What’s in a Madeleine
Written by: Judith Duquemin
Anke Stäcker & Judith Duquemin
7th – 28th May 2008.Horus & Delorus Contemporary Art Space Sydney
is an installation of paintings and photographs
that utilize abstract formations, colour fields, nature and language as psychological triggers for the reconstruction of memories. Stäcker’s photographs derive from places, buildings and walls in the urban landscape, often possessing a dreamlike
appearance. Duquemin’s minimalist acrylic paintings are combinations of flat tertiary colours and geometric grids. This unlikely combination of artist and genre is linked by each artist’s desire to experiment with and manipulate visual content
in order to articulate personal memory.
Madeleines is a term coined by Marcel Proust to describe phenomena in the environment that trigger involuntary memories about past
“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom,
my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her cup of real or of lime-flower tea…And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, immediately the
old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town…the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine…the whole of Combray and its surroundings,
taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” 1
Proust called these moments of involuntary memory madeleines
after the petite madeleine, a small shell-like traditional cake from Commercy in north-eastern France, named after a 19th century pasty cook Madeleine Paulmier.
and Stäcker commenced their lives in the middle of the last century in places far apart. Stäcker has German and French ancestry and was born in Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany. Duquemin of Guernsey Island descent was born in Brisbane
and grew up in the rural cane farming community of Bundaberg in Queensland. The artists met while completing a Master of Visual Arts at Sydney College of the Arts, in Sydney during 1998 following previous careers that helped them to raise children.
Stäcker is a photomedia artist and her theme is the city. Like international contemporary photomedia artists’ Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gabriele Basilico, and Frank Thiel,
her photographs document urban places in transformation. A taxi driver for many years in Melbourne, she finds the scenario for her urban compositions ‘by cruising around the city and finding things almost at random’. She is attracted to ruins,
things in disrepair, wastelands because they remind her of childhood memories. Stating ‘I would have seen war ruins, whole streets and apartment blocks destroyed. I remember the street in my neighbourhood, we could look into the flats from below with
walls missing and floors caved in and part of the bathroom dangling in the air…I think people have a fascination with ruins because it is nostalgic, about things past, other lives, the transient nature of being…’2
Often ruins initiate memories of certain flowers from Germany. Some of the flowers grew in her grandmother’s ‘memory garden’ located on the outskirts of Hamburg and
others grew in playgrounds of rubble in Hamburg resulting from the demolition of buildings destroyed by war. Stäcker says: ‘I use flowers I find in the urban environment…they are not necessarily flowers I remember from Germany. I change them
and put things together which are not together in nature, for example, the blue-purple flowers are growing on a bush in bunches, not single, have nothing to do with grass. The angel’s trumpets grow on trees hanging down not standing upright. The photo
titled Firestorm uses dandelion, which is a typical city flower and grows between the pavement in Hamburg and Sydney’. Flowers are a trigger that involuntarily provide for her, memories about ‘love and safety’ …walking through the
war ruins in Hamburg with her father, holding his hand, feeling safe…and playing in her grandmother’s garden.
Duquemin is a colour field painter who utilizes
flat colour, hardedge technique, schema and irregular grids as triggers to explore personal experience. Colour fields against a formula of neutral grey backgrounds made up of primary colours are madeleines that enable her to explore the romantic and the prosaic
aspects of her early years growing up in idyllic Bundaberg, a progressive city surrounded by a patchwork of sugarcane fields on the Queensland coral coast. Based upon her own experiences and the history of the town, Bundy is an installation of six square irregular
grid paintings with titles that reflect episodes from a carefree upbringing. For example: Campfires, Cubby Houses, Goannas, Cane Toads and Magpies. Duquemin’s parents emigrated to Australia from Guernsey a small island located in the English Channel
following the end of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands in WW II to begin new lives in a developing country that offered freedom, safety, equality, wealth, and, strong encouragement to populate.
Duquemin claims, “Every painter knows that all of painting is about madeleines it is a reason why painting is, and always will be, such an attractive and viable art form. The triggers are manyfold, for example the weave of
the canvas, the texture of the paint, the flat surface, colour, little developments and accidents along the way, the action of painting itself as well as the non-visible actions, concepts, percepts, design, abstraction, the size of the canvas, seeing an exhibition,
or, the environment where one thinks and paints. Madeleines trigger all levels of consciousness. I prefer to call it, ‘silent knowledge’ or what Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian philosopher defined as tacit knowledge, ‘knowledge we know but
cannot tell’ that in someway finds an outlet through creativity”.3
What’s in a madeleine? Madeleines are psychological triggers that appeal
to certain predispositions in humans, such as remembering things good and bad, to persuading people to buy things mostly when they don’t want them. In semiotic theory madeleines work like symbols that trigger resonances in the brain of specific memories
or circumstances not altogether explicit. Creative process activates involuntary memory and is instrumental for creating paths of understanding about process, subject or self.
Despite differences in discipline and subject, the unifying trigger (or madeleine) in this exhibition is the use of abstract colour fields, an awkward term for a photomedia artist because colour fields are more readily associated with painting. Colour
field painting is primarily large painted areas of solid colour and carries links to Post Painterly Abstraction, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Hard-edge painting and Lyrical Abstraction. Colour Field painting is devoid of rhetoric, references to nature
are reduced, and the psychological use of colour is emphasized.4 Early Colour Field painters include Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler as well as Australian painters from The Field exhibition staged in Melbourne in 1969.
Stäcker’s transparent colour fields are created from a combination of ambient light sources, and, the result of attaching pieces of yellow, red, blue and green gift-wrapping
paper (cellophane instead of filters) in front of the camera lens to create images that resemble dreamscapes. Duquemin’s opaque colour fields are inspired by ‘grids of green and brown cane fields on a flat earth terrain, and colours that stand
out in the dazzling sunlight’. The placement and selection of colour within each grid representing ‘geo-psycho-social’ aspects relating to the memory that she has inadvertently revisited.
1. (Adapted from Swanns Way In Search of Lost Time).
2. In conversation with the Anke Stäcker
3. Polanyi, M., The Tacit Dimension, Routledge
and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1966, p 4