Ann Finegan, Wild Genealogy and Rhizomatic Links, 2007, in “Our Lucky Country: Still Different” exhibition catalogue, Hazlehurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, edited by Daniel Mudie-Cunningham, curated by Ron and George Adams.
Grass is the prosaic stuff of the everyday, a common denominator of ordinary backyards and surburban dreams. But in various species it is also wanderer, a spreader, a stubborn disemminator that resists neat fences and boundary lines, refusing to be as quarantined like more well mannered trees. Liz Day has made of use of grass within a certain paradigm as a carrier of codes. Literally cultivating grass, growing it from seeds, she has devised a technique of embedding a mirror writing in the tangle of its roots. Grass, the irrepressible figure of dissemination in Deleuze and Guattari’s fiercely ahierarchical nomadic text, “Rhizome”, is semi-tamed in the gardener’s art of organic writing, in which grass is coaxed into propagating messages of diaspora and cultural mapping.
The material signifier is the roots themselves, sown from seed dispersed into the soil bed over words spelt out in individual handcut letters. There’s thus a kind of secret occult collusion in this gentle mode of the gardener’s practice in which the matter of the message is the message of the matter: a series of place names written in relief in underground roots which only make sense when the grass is ripped up, torn out of the earth and exposed, inverse side up, in the light of day (excuse pun on Day). Dispersed across the rootweb, now right way round, the placenames reference the displacements of Hazlehurst locals across the surface of the earth. Sudan. Somalia. Vietnam. Afganistan. Serbia. Liverpool. Manchester. Wigan. Hobart. The names read as a rollcall for wars, famine, poverty, and the time tested hopes of plain old good expectations; studded across the rhizome they signal intermeshed cultural threads – nodes of identity and difference within the local community.
Day is effectively overcoding the regional place/grass/location of Hazelhurst with reminders of the places which its inhabitants are from. Grass, of the earth, acts in a carrier role, recalling connections in a common matrix, in a fusing of the symbolic and material realms in which the population now dwells. Closeness is implicated in this bonding with the earth and a compounding of the signifer in embedded matter. The earth is thus charged with a kind of repository responsibility, bearing the material imprint- the palimpsest – of what remains in memory, of the places left behind. This acknowledges the tension between migration and rootedness, and the psychic patterning that remains of “putting down roots” long after one’s roots are torn up.
Furthermore grass is a fitting material through which to work through the exhibition brief of Still Different in the context of the history of the Hazlehurst gallery and the philosophy behind the Broadhurst bequest. First, it should be noted that Day has been working with the medium of grown grass through more than a decade of projects, often in the cause of institutional and cultural critique. Grass, in its associations with colonialism, has often stood in as a metaphor for conquest and cultural imperialism in her work, as well as materially signifying a re- or overplanting of the natural environment. Yet, in this exhibition grass takes on a radically different role, reflective of the generosity of the Broadhursts, a family of visionary free thinkers – thinkers of social, politcal and cultural difference of their time – through whose bequest of the house and garden the Hazlehurst gallery complex was founded.
Originally from Manchester (the name appears in palimpsest), the Broadhurts were philathropists and spiritualists who followed many of Rudolf Steiner’s principles. In the business of textiles (another rhizomatic link), they gifted the means of production to their workers who were often invited to enjoy the gardens of Hazlehurst, where the Broadhurts were keen organic gardeners, and early advocates of the benefits of composting and recycling. In line with their wholistic philosophy, the bequest mandated that the gardens be preserved and complimented by either “‘a place of culture’ or a community facility” (The Hazlehurst Story, Hazlehurst gallery pamplet, 16).
The garden was crucial to their vision; the Broadhurts adhering to Steiner’s belief that “everything is related to the soil.” (ibid, 12). Hence, Day’s project of imbricating the immaterial signifier of the letter in the organic matter of grass, as cultural transmitter, intimately reflects the Broadhurst philosophy of the unity of all spheres of life, specifically as grounded in the relationship with the earth, and, as such, pays hommage in the spirit of community in which the Broadhurts so passionately believed. One senses they would have approved of Day’s active cultural mapping in the medium of grass, and also in the additional twist of the laying down of the letter(s) underground, analagous to Freud/s desciption of laying down the traces of the psyche in “the underground” of the unconscious (Ben Broadhurst was also President of the Sydney Centre for Psychic Research in the 1950s).
The second aspect of Day’s show could be described as symbolically rhizomatic, and an extension of her interest in museology. Local women, representative of the cultural diversity of Hazlehurst, have been asked to bring along a small object of personal importance for museum display. Day explains the operation as an opportunity for a kind of showing off, an occasion to show and share, but, as importantly, given the museum’s historical use of vitrines as institutional sites of cultural validation, also consolidating the pluralist threads of local identity. Working from the grass roots up, such a practice encourages patterns of emergence – akin to Foucault’s autonomous ‘self-seeded’ microcircuits of power. Therefore, the display of these personal objects interrogates institutional function in relation to community, inverting the top down hegemonic relations of power, and replacing the museum’s usual classificatory tree with wild, rhizomatic anti-genealogy of whatever the women choose to bring in. Again there’s a synergy with the free thinking Broadhursts and their goals of empowering community.