Susan Buret: Flexible Cartography (Catalogue Essay)

Catalogue sssay for Susan Buret’s solo exhibition, More Stolen Geometry from the Gardens of Love, 2010.

A visit to Susan Buret’s house reveals that she is a keen collector of willow pattern china. This may seem a tad old fashioned for a contemporary artist, but I’m not really surprised. The blue and white design is a classic. It’s been around for more than two centuries and has never quite gone out of style. Tea in a willow pattern cup seems especially comforting, like a cuddle from a benevolent, shabby-chic, semi-fictional grandmother, all crinkly laugh lines, wispy white hair and a never ending supply of warm scones: very respectable, a touch conservative, terribly English.

Yet, rather than representing stability, timelessness and Anglo Saxon tradition (despite its longevity), willow pattern china is actually a physical manifestation of hybridity, fluidity and ongoing exchange. The now ubiquitous blue and white design is usually attributed, circa 1790, to Thomas Minton, a canny Staffordshire potter and business man who gave Spode a run for their money. The pattern marks an intermingling of East and West. It was an English take on Chinese decorative arts, mass produced and marketed to a burgeoning consumer class who couldn’t afford the real thing. And now, somewhat ironically, it is produced en mass back in China, a neat twist in a complex cycle of boundary hopping. The willow pattern is not quite what it initially seems to be. And this, I suspect, is its attraction for Buret, for neither are her paintings.

The paintings in Buret’s solo exhibition, More Stolen Geometry from the Gardens of Love, are heavily patterned and highly decorative. Intricate linear designs, punctuated by solid geometric elements cut from coloured paper, are precisely laid over delicate washes of watery pale jade green, lolly pink or dove blue and grey. At a quick glance, or from a distance, they evoke the same cosy associations as willow pattern china or florid floral wallpaper and soft furnishings. They seem overtly feminine, domestic, safe and pretty.

Yet, closer inspection reveals that Buret’s collaged paper shapes are cut from maps, and her linear designs, reminiscent of Islamic patterns, are frayed at the edges and prone to mimicking barbed wire and chain-link fencing. Nothing innocuous here. Of course, Buret’s paintings are still very pretty, but they are actually asking, “Can pretty patterns also be political?” It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is right there. If you take the time to look, yes, they can. Buret is drawing attention to our current cultural conditions. She highlights the near hysterical obsession politicians have developed over patrolling national borders and their determination to draw a firm line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

George W. Bush may be long gone, but three successive Australian Prime Ministers still have us fighting a seemingly endless ‘war on terror’ as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’. Post 9-11, it’s fairly safe to say that the Western notion of ‘them’ points straight towards Islam. The words Muslim and terrorist have become virtually interchangeable in a mass media which no longer even feigns neutrality and which regularly portrays the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan as tribal barbarians, armed to the teeth, yet rooted in the dark ages. In this prejudiced climate, Buret’s use of highly ordered and extremely beautiful Islamic patterns is a timely reminder that this is a culture that bequeathed the West an extensive knowledge of geometry, mathematics, anatomy and astronomy; a culture with a rich and living tradition of art, science and literature.

But as Buret points out, the patterns she uses also, “curve cross-culturally”. Her geometric shapes can be seen in the stone quatrefoils and stained glass windows of gothic cathedrals or in European textiles. Like the willow pattern, they represent a blurring of boundaries between the East and the West, documenting a centuries long process of cultural exchange.

Buret’s use of maps further emphasises the fluid nature of borders. She deliberately uses old maps, riddled with countries that no longer exist; evidence that the boundaries of nations are in fact arbitrary. Like cartography itself, which claims territory as much as records it, they are a political construct: imaginary and flexible. And in this way, Buret offers some hope. The borders armies squabble over, the perimeter our politicians so rigorously defend against a handful of refuges, the line between us and them: all are subject to change.

Tracey Clement