Inner ear, inner eye

‘A plant,’ according to the poet Mandelstam, ‘is the envoy of a living thunderstorm that rages permanently in the universe—akin in equal measure to stone and lightning! A plant in the world is an event, a happening, an arrow….’ In the midst of such flux, Elizabeth Thomson’s reflections on organic life are notable for their poise, inwardness and a qualified kind of stillness. Her meditations on mineral, vegetable and animal sources inhabit a hiatus, a microsecond’s equilibrium in the long, hyperactive history of the planet. Importantly, however, stillness/stasis is not the subject of Thomson’s art.

Beneath the exquisitely rendered surfaces, there are suggestions of formative energies and impulses--undercurrents, undertows, upwellings, fractures and myriad natural processes. In My Titirangi Years, The Cascades, there are ripples in the diaphanous stillness—a modulation or vibration. An instant of music. Artistic creation shares a few moments’ confluence with the planetary life-cycle. To a less mellifluous end, adaptive and disruptive elements and processes are present in Savage Planet/lateral theory, Supposition, after Len Lye and The Fugitive, after Max Ernst. In Mandelstam’s burgeoning plant-life, Thomson finds a working model as well as an abstract proposition. And, like that of Paul Klee (in the words of Richard Verdi), Thomson’s art embodies a ‘lifelong search for the patterns and principles underlying all of organic existence’ in which the fullest realisation is offered by ‘the humble plants, the begetters and supporters of all higher forms of life’.

Beyond the realms of botany, geology and other scientific fields, her works—akin, as they are, to ‘stone and lightning’—are also a kind of visual music. More specifically, some of her titles reference the tradition of improvised music: Albert Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’, Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ and maybe even Keith Jarrett’s rendition of ‘Mon Coeur est Rouge’.

By way of its patterns, rhythms, repetitions, changes of gear and accents, music can be both a bringing to consciousness and a loss of consciousness. Ambiguity and paradox are its way. Intoxication too. All of these qualities are also evident in Thomson’s art, with its musical phrasing, tempo, pauses, intervals and blue notes. This musical association was to the fore in the exhibition ‘Waking Up Slowly—Elizabeth Thomson and Len Lye’ (at the Len Lye Centre, August-November 2019). Therein Lye’s raucous, rhythmical short film ‘Colour Cry’ (with music by bluesman Sonny Terry) was exhibited alongside a series of Thomson’s brightly coloured ‘Inner Raoul’ panels. Elsewhere in the gallery, Lye’s Grass made a subtle, wistful ruffling movement/noise to accompany the visual tremor of Thomson’s The Fearless Five Hundred on an adjacent wall.

In musical parlance, a coda (or postlude) follows on from the main composition; in real life it can be an afterthought, a backward glance, an act of remembering. If we think of life on earth as its starting point, Elizabeth Thomson’s work is a rephrasing and a revisitation on its own artful terms—science re-rendered as music, music as visual form.

Gregory O’Brien