Portfolio > The landscape of memory and melancholy

Conversations with the landscape

A central theme of Layli Raksha’s work over the last years has been the depiction of her relationship with the landscape that surrounds her, and by implication the broader relationship between the individual and nature. Her work with the landscape started some years ago as a way of negotiating her sense of identity as an Iranian migrant in Australia. She immersed herself in the landscape that seemed so alien to her and by introducing her voice into it though ancient Persian poetry, that in her paintings was meticulously inscribed on top of images of water rocks and trees, lay claim to it. In Layli’s work both artist and viewer found themselves both alone and yet linked inextricably to two cultures, one familiar and the other not. For the artist, she was alone in an unfamiliar physical landscape, for a non Farsi speaking audience we were alone with a voice we could not understand. Despite this seeming incommensurability it was possible to see in that in her work Layli had found a reassuring sense of self in her negotiation with the landscape around her. In using the lens of her past experience she had found a way of trying to put her new experiences into focus.
Her work was about the individual and nature, about the individual and cultural structures, about being alone but also being part of hugely complex social systems that take time to navigate. These are shared concerns, and one of the fundamental contradictions of being human that crosses cultures is our need for solitude on one hand and the necessity to be social and cooperative on the other. In our contemporary world the more that we share the responsibility of looking after our common basic needs - road and sewerage systems, public transport, education and health services - the more time we are able to spend on reading poetry, flying kites and making art. Hideous and destructive though industrialisation seems to be (and probably is), it is the industrial system that supports the lifestyle that allows some of us to detach ourselves from its concerns and, amongst other aesthetic pleasures, visit nature. It was the complexity of Australian cultural and political life a decade ago that both necessitated Layli’s need to escape into nature and facilitated it. It was the closed political rhetoric about borders and ‘Australianness’ that made Layli consider how she was constructed in Australia by Australians, but it was also the openness of Australia’s intellectual culture that enabled her to approach the physical space of the landscape as a place where she might negotiate her sense of self as an Iranian Australian.
In another contradiction that would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic, the escape into nature has been co-opted by the industrial system that has taken the natural world away from our everyday lives, and then gives it back to us in small doses like a restorative medicine. The shared visual language of our everyday consumer world sees us consistently communing with nature, sometimes alone in the seat of a four wheel drive surveying the wild edges of the environment or perhaps filling our kitchens with animated woodland flora and fauna as we spray an air freshener to remove the smell of cooked vegetables and pets. The less we have contact with the natural world the more it seems we look longily towards it in a media induced nostalgia. Nature is seen as an untrammelled place of freedom and this is what lies at the heart of Lalyli’s new work it seems to me. Layli has observed there is a contradiction in the way in which we understand our landscape. We have been taught through the constant repetition of imagery in the media that the landscape and the natural world are empty spaces that we fill, and in filling them they are then made meaningful. What Layli’s new works do is to expose this assumption as something that is only partially true. The landscape is not just something empty that we escape into, it is something in which we are already deeply embedded.
The Australian landscape is not an empty space and neither are other cultures’ landscapes, but whereas in Europe or China or India, the landscape is acknowledged as a place that exists not only contemporaneously but also in the past, in Australia there is still the lingering sense that our landscape is empty. We increasingly acknowledge Indigenous cultures but it seems to me we are still to shake off the old view that the land was empty of history and empty of people and that we are the ones that give it meaning through our colonial history. It is true that any landscape is something we negotiate with and make meaningful at a personal level and then share, but the neglected stories of the Australian landscape are often still hidden and in need of revelation and this is what Layli’s new work does. Her long talks in Albany with an Indigenous Elder who was a custodian of the stories of the landscape changed her perception of it. Far from closing the landscape off as something she could never claim as hers because it was already claimed by others, hearing the stories made the landscape – in this case the rocky landscape of the Southern coast –come alive and it was then peopled not just with Layli's reading of it but also with the emotions and attributes of others whose presence had been previously covered. Suddenly the role of the landscape as a place in which the solitude of the individual is made manifest was modified to become a space in which the individual’s emotional state is amplified and enters into a dialogue with others across centuries and cultures, a dialogue that goes backwards and forwards until one is part of a dizzingly and hugely tangled network of ideas about the world and one’s place in it.
The need for solitude and its dependence upon a shared space can paradoxically be made more productive as our realisation increases that the health of the individual is dependent upon the health of the surrounding culture, and that the health of a culture is strengthened by the possibilities it gives the individual to find a space outside it now and again. The act of sharing stories about the immensity of the world, its sadness as well as its wonder, allows us to negotiate together in a way in which the briefness of our lives is made all the precious by the hugeness of what surrounds us. Sharing stories allows us to move backwards and forwards into and out of each other’s lives meaningfully and respectfully. This is what I have learnt from these pictures of rocks that Layli offers us. I see in them not only the story of a particular place but a glimpse of how we can better understand the many contradictions of the bigger, wider world.
There is a sense of melancholia about Layli’s new work, the forms and colours and composition of her work all contribute to a sense of sadness about the places she has visited. The rocks are like the bones of a body, reminders of a living body of culture that once existed round them and that they once supported. It is important to me at least, living in suburban Perth with my fenced garden and front gate, to know what surrounds me physically and historically. It is important for me to share in the revelation that Layli has made evident in her images that the land that sits outside the city’s boundaries has a story that goes back beyond Wesfarmers and television commercials, and that it is filled with a history of ideas and lives that can be conjured back from invisibility by drawing and painting and photographing and writing and talking about it.

Dr Christopher Crouch, 2010

Professor of Visual Arts,
Southwest University,

Chongqing, China,
Co-ordinator Higher Degrees by Research,
School of Communications and Arts,
Edith Cowan University,