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'Poisoned Well'
'The Poisoned Well'

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Ceramics Art and Perception International No. 41 2000, p25

PIP MCMANUS'
POISONED WELL
Article by CATH BOWDLER


History is the poisoned well seeping into the groundwater.
Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

On September 1, 1999 the Australian Federal Court ruled that genocide is not a crime under Australian law.
Nulyarimma v Thompson (1999) FAC 1192

The Poisoned Well - the title of this piece is the give-away. It is the lure that is necessary to engage the viewer and make him or her linger in front of the latest ceramic installation by Alice Springs based artist, Pip McManus.

The piece is deceptive, seemingly lyrical, soothing and beautiful. The complexity of the artwork is not perceived at first glance perhaps because of its serenity or its cool minimalist aesthetic. This is, in fact, the strength of the work as with time and careful observation the piece's many layers slowly unfold themselves rather like the leaves of the plants at the centre of the work.

The installation is decidedly ambiguous with many possible readings but with a sting in the tail because, ultimately, this installation is a quiet meditation on one of the most socially relevant and disturbingly recurrent social issues of the 20th Century - that of genocide. A weighty subject yet McManus' touch is light, cool and meditative, memorial in tone rather than didactic or emotive.

Initially, on encountering the piece, the viewer sees a group of identical motifs, 100 in all. Simple, uniform hand shapes arranged in the form of an eye or possibly a leaf. On closer inspection the uniformity of the hands is subverted as we become aware of the impressions of the leaves of different plants imbedded in each palm: a bauhinia leaf, an olive leaf, jacaranda, nasturtium, each one different. A careful selection of plants from the four corners of the globe, diverse in shape and size, each one reveals the delicate tracery of veins and tissue. Each one once alive and part of the web of life. The copper carbonate-saturated lead glaze produces a glossy clarity. The fine detail of the leaves is enhanced and mirrored by the subtle crazing of the glaze. Further close inspection reveals fragments of text around the edges of the group, including quotes and the words " A forest shares a history which each tree remembers even after it has been felled." The deeper resonance of the piece starts to dawn and then the viewer spies the book.

On a discrete shelf just to the left of the hands rests a book with 100 pages - one for every year of the twentieth century and one for each hand. On every page of the book is recorded an act of genocide or 'officially sanctioned mass killing'. This is a painstakingly researched record of one of the uglier sides of human nature. No one is exempt from this scourge. It starts in 1900 with the entry: " 220,000 - 270,000 Australian Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders killed since 1788". It ends with the entry for 1999: "Over 200,000 East Timorese killed since Indonesia invaded their country in 1975". Every year in between has a similar statistic and every part of the globe is represented. Grim statistics. However, the book is also a beautiful object in itself, created by the artist using PHOTOSHOP and featuring a hand motif on the cover. It is not a sledgehammer and may be overlooked by all but the most diligent of viewers.

The ambiguity and subtlety of the piece lies in McManus' use of universal symbolism that can be read on many layers. The hands can be seen as stop signs or perhaps as the Buddhist palm symbol; they can also be read as metaphors for the mass of humanity as well as individuation. They work in combination with the plants that represent the diversity and complexity of human nature and also its/our fragility and beauty: the yin/yang principle at work. They can be seen as the universal imprint of life, a metaphor for our condition and a representation of fertility, growth and continuity. The combination of the human hand marked or embossed by the natural world reinforces our place in the whole environment, as part of the complex web of the natural world that is totally overturned when we kill on a mass scale. This beautiful, organic grid, itself an oxymoron, is an image of a world out of balance.

The Poisoned Well is a departure for McManus whose most recent work has included architectural embellishments and public art in sites such as the Cultural Centre at Uluru and the Desert Park in Alice Springs, where she has worked closely with Aboriginal people. Before that, in the 80s, her work concentrated on intensely detailed, narrative slip-trailed domestic ware such as the Mere Ubu series. The Central Australian landscape and the motifs of its flora and fauna have been a signature of her work, particularly in a range of floor and wall tiles.

The genesis of The Poisoned Well was the strong reaction McManus felt in the wake of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. What followed was a period of extensive research on the internet about the history and frequency of genocide in the 20th century. McManus now sees the direction of her work continuing in this vein. The project is not yet finished and she fears that other hands, leaves and pages will need to be be added to this chronicle.

First exhibited in the 1999 Alice Prize and highly commended by judge, Doug Hall, The Poisoned Well is perhaps a millennial piece we had to have, combining a refined aesthetic, a sense of history, a social conscience and the force of a heartfelt message.

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