Simon Strong's enthralling new work propels us into hallucinatory 'dreamscapes' of sensory overload and indelible imagery in which he invites us to decipher what is artifice, and what is poised on the margins of the possible.
Strong is intrigued by dreams and constructs of memory, the way in which our interpretation of events is often influenced by past experiences, family or personal history. The idea of previous events being somehow 'imprinted' on a particular space, dilapidated buildings overrun, or 'reclaimed' by the environment, reflect an intermingling of past and present Strong finds particularly resonant. "In a broader sense, I have been interested in the way man-made objects and spaces collide with nature", Strong agrees. "I am interested in photographing abandoned buildings, and creating scenes around them, where nature has overgrown the spaces that people used to occupy- in a way, taking back what was originally uninhabited".
Shot in derelict housing blocks in Oakleigh, the title work, "Even If You Leave, I Will Always Be With You..." (2007) incorporates many of these themes. "My use of plants, water and other elements within nature stem from my own personal anxieties that I've had since childhood...In recent years, I've found myself drawn to representing these things in my images", Strong admits. His parents renovated an old weatherboard house in Elsternwick over a number of years, which proved strangely distressing to Strong, "It used to leak when it rained, the grass and weeds would grow tall down the side, and all sorts of insects and animals would live under its floor", he remembers. "I actually used to hate the rain, and the idea of things that should be dry getting soaked- the washing on the line, toys and objects left outside by accident".
Here the kitchen has become a flooded steamy marsh where the glamorous protagonist floats above the water, bound by reeds and rushes. Is she a modern Siren held hostage by domesticity, or some malevolent water-sprite quite 'at home' and resplendent amongst the carnivorous plants ? The same ideas of attraction and repulsion which preoccupy the artist also serve to amuse him; the man-eating woman corrupting home and hearth. She dismantles suburban quietude, as surely as the picked-at wallpaper, graffiti, and crumbling edifice proclaims its inevitable decay.
Strong probes this need to control our surroundings, and define the boundaries of human habitation in "Stay" (2005), as the forest literally forces its way into the exposed remnants of a living room. Resilient to the last, the determined resident appears unfazed by the presence of large arachnids, as they scatter across the wall in a parody of the ubiquitous ornamental ducks-in-flight. As they patter over the cutting-edge vacuum cleaner, and cling to the hem of her designer dress, housework continues. The immaculate sheepskin rug and her city-chic attire denote the last outpost of urban identity as the tree canopy and undergrowth become more dominant. Strong suggests there can still be coexistence when the boundaries of internal and external, public and private space, have collapsed.
Strong's images have developed a moody, more ominous quality of recent years. Selected this month for the biennial Prometheus Visual Arts Award, The Field" (2006) could best be described as a sinister pastoral homage. In a cheeky cameo appearance, fellow artist Robert Doble investigates a plot of strangely glowing cabbages against the back-drop of a ramshackle and remote farm house.
Strong's keen interest in film studies has led him to leave their provenance open to speculation. The companion piece, "If Light Lives In The Darkness" (2007), sees the cabbages exercise their ambiguous appeal on numerous butterflies, attracted by the aberrant nocturnal display.
"Flower & Knife" (2007) will remind the viewer of the artistic predilection for depicting drowning girls, with particular fondness for Shakespeare's Ophelia.
Like "Even If You Leave", what initially appears to be a passive and decorative female figure, is in fact lying in wait, ever watchful. Blade drawn, she is biding her time, a vengeful mermaid drifting softly in the weeds and past the lilies, as goldfish trail in her wake. Strong was inspired by the spate of recent news items about receding water levels in rivers and dams revealing years-old crime scenes; murders, suicides, and tragic accidents. What the landscape devours and wraps in watery silence remains a site of trauma, giving an unsettling resonance to the surroundings, and exciting our fears.
"Three Lights" (2006) puts an eco-conscious twist on the Leda and the Swan motif from Greek mythology, much beloved by Renaissance artists. Here Leda lies by the riverbank against a back-drop of grizzled bushes. Nuzzled by protected Black Swans, she is over flown by an eagle clutching a trout in its claws which spouts fluorescent tendrils in its mute panic.
"Water" (2007) is made all the more poignant by our current dire circumstances with the drought, and increasingly restrictive water shortages. Strong has explored artificial constructs, and man-made approximations of nature before, as he attempts to chart the ongoing tension between urban expansion, rural/agricultural zones, and increasingly compromised forest/park areas. The work has Biblical overtones of a dramatically down-sized Garden of Eden being gradually eaten up by the desert. One isolated tree supporting a few birds, some Black Tree Aeonium, and a patch of scrub are all kept alive by a persevering and selfless Adam.
"Way Out" (2007) shows a desert hinterland, littered with burnt-out cars partially buried in the sand, illuminated by the city skyline. The parched and virtually uninhabitable central regions of the continent have encroached into the inner-city hubbub. Undeterred by this incongruous turn of events, our Versace-clad heroine in the inappropriate footwear struts her way determinedly back to civilisation. Shot at Nanbung National Park, the works feature the surreal limestone pillars known as 'The Pinnacles'. Of this and "Release" (2006), shot around Westgate Park, Strong comments, "Bridges have featured in my works for some years. For me they represent the way people bypass areas and pockets of the urban environment, and how these spaces develop into ones that we don't often care to look at or notice". Strong ponders as to what secret and unseen things grow and flourish in our 'blind-spots', these forgotten, neglected places. His images create the narrative of what our collective abnegation of responsibility, and lack of vigilance may result in.
Strong's fascination with electrical currents, energy, and the life-force have developed as more persistent themes, as has the challenge of representing night and pervasive darkness within the photographic medium. "Many of the images are very dark- I have been quite interested in photographing at night...depicting darkness, and scenes lit with artificial lights, streetlights, lights cast from buildings, vehicle head-lights, neon signs...", he observes. In "I Dream Of Flying" (2007) Strong hurls himself aloft over an inky, dried up river-bed, colonised by glowing orbs, and bathed in the harsh reflected light of the bridge. "The darkness has begun to feature in my work because in dreams, I can't always remember every detail, so the shadows and the dark areas represent things which may at first glance be hidden or obscured", he explains.
A well-honed ability to conceptualise scenarios and divergent possibilities, to envisage the circumstances of transformation and change, to address notions of self and belonging, permeate Strong's creative center. "I don't feel so concerned anymore that my work needs to be immediately comprehensible", Strong reflects, "I'm consciously allowing concepts to evolve and develop in a less linear fashion. I'm enjoying the possibilities presented by a more enigmatic or mysterious tone...where you only get glimpses of what may be a more encompassing psycho-drama..."
Inga Walton (April, 2007)
() 22-27 May, 2007, Merrimac, Queensland.
() notably "Ophelia" (1851-52) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), Tate Gallery, London, of the tragic 'pre-Raphaelite super-model' Elizabeth Eleanor 'Lizzie' Siddall (1829-62). The Kylie Minogue/Nick Cave video clip for "Where The Wild Roses Grow" (1995) will probably also come to mind.
() in which Zeus appeared to Leda, wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and raped/seduced her. Well-known examples include copies of now destroyed paintings by Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci, works survive by Cesare Sesto, Antonio Allegri da Correggio, Tintoretto (aka. Jacopo Robusti) (c.1555), Peter Paul Rubens (c.1598-1600), Francesco d'Ubertino (aka. Bacchiacca), and François Boucher (1742). Contemporary artists to tackle the subject are as diverse as Paul Cézanne (1880-82), Henri Matisse (1944-46), Sir Sidney Nolan (1960), and Cy Twombly (1962).
() otherwise known as 'Aeonium arboreum var atropurpureum 'Schwarzkopf'' (Crassulacaceae)
() about 250 kilometers north of Perth, W.A.