We are all collectors in our own way: memories, books, action figurines, awards. Most of us hold tight to something. Lyndal Osborne is no exception, but instead of a dusty basement full of junk or an episode of “Hoarders,” Osborne’s collecting has led her to create exceptional art.
“Where Rivers Meet Sea,” an exhibition running from Sept. 22 to Dec. 2 at The Rooms, is made up of three parts. There are two installations, “Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice” and “Tracing Tides: A Topographical Investigation,” as well as what Osborne and curator, Dr. Melinda Pinfold, call the “Flat Works” — seven of the artist’s prints.
So where does collecting come into it? Well, each of the works shown is either made up of or inspired by various materials Osborne has handpicked and then modified and turned into stunning art. We’re talking everything from empty insect shells to shark egg casings. Lobster bands to golf balls. Agricultural tools, dried carrots and beets, wild dill — even a dead frog.
But the result is far from a disordered garbage heap. Walking into one of Osborne’s installations feels more like walking into Tiffany’s. Everything is perfectly lit, perfectly positioned. Jewel-like in its beauty.
‘Shoalwan: River Through Fire,
River of Ice’
“Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice” was first shown in 2003. Work on it began the year previous when Osborne was artist in residence at Bundanon, which sits on the Shoalhaven River near Canberra, Australia. Upon arriving at the residency, Osborne was told she would have to return to Canada because brush fires had recently swept the area and it was still deemed unsafe. The artist decided to stay on and work only in the coolest hours of the day.
“I collected very early in the morning. I’d be back at the residence by 7 or 7:30 in the morning. And everything I collected was burned or singed in some way by the fire,” she says.
After completing the residency, Osborne returned to her home on the rural fringes of Edmonton, Alta., near the North Saskatchewan River. There again, she spent her time collecting. But this time it wasn’t fire that inspired, it was ice.
“The most extraordinary thing about the North Saskatchewan River is the freeze-up. The lily pad-like shapes of ice that form on the water and then get bigger and then join together.”
In the show catalogue produced by The Rooms, Osborne says, “Each component of this installation grew as a response to my engagement with these two rivers. Even though they translate different aspects of my experiences, the various fragments are connected by the repetition of the 7,500 glass jars, which represent the river. The diverse elements allow me to construct a visual experience which is suggestive of different meanings or interpretations: nature/culture, fragility/power, preservation/extinction. I sense the wholeness, that comes from the linking of disparate elements, and it is this which helps me to understand our lives on this plane.”
The 7,500 glass jars — which Osborne says she collected by dumpster diving for about eight months — form the river Shoalwan (an amalgam of Shoalhaven and Saskatchewan) and on it float elliptical “lily pads” that hold 450 small bowls, each of which is filled with a grouping of Osborne’s collected items.
“In each (bowl) is kind of like a little topography or maquette that responds to something that I saw or is telling a story,” says the artist.
Are you getting a sense of the scale and intricacy of this exhibition yet?
In the show catalogue, curator Dr. Melinda Pinfold notes that, “Colour plays an allusional role: green bowls appear in the River of Ice portion of Shoalwan, and herald the promise of regeneration in Spring; red bowls in the River through Fire portion of the installation allude to the apparent devastation of the Shoalhaven fire, but hint as well at the paradoxical regeneration that emerges from the ashes.”
While it would be an short leap to think that art made from trash and natural items must be a statement of some sort, Osborne disagrees.
“I didn’t have any kind of political agenda,” she says. “I really just wanted to celebrate the importance of water. Fresh water. And I did it from my perspective. How I navigate the river, through swimming or walking along the river. And the way life can be impacted. The way farming around me has gone. It’s become very urban. So the agricultural tools are a thing of the past. But I wanted to put them in there. And some of the other things are really just the beauty and the diversity of things that grow along the river, often unseen. Like there’s one piece that’s devoted to thorns. I spent a whole week collecting thorns. … I thought, how can I tell a story about these things that we pass by? That are commonplace but very important?”
A Topographical Investigation’
Newfoundland and Australia were the inspiration for “Tracing Tides — A Topographical Investigation.” This time, Osborne’s points of reference were The Murramarang National Park in New South Wales, and Gros Morne National Park.
“I was artist in residence (at Glenburnie, Gros Morne) in the year 2000. So (‘Tracing Tides’ is) 12 years old. And I’ve been dying to show it here!”
Rather than displayed close to the floor on organic elliptical shapes, “Tracing Tides” typographies live on a series of square tables.
“I tried to recreate, metaphorically, what I saw. Some of them are quite literal memories and some of them are very abstracted memories but they’re all again made of the material I collected there and in a tropical park in Australia called Murramarang,” says the artist.
In the show catalogue, Osborne notes, “At each low tide I would examine the high-water tide lines and collect various debris as it was washed ashore. Some of the material was natural to the locale but often it was peppered with man-made detritus. These had their own particular poignancy in Newfoundland with the assortment of lobster bands, wooden crab traps, shotgun cartridges and discarded plastic, all reminders of a decimated fishing industry.”
The results of Osborne’s beachcombing are simply stunning. Sea anemones made of shotgun shells, plastic carefully selected and formed into mountain ranges, all manner of detritus combined into pyramids that mimic the woodpiles of local inhabitants.
“They’re very particular places that I went to,” Osborne says. “The Tablelands, Green Gardens, Green Point, Cow Head, Sally’s Cove plus some of the beaches in Australia.”
Her choices of what to collect are particular too it’s important to note.
“It seems to everyone else that I just pick up everything. But I think I have a sensibility for certain materials. Shotgun shells immediately made me think of sea anemones. Now they wouldn’t make everyone think of that, but don’t they look like them? They do look like them!” she said, laughing.
There seems to be a duality in all Osborne’s work. Two places. Two times. Fire and ice. Natural and unnatural. Art and science.
“I think it’s because I’m torn between my homeland and where I live. It’s not that I want to go back and live there or anything. I just think your childhood is always integral to the kind of person you are. And for an artist it’s particularly important. … So I try to connect with Australia. It’s a deliberate choice. Because I feel like I know Australia.”
Also, Osborne says, it brings something else to the work, “Art should have an edge. You can’t just make things that are nice. You’ve got to put things together that have a bit of an edge. A juxtaposition of ideas.”
‘The Flat Works’
Before she began creating installation pieces, Osborne was a printmaker. But even then she put her own spin on things. Rather than simply beginning to sketch, the artist would create miniature collections; tiny sculptures or maquettes made up of objects bound together and sometimes painted.
She would keep these in her studio for a while, and then dismantle or put them away. It was only then that she would begin to make her print, from her memory of the objects. Seven of these prints are shown in “The Flat Works,” selected from various periods. They are connected to Shoalwan and Tracing Tides through the theme of water. Some resemble tidal pools, another coral, another looks very much like a sea cucumber. All are vivid, organic, and like the two installation works, utterly fascinating.