In the late 1960s, British painter Margaret Benyon, who had been working with moiré effects in her Op art abstract paintings, became one of the first artists to see the creative possibilities of holograms—then being constructed in just a few advanced scientific labs. The new medium opened up interesting possibilities for Benyon to explore modern technology and her ideas about time and space, and to express personal spiritual and social perceptions.
What is not well known is the role Benyon’s years in Australia, from 1977 to 1981, played in the development of her work. During this period she had fellowships at the Australian National University in Canberra and worked as Coordinator, Graphic Investigation, at the Canberra School of Art. She was able to create holograms using the facilities at the university in Canberra and at the CSIRO in Sydney. Particularly important at this time, too, was Benyon’s introduction, through the resources at the Australian National University and the Aboriginal Studies Institute, to Indigenous Australian art and culture. Many artists in the 1970s developed social and political concerns—especially in regard to nuclear threat and environmental pollution. Benyon’s experiences in Australia, and her general sense of wider issues, influenced her move away from abstraction and marked the appearance of cross-cultural, social and political references in her hologram works.
In 1979 and 1981 respectively, the National Gallery of Australia acquired Hot air, Benyon’s laser-transmission hologram of 1970, and her Australian-made reflection hologram Binding 1979, a subtle work of lines and twigs. Three decades on, Benyon’s return to live in Australia in 2005 has facilitated the acquisition of four works from the artist’s Australian period: Totem, which references Indigenous Australian’s understanding of land and culture; Lattice II, which showed Benyon’s continuing interest in abstract web-grids; Greenhouse I: creation myths and Unclear world, which are both steeped in the big picture of ecological and nuclear threats.
In addition, Pushing up the daisies, a major large-scale holographic montage from 1996, was selected to represent Benyon’s later career. In this work, fresh daisies literally sprout from the head of a sad soldier dressed in modern camouflage gear and bathed in the eerie artificial light of 1990s night-vision goggles. Popularised by news coverage of recent wars and skirmishes, the green haze that we see when looking through these high-tech instruments has in many ways become symbolic of modern warfare.
The title of the work (like many of Benyon’s titles) plays on words and associations: ‘pushing up the daisies’, meaning to be dead and buried, was a euphemism popularised during the First World War and was also used by doomed British war poet Wilfred Owen. Benyon’s wordplay continues at the bottom of the work in a poetic, staccato cascade of different-sized fonts.
Reclaim the night
Fill the screen with vegetation
Pushing up the daisies
Benyon sombrely calls the work ‘an epitaph’, and it could be read as one. Replaced by technologies, the old-fashioned ideology of the soldier’s honour and glory in warfare has been made redundant. It is ‘pushing up the daisies’. The state of war has become inhuman, if it ever was. Certainly, movies like Rambo tell us that there was once honour in serving and, if need be, dying for your country.Gael Newton
in artonview, issue 58, winter 2009