Our consciousness sets us the task of contemplating the immensity both around and inside ourselves. Sara Maher collapses these disparate spaces within her practice, both the agoraphobia induced by the vastness of uninhibited, ancient landscapes as well as the claustrophobia incurred by the build up of memories, emotions and ideas within. These dual spaces come to coexist in her art where they ultimately serve as shadows of her experiences. Maher does not seek to represent the sources of anxieties but rather filters them through one another in order to produce a complex set of relations between the self and the world which the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard termed ‘intimate immensity’. (1)
There are incalculable ways to attempt to locate our consciousness within the vastness of experience. One approach, the one most commonly taken, is via processes that aim to demystify the infinity of these spaces by documenting, measuring and framing. Another is to challenge oneself to dwell in immensity and revel in the unbounded possibility it offers the dreamer. Maher confronts immensity through her practice both by seeking out the affect of mysterious, remote places in which she undertakes residency programs and through confronting her inner world within the shelter of her studio/ house/ cave.
Maher is patient. She waits and allows spaces and materials to reveal aspects of their nature as well as her own. The final revelation is not enlightening but offers instead a further space of possibility to the audience in the hope that their patience will divulge its own mysteries. Her drawings are spaces of shadow and subtlety that relish in depth and mystery. The trace of the gesture is absent as the artist attempts to ‘set up circumstances for something to appear.’ (2) This is particularly evident when observing her recent body of large format drawings in which she saturates both sides of the paper with water and applies inks and pigments to the unstable surface. The ongoing practice of this technique produces very particular effects and in the end, the size of the objects and instability of the materials mean that individual drawings will always produce new and surprising results. Each drawing is a negotiation between the choices of the artist and the will of the material.
By searching for the self in immensity what is sometimes discovered is an interior immensity within the self. As Bachelard suggests it is this symbiosis between intimate and vast space that makes ‘man and the world into two wedded creatures that are paradoxically united in the dialogue of their solitude.’ (3) Poignant examples of this are the drawings Breathing Holes 2008 and Breathing Hole 2008 which both feature a surface that is reminiscent of the expansive landscapes of Maher’s travels as well as the rubbings of trees and sandstone walls of a confinement cell. These elements combine to produce a human sized drawing of a hybrid expanse of organic contours which are pierced at mouth height by a precisely cut circle, a breathing hole into the void. This hole is not merely life-support in the gaol/landscape but is itself another entry point into the infinity of the drawing/body.
The confusion or indeed the co-existence of the interior and exterior as well as the vastness of the inner and the outer world within a singular object is further explored in Maher’s practice through an interest in the boundaries of enormous spaces. Shores, horizons, walls, skin and even the piece of paper itself as the boundary between the artist and the space of possibility on the other side, distinguish many of Maher’s drawings. One such drawing, Is-Land 2008, hints at these paradoxical relations to liminal spaces. The work is a composite image of different drawings that have been layered on top of one another with the top layer sliced in the shape of a shoreline to reveal the underlying layers. The traced island suggested in the title could indeed be a lake or a cave or the reflection of the self as a land, the ‘is-land’ in question thus being land in the midst of immensity.
Confrontation with the enormity of space and the scope of geological time draws our attention to the ultimate frailty and ephemerality of our existence. Maher explores this insubstantiality of Being through the recurring metaphor of breath in works such as her Breath objects. These consist of collections of dandelion spores stored in jars where they form into crystalline spheres. Such concerns are also evident in many of her drawings like Humnote 2008, which presents a gradient of colour tones whose deepest section is in the rose spectrum. The drawing’s title suggests the infinity of a meditating ohm sound while visually it approximates experience of the ungraspable possibilities of fog and water.
Two days before my meeting with Maher she had arrived back in Hobart from a residency at Lake St Claire in central Tasmania. She had just begun evaluating the outcomes of two months of intense research and solitude. Looking at the experiments and completed drawings strewn across her home it is clear that only continuation is possible for an artist like Maher whose process is itself a form of breathing. Lake St Clair will continue to unfold in Maher’s mind and her mind will continue to unfold through her drawing practice.
(1) Gaston Bachelard (Trans. by Maria Jolas), Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusettes, 1994, p183-210
(2) In conversation with the artist.
(3) Op cit, p.189