Mappa Vitae: An exhibition of painted sculpture
7th to 11th July 2015
Sheffer Gallery, Darlington, Sydney, Australia
Video of exhibition:
Mappa Vitae (Life Maps) provided an alternative representation of how a subject scripts themself. Kingsford-Smith represents the subject’s life narrative rather than their external appearance as traditional portraiture does. He depicts the aspects of the sitter’s life that are the most significant to them; key relationships, experiences, events, places, buildings, animals, etc. As with recollected memories these narratives are distorted, amplified, fragmented, and often involve the compression of time and the juxtaposition of locations and countries. The narratives he paints are intended to provide insights into the subject’s inner world.
The ‘Life Maps’ offer an alternative form of portraiture to that provided by traditional psychological portraits that privilege the careful observation of appearances. Kingsford-Smith represents the narrative of a subject formed out of the transformative process of memory and recollection.
The conceptual and formal basis of the ‘Life Maps’ series were developed out of the study of two historical precedents, which offered alternative way of conceptualizing the relationship between the visible and invisible dimensions of reality. Namely the Hereford World Map (1300 approx) and upper Paleolithic European rock art. These disparate sources orientated the ‘Life Maps’ towards a symbolic vision of reality, within which sensory appearances are conceived as a medium through which higher concepts can be accessed.
The Hereford World Map represented how medieval people saw the physical world around them. It is a spiritual and historical map, which conveys the teachings of the Bible and depicts the wonders of history and legend. Cosmological, ethnographical, geographical, historical, theological and zoological information all come together in a single composition, crowned by a religious scene intended to lead the viewer’s thoughts to God. Over 1,000 inscriptions and almost as many painted scenes and symbolic decorations combine to create a strange and unfamiliar world: a world in which France is below the Red Sea, where Jerusalem occupies the exact centre and where a rhinoceros is as likely or unlikely an animal as a unicorn. This reveals a heroic ambition on the part of the mapmakers – to create both an encyclopaedia and meditative aid in one document.
The Hereford world map informed Kingsford-Smith’s ‘Life Maps’ in three primary ways. It influenced the way he thought about the ways in which diverse areas of knowledge could be conflated to provide a holistic representation of a subject’s understanding, and experience, of reality. It also informed the formal development of the pictorial narratives present in the ‘Life Maps’. Symbolic, as opposed to illusionistic, conventions of pictorial representation have governed his use of hierarchy of scale, and his deployment of narratives to determine the arrangement of fragments. More significantly, it is evident that the medieval sense of how the spiritual and physical worlds intersected has influenced Kingsford-Smiths relationship to representing life experiences. He has reflected on how experiences gain symbolic significance within identity formation. He also gives weight to the lenses through which we view places and people. The ‘Life Maps’ emphasis the dynamic relationship between the phenomenal world and our transformation of it within the formation of our life narratives. The works in the series provide as much a representation of a way of seeing, as a portrait of the sitter. The otherness of medieval horizons gave him insight into the limits of our current fields of vision.
Kingsford-Smith drew on David Lewis-Williams academic scholarship on rock art who proposed that Paleolithic European rock art owed its inspiration, at least in part, to trance experiences (altered states of consciousness) associated with shamanistic practices. He conjectured that shamans during this time period believed that the animal spirits were in an underworld and that the surface of the wall was a membrane separating them from it. By making the paintings, he surmised that the shamans believed that they could bring those spirits through the wall and communicate with them.
Kingsford-Smith was inspired by the idea that art could act as a membrane through which the spirit/inner world could be accessed. It was this image that informed the conceptualisation of the relationship between the figures and the narrative painted upon it. The figure is reduced to a mask – the inner/invisible world of the sitter is represented through the painted narratives and given hierarchical weight over the realm of appearances.
(Paul James, Victoria University of Wellington)
The Life Map concept also references the Aboriginal, Pacific Island and indigenous peoples that use painted maps, tapa cloth, sand drawings and rock/cave art as a cultural and story-telling methodology in communicating their territory, landscapes, settlement, boundaries, food and water sources, myth, cultural and spiritual practices and beliefs.