A ‘habitable zone’ might be a likeable, liveable space—an agreeable domestic environment, quite possibly—yet, in planetary terms, the meaning of the phrase is more specific: It is the distance from a star at which it is possible for liquid water to exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Elizabeth Thomson’s art exists in the universe-sized space between these two meanings—between the quotidian and the cosmic.
The works that make up ‘Lateral Series; Habitable Zones’ trace patterns of life in the accustomed ‘habitable zone’ of Planet Earth. They track a number of journeys through this territory, taking their inspiration from the movement of a river or pathway through a landscape, a plantation of trees across rolling hillcountry, and the furrows laid into cultivated land. Thinking laterally—as Thomson’s works insist we do—we also recognize in these new works the minute patterning of leaf and cellular structures, as well as echoes of the human body, of fabrics and woven materials. The movement of a comb through the hair of the beloved.
At the heart of the exhibition, Snake River is an expansive, gracious, almost abstract gesture. Yet its serpentine form is also something we recognize from the world around us. The work has its origins in Thomson’s experience of viewing, during a visit to the United States, the Colorado River ‘snaking its way through the Grand Canyon and later Yellowstone National Park’. The work not only echoes the eddying pattern of river water and ocean current but it is a visualisation of compressed energy—the movement of a whip or, as the artist herself suggests, the length of ribbon used by rhythmic gymnasts ‘to carve forms and shapes in space’. And it reminds us of the rhythm of the earth, in all its geological and seismic power.
If Snake River is all movement—a verb made manifest—Thomson’s ‘Lateral Series’ are a sequence of nouns. They stand their ground, or hold their wall-space, like a number of tokens or core-samples taken from the physical environment. They make us ever mindful of the imprint left upon the earth by the human mind and its schemes. Like Snake River, the works are not only witness to a planet and a species—humankind—in a state of permanent restlessness, they also reflect the mind of an artist at work. The artistic process as a rhythmical unfurling or undulation.
Appositely, Snake River also evokes the shape and motion of a tuna or eel. In the context of Māori lore, the work can be seen as an embodiment of ‘mauri’—the energy or force which both holds together and sets in motion everything in the physical world. It is this ‘mauri’ that makes things flow, that releases the energy within living and inanimate things. With its meticulous formation, its lyrical uplift, and its worldly/otherworldly dynamism, Snake River is an icon of perpetual motion, of regeneration and the life force itself.
Alongside Thomson’s great snake-like meditation upon—or embodiment of—the creative process, her ‘Lateral Series’ stand as points arrived at along the way. Moments of vision and realisation. These are her hymns, psalms, pages excised from the planetary prayerbook.