Anthologia: An Exhibition by Alina Tang & S.J Finch

First off tell me about ‘Anthologia’. Where did the concept stem from?

Like a lot of collaborations, Anthologia developed out of affection and respect. We both really like each other’s work, and wanted to explore a number of linked passions that we had. We were both interested in the connection between Victorian floriography, the language of flowers, and poetry, flowery language. SJ Finch was interested in poetry and in a language as a physical, bodily form, language made of living cells, language that itself decays or blooms, becoming a beautiful excess. Alina Tang was interested in generosity, femininity, the cut flower industry, and the beauty of flowers. We both wondered how our personal experiences with flowers could be made to encourage the growth of gender equality, and the care for our ecological systems, while still displaying an excess of generosity, a love for the beauty of life.

We eventually decided to explore Helene Cixous' concept of Écriture féminine (women's writing), thinking of a language made of flowers as the idealÉcriture féminine.

You use some interesting and powerful language such as ‘poaching’ and ‘gendered’ in describing the exhibition’s context. What are your views on this type of cultural ‘borrowing’ and stigmatised gender traits?

The writer Jamaica Kincaid describes how Charles Linnaeus, the botanist, saw the flora of colonised countries as an opportunity to make a name for himself. These plants, like the peoples that live there, do not have proper names or history or culture. So he erased them, gave them latinate names of significance to himself, and was successful for this in Europe. This is not exactly borrowing, and not exactly stealing. Think of a name like the Dahlia, after Andreas Dahl a student of Linnaeus. It has lost the name it once had to the Aztecs, the name it had for thousands of years. We may look it up, but it will never be common. These are things that once borrowed cannot be given back.

So what can be done? We don't know. One thing art allows is the excavation of a history of feelings, or the creation of a poetic fiction. Through art, you can imagine a more noble and caring world. Knowing about this cultural borrowing gives us a why, gives us a light. The way forward is reckoning with the past and growing towards a future

One concept that we found helpful to think about is strategic essentialism. That is, although gender, sexuality, and identity are infinitely complex swirling things, it is sometimes necessary to simplify it all down in order to speak and be heard and understood. This is the movement from poetic to political. With l'écriture féminine Cixous dreams of a language capable of translating the moments when our normal languages fail us but our body still desires to talk. She imagines the body as made of morphology rather than anatomy, that is, able to be altered and changed, and not having an essential nature. A body that can be written on and written with. 

It's not about ignoring or disavowing stigmatised gender traits, but moving between embracing the beauty of those traits, and getting enough distance from that beauty to be think critically about its morphology. It's okay to be feminine. And being feminine is an infinitely complex thing.

How did you both go about sourcing your female poets to write the floriographic poems featured in the exhibition?

The poets selected are Australian poets who have a history of engagement with flowers, nature, and femininity.

Amanda Joy has released a brilliant poetry chapbook called Orchid Poems. Annamaria Weldon has an involved engagement with poetry about nature, having researched thrombolites at Lake Clifton for a poetic project with Symbiotica. Claire Potter's incredible poetry collection Swallow worked with birds and their associated flora. Elieen Chong released the magnificent poetry collection Poeny last year. Judith Beveridge is an incredible poet and a self-described nature poet. Julie Watts beautiful chapbook Honey and Hemlock explores her own experience and familial relationships between mothers and daughters (among other things). Nandi Chinna has a passionate engagement with non-human species and the WA natural environment. Rosalind McFarlane is a good friend and a great person, and we've had many engaged discussions about poetry and the natural environment. Siobhan Hodge is an incredible poet too, whose thesis explored Sappho's poetry.

What flower holds the most significance to you?

Alina: I like pansies. They're my favourite. I like how soft they are, and how they like cold weather. I like how they all have different colours. I also like how you can eat them.

Steven: There were these tiny flowers with tiny hairs that were very fragrant and planted all around my nanny's house in Fiji, where I lived until I was 9. I remember being quite fascinated with them, but I don't know what they are called. I remember a brand of matchsticks with a hibiscus on it in Fiji, and keeping one under my bed. The parts of nature that are there when you are a kid have such a hand in your nostalgia and sense of self.

And what can people attending your exhibition expect to learn from ‘Anthologia’?

Oh it's not really about learning, despite the impression the previous answers may give. We've done a lot of learning so you don't have to. You can expect to be close to live flowers, to think about a poem, to experience the tactility of language, to be beholden by the beautiful things that we see every day.

Anthologia launches at Paper Mountain Art Gallery this Friday