres high, Rothwell’s soft sculptures are constructed from sewn tarpaulins and stuffed with polyester fibre. They are three-sided, sewn along the edges of three identical flat shapes, each a mirror image of the original ink blot. The tarpaulins are of various primary colours; the forms are smooth and simplified; the effect is cheerfully Pop, almost reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s stuffed hamburgers and lipsticks; but again, it is the wavery unpredictability of Rothwell’s hand-drawn and sewn line renders them obviously individuated rather than objects of mass culture. Key works from Rothwell’s oeuvre, the Psychodiagnostics demonstrate that strange concord between minimalism and surrealism that lies at the heart of her practice.
Kotuku (2002) is Rothwell’s most ambitious work to date, using the sewn mould process pioneered in the Psychodiagnostics works. It embodies a similar tension between abstraction and representation, allowing the exigencies of the casting process—the bulging and slight slumping of the fabric mould under strain of the heavy fill—to determine the final outline of the sculpture. Eight metres in diameter, this work—a major commission for the Art + Industry biennial festival 2002—represents a three-headed version of the kotuku, or native white heron. Formed in sail-cloth moulds, and cast in fibreglass with a pearlescent white finish, the work weighs more than 600 kilos, and floats majestically on an ornamental pond in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Like the Rorschach works, Kotuku is three-sided, each heron shape joined to the next through the middle of its head and beak: from a distance it recalls an absurdly-scaled Crown Lynn ceramic vase. In a nod to the neo-Victorian predilection for taxidermy and scientific classification which floats through Rothwell’s work (also evident in Slip 4 5 (2000), small cast porcelain works taken from laboratory glassware and poppy seed heads), this major work was inspired by the stuffed kotuku from the bird halls at nearby Canterbury Museum.
The monumental simplicity of Kotuku is miniaturised in Flock (2002), a recent installation of table-top scaled works. Here Rothwell’s repertoire of abstracted native birds is expanded to include a shag, a gull, a tern, and an albatross, as well as a small version of the white heron. Like their large parent work, the small birds are finished in a lacquered pearlescent white. Minimal in conception and surface quality, surrealist in gesture and connotation, these works are among her most successful to date. While the surrealist qualities of the objects stem, like the pearlescent pink bodily Shadows of 1999, from their very physical implausibility, their minimalism is reflected in a confident refinement that also leaves room for chance process to occur. Rothwell worked as Sol Le Witt’s studio assistant in New York for a short time in the late 1990s, and it is tempting to recognise a similar clarity and simplicity of gesture on a monumental scale in her work.
The Psychodiagnostics provide clues for the reading of much of Rothwell’s work. Like the Rorschach ink blots from which they are derived, these objects are vehicles for imaginative projection and identification on the part of the viewer. The ink blot tests were developed by Dr Hermann Rorschach in 1921, following Freud’s influential theories of projective psychoanalysis which were aimed at uncovering subconscious aspects of the psyche. At times, particularly when concerned with free association of words and images and with dream analysis, Freud’s psychotherapeutic techniques ran in direct parallel to the art practices of the Surrealists. Whereas accidents, chance, and incongruities were the raw material of the Surrealist movement, Freud saw in parapraxes—the Latin name for slips of the tongue, and other minor errors of communication—an expression of the repressed motive of the subject; or, in Jungian terms, a glimpse of the person’s shadow. Although Rorschach himself did not use the ink blots for projective psychoanalysis, they were used for this purpose by his followers, who for many years kept the shapes of the ink blots a closely guarded secret. The aim was for the subject to encounter the ink blots with no prior association or familiarity, and to reveal to the therapist what he or she ‘saw’ in them. The therapist would then analyse the import of the patient’s visions, and draw conclusions about the state of his or her mental health.
Although Rorschach tests have been discredited for many years as a legitimate form of psychotherapy (the problem being that there was no stable reference point for interpretation of the image, and hence the reading by the analyst of the ‘text’ provided by the patient was as much subject to imaginative projection as the originating inkblot), they remain a visual shorthand for denoting ‘psychology’. The Rorschach test emanates from a time when psychology was seen as much as an art as a science, when the occult world of the imagination ran in tandem with empirical observations. Many contemporary artists, including Rothwell, are currently mining similarly ‘outmoded’ texts and images from the early days of psychology. By so doing, they provide the viewer with two possible simultaneous readings of their work. Firstly, there is simply a vessel for imaginative projection, in the manner of the ink blot—the viewer is invited to complete the latent meaning of the work (to use a Freudian term) by bringing their own experience to an analysis of its content. Secondly, there is the artist’s ‘quotation’ of the ink blot (or the Jungian archetype, or the uncanny)—a means to draw the attention of the thoughtful viewer to the way in which art might function in the contemporary world.
It might be argued that all post-modern art is an inkblot in search of interpretation. Whereas early 20th century psychology made intuitive connections in a relatively stable sea of shared meaning, ontological certainty has broken down in contemporary society. The chain of meaning has been broken. Images have come adrift from their sources. To paraphrase post-modernist theorist Fredric Jameson, since the late 1970s the past has seemed to exist in fragments rather than to function as a continuous stream. This is also French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s definition of schizophrenia; to be cut loose from constant meaning, to drift away from the certainties of cause and effect. This sea of fragments is the environment in which contemporary artists operate: and in considering Caroline Rothwell’s recent work, I am struck by the certainty with which she builds a raft of new possibilities from the detritus of the past. In her work, ideologies and aesthetics which have been declared outmoded are resurrected, giving us new tools with which to think through the pre-occupations of the modern age. Art is full of hidden motives, you might say; and it is the task, perhaps, of the contemporary art historian to track them down through a maze of shadows, or at least to point at the spot from which they first came to light. Forensic detectives of the imagination, the art historian’s job involves chasing shadows, stumbling after the ungraspable in hope of piecing together the narrative connections which might re-engage meaning. It is the artist’s role to unleash those shadows upon the world.
Lara Strongman is a curator and writer who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Formerly Deputy Director and Senior Curator at City Gallery Wellington, she is currently a PhD candidate in the Art History Department, Victoria University of Wellington.Lara Strongman