Erica van Zon: Dogwood Days

This short piece was first published alongside others in the catalogue to accompany Erica van Zon's exhibition Dogwood Days at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Metaphors and similes bring things closer whilst simultaneously pushing them away. An object, person, or place, is described by stating it is, or is like, something else. A great metaphor can describe a thing with crackling intensity; it immediately conveys the sensation and attitude of an object; the thingness of it with all its attendant associations.

Metaphors also pull objects away from the reader and expose the limits of language. Their very existence suggests that an object cannot be autonomously described; it needs an exterior world to give it meaning and shape. Similes are a horizon line over which objects disappear—forever deferred to be like something else.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is rife with metaphors and similes, and the book’s first paragraph contains an arresting image:

And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

Erica van Zon has been magpie-like in her collecting of images, memories, and prompts for Dogwood Days, and Mrs Dalloway has been a rich source. The book’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is depicted in the exhibition as a finely stitched cushion, and so is Virginia Woolf—the queen of metaphors herself—as a collection of balls resting on a beige pillow. There are other portraits too: van Zon’s mother and father; a former work colleague; Frances Hodgkins; and Zebulon, a character from a Margaret Atwood novel.

van Zon exploits the push and pull interplay of metaphors in these portraits of real and fictional people. For those familiar with Mrs Dalloway, the glittering embroidery of the cushion conjures up the upper class London hostess as described in the book. The pleated material and carefully arranged rods that depict van Zon’s mother and father, point to activities the artist’s parents may have been involved in, and the scattered salad intimates an airiness, a gracefulness, that I know to be in the nature of van Zon’s workmate.

But the metaphorical portraits also cleverly defer their subjects. Virginia Woolf as a cushion is more abstract. I can’t draw a connection between the assembled objects and the writer, so the metaphor pushes her further away; she is deferred and suspended out past the horizon line.

Thomasin Sleigh