Seascape: two basal planes of water and sky in symbiosis, drawn together at a horizon, proximate but never touching. An island, crystalline sand along the shoreline. Palm trees. Paradise, adulterated.
What kind of legacy will we leave our planet, long after humanity is nothing more than a degraded biochemical trace, bubbles of organic vapour circling around a surfacted sun? This is the question that lingers – unintended but implied – in Corinne Vionnet’s Total Palm Tree and Paul Rousteau’s Seascapes.
The ocean’s surface chemistry is composed of primary particles including carboxylic acids, ketones, phenols, anhydrides, aldehydes, quinones, and pyrones, fused together in fractal shapes. On the surface, stirred up into waves by submarine currents, ships move slowly and with care. The waters are treacherous, supersaturated with diazonium salts and low in surface tension. Methods for modifying its viscosity are only effective over a limited range. Many have drowned.
Rousteau and Vionnet subject commonplace cultural symbols to uncommon transformations, creating compelling, unnatural scenes. Their source material is the sun, the limpid ocean and the palm tree … evocations of paradise so clichéd, so caught up in the Western collective imagination and so widely circulated as images that their reality no longer seems to have, or to need, a third dimension.
Their source material is the sun, the limpid ocean and the palm tree … evocations of paradise so clichéd, so caught up in the Western collective imagination and so widely circulated as images that their reality no longer seems to have, or to need, a third dimension.
Both artists mutate their subject matter by means of repeated technical and aesthetic interventions. Rousteau uses in-camera and darkroom modifications to rework photographs taken during a residency on a ship in Australia’s Coral Sea. The resulting images – whorls and washes of intense colour – evoke the idea of a seascape in the same way that a mirage evokes the appearance of a real place. On the page, they have the viscous sheen of hard paint and the absolute weirdness of the familiar made slightly wrong.
The skies are beautiful but no less dangerous: a hydrocarbon composite of colours created by the superposition of four primaries – molecular crystals of cyan, magenta, and yellow along with cyclonic columns of carbon-black, formed by the burning of natural gas and travelling across the surface at hundreds of kilometres an hour. The mechanism of this effect is not fully understood.
Vionnet repeatedly scanned and re-sent herself a print-on-demand postcard of a palm tree. What begins as a representation of the natural world is reduced and abstracted over the course of the book’s 20 plates, repeated iterations transforming organic matter into something squamous and fractal. Rendered and re-rendered in vivid colour, each reproduction takes the image a bit further away from its source. By the end of the book, we only know what it is because we remember the way it used to be. There’s a metaphor in here for nature itself.
These days, the clouds are restless too, bound to the earth by fragile chains of polymer. Veils of vaporised copper phthalocyanine fluoresce cyan and green, shimmering, like the aurora borealis, on the edge of space. Midday’s magenta haze is composed of pigment-loaded quinacridone, held aloft in the atmosphere by streams of superheated gas. Heterocyclic yellows are the stuff of sunsets – ubiquitous and unstable, evaporating in the solvent-laden air and reprecipitated as fine particles of golden ash which drift for days before settling.
Neither of these works were created with a specific environmental agenda, but the world into which they have emerged imposes such a reading. Media ecology meets planetary ecology, tipping these images of pleasure into scenes from a planet transformed into a toxic fantasy – a neon future, an actinic world with a plastic atmosphere. It’s not insignificant that both works riff on the postcard form – it’s the starting point for Total Palm Tree, and a suggested destination for Rousteau’s images, which are designed to be torn free from their binding. A postcard is a recollective image, sent from somewhere that we’ve left behind.
Neither of these works were created with a specific environmental agenda, but the world into which they have emerged imposes such a reading.
Washed up on Antarctic beaches, ash particles mix with the embers of tall palms. The fire that consumed these trees was white-hot and swift, taking the trunks first, then the foliage. Their outlines are burned into the air, crackling against a background that shifts from the rich turquoise of a tropical noontide to a toxic cerulean blue.
The Situationist photographer Guy Debord once described the spectacle – the system of image exchange that was swiftly replacing real social interaction – as ‘the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity.’ Writing this after a year of watching the planet burn, it’s hard not to see these two projects as allegories for the world they represent, reflections of a chemically-dependent, oblivious present. Together, they suggest a kind of future perfect … one day, all this will have become real.
* All of the technical terminology for the italicised sections of this text was borrowed from Shlomo Magdassi’s The Chemistry of Inkjet Inks (World Scientific Publishing, 2009).