In the wonderful 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a celestial court meets to decide whether the film’s hero Peter Carter should die (as was supposed to have happened after he jumps from his Lancaster bomber without a parachute) or whether he should live.
The defending counsel argues that since Peter has fallen in love during the brief period following his near-death experience, he has to remain on earth; and to prove the authenticity of that love, he produces as evidence a tear from Peter’s paramour, preserved on a rose and frozen in time. Nothing in this celestial atmos- phere, including this rose, is subject to earthly decay, or ruffled by earthly breezes.
I was reminded of that cinematic bloom, looking at Yoshihiro Suda’s astonishing Rose on display at the Art Gallery of NSW. Based in Tokyo, Suda carves exquisite flowers and foliage out of wood and, taking infinite pains, paints them with lifelike colour.
The result is an uncanny simulacrum that (as critic Ronald Jones points out) demands not only to be looked at but to be scrutinised; it seems more real than the real itself. The flowers and plants made by Suda are often inserted into overlooked or unusual spaces in a gallery, so there is a double surprise in encountering them. First you marvel that they are there at all; you did not see the tiny weeds behind a radiator or beside a door frame. Then you can hardly believe they have been carefully fashioned out of painted wood and painstakingly inserted into the architecture. Who would bother? And why?
There has been a new wave of this sort of high-end traditional craftsmanship in contemporary art, perhaps as a reaction to the trend towards the dematerialisation of new media and the sort of de-skilling that has been the result of the predominance of conceptual art, among other things. London artist Susan Collis, for instance, works in a vein that creates similar “dou- ble take” effects: paint spatters on a pair of overalls turn out, on close inspection, to have been embroidered on; apparently abandoned wall plugs are made of precious stones, holding screws made of hallmarked gold.
Such pieces provide viewers with a genuine “wow factor”, mobilising the much-maligned response of “look at the work that went into that!” At its best, this sort of work does something else as well, and is using the viewer’s amazement as an attractant, the better to smuggle in other ideas.
In Suda’s case, there’s the invocation of an art historical pedigree extolling the wonders of nature, especially in his native Japan; in Sydney, Rose has been paired with Imao Keinen’s beautiful 19th-century woodcuts of birds and flowers (donated to AGNSW in 2002). Suda is also interested in the Japanese concept of ma, or the interval between things, and in the value of slowing down perception.
But there’s something weirdly cinematic going on, too, making it hard to know what, exactly, is being perceived. While frighteningly realistic in form, Rose is impossibly frozen in time: the stem seems to be falling, as though it had been let go from a hand in a moment of fright, a single petal floating poetically downwards, yet neither will ever reach the ground.
Wood painted with mineral pigments, 30cm x 30cm x 20cm