It is a magical thing when a talented artist hits upon a subject that suits their temperament. One thinks of McCahon’s waterfalls, Siddell’s cityscapes, Hammond’s birds. Such art can be developed and nuanced without becoming formulaic or slick. So it is with Emma Bass and her photographs of beautiful, vulnerable flower arrangements.
Viewers of Bass’s first show on this theme in 2012 will recognise the creative mind behind Imperfect II, but will note some subtle changes. Works that are unashamedly theatrical, baroque or surreal can be found. The sense of drama has been heightened, as has the intensity of colours. Black backgrounds have been introduced in a few works.
Two things, however, have not changed. First is the guiding Japanese philosophy behind the series: Wabi-Sabi, or respect for the incomplete and imperfect things of this world. Second is Bass’s truly gifted ability at flower arranging – something that some people study for years and never master.
Bass gathers her materials, thinks about their possible presentations and conjunctions and then just does it. This first step is vitally important, just as the inspired design of the Parthenon had to precede its construction. Time has defaced that masterpiece; with Bass’s work the overall feeling of classical elegance is everywhere subtly undermined by small details: dead bees, invading ants, fading colours, blemishes, drooping stems and leaves and wilting and dropped petals, some of which break the immaculate horizontal line of the white supporting boards.
In a second show, one looks for new points of interest or emergent elements. Here, in addition to the changes noted above, it is the vases. Bass’s ever-growing collection of flower-holders now begins to assert itself. A notable example is ‘Pohutukawa 8.26am’ where a Peter Muller porcelain piece from Germany has a magical meeting with our native pohutukawa.
A walk around the exhibition looking at the vases as the primary subject puts an entirely new slant on things. One can see how critical the choice of vase is to one’s appreciation of its contents. One can also see that Bass is no mean connoisseur of vases, and can be grateful that she is sharing her taste with us in this manner. Awareness dawns that the vases, their contents long gone to the compost bin, are the survivors in these artistic couplings. They may be dead and inanimate but, like the Parthenon, they will outlast us all.