Hovering on the horizon of a desolate, glacial landscape sits a multi-storey, futuristic structure that appears to be straight out of a science fiction film. It is an image that is not of this world, a substantial, architectural form cobbled together from the scraps of the post-industrial age, a non-place embodying both the past and the future, an atoll that exists beyond time.
Dreaming of Fata Morgana (2013) is a series of photographs by Sydney-based artist Tanya Dyhin that explore ideas of perception and experience. Shifting between the realms of the real and the imagined, a ‘Fata Morgana’ is a superior mirage that consists of stacked multiple images created by light being bent as it moves through different temperature ranges in the atmosphere. Named after the Arthurian sorceress, Morgan le Fay or ‘The Fairy Morgana’, the Fata Morgana’s ability to create an image which looks like a solid mass, a floating fantastical form often described as a fairy castle, has meant that it has long been associated with mythological stories and legends, such as the sirens of the Strait of Messina and the ghost ship ‘The Flying Dutchman’. An ephemeral and often evolving image, the Fata Morgana dramatically distorts the original object to create something strange and new.
Within Western literary tradition the ‘island’ is represented as metaphor for an imaginary space, an environment which, set apart from the mainland, is a space in which the world as it is known is rejected, reconsidered and reinvented. Created during a residency in the Russian naval town of Kronshtadt on the Kotlin Island, Dyhin’s Dreaming of Fata Morgana draws on this representation of the island as an illusionary place. Existing within a context in which time and space is distorted and stretched, these isle-like spaces create a freedom which does not exist outside of the imaginary. Through the distortion of imagery, experienced in the form of the mirage and through the processes of the photographic medium, Dyhin explores the possibilities of these island-like spaces removed from the limitations of the real.
In the opening images of Dreaming of Fata Morgana, we are presented with structures of unknown origin in abandoned landscapes: sites that exist beyond the confines of the known world, isolated from time and humanity. In these photographs the physical removal of the island-like structures from the familiar and identifiable, allows them to be placed within the realm of the allegorical and the incredible. ‘The topos of the island’, as Stephanos Stephanides and Susan Bassnett write, ‘explores and creates bridges between the real and the imaginary as well as crossings between genres and disciplines’.1 Dyhin’s representation of the mirage as an isolated construct encourages the viewer to imagine a scenario unbound by the real.
Entwined with island literature is the journey into the unknown and the discovery of new knowledge. The process of looking from a position that is removed from the mainland allows for a meditation or a reconsideration of place. The island is a catalyst for reflection, and simulated spaces are ‘susceptible to translatability’, articulating ‘perspectives on the shifting relationship between self and other, centre and periphery.’2 In the images in which the viewer looks back at Kronshtadt, for example Dreaming of Fata Morgana #3, #4 and #5, the image is both illuminating and alarming. An expanse of industry, amplified and expounded, menacing and excluding, affronts the viewer. In one image an authoritarian building dominates the skyline, in another cranes and machinery animate the horizon. In these photographs the man-made seems at odds with its pristine snow covered surrounds, a foreboding sight.
Dyhin returned to working with photography for Dreaming of Fata Morgana after a long interval. The artist’s use of photography in this project, the medium she was trained in at art school, raises interesting questions about the need to place the unknown within an identifiable and familiar framework, and what occurs when language itself is reconsidered and remade. In Dreaming of Fata Morgana #6 and #7 the artist recreates the mirage within the digital realm, employing its physical and psychological properties as creative instruments. In these final images Dyhin works with motifs of mirrors and windows, highly charged metaphors for looking and revealing. Here the landscape echoes and folds in on itself – visually enacting a process of reflection, or, is disrupted by a large window-like aberration that acts like a magnifying glass bringing an element of the environment into sharp relief. The mirage in this context aligns itself with the representation of the island as a performative geography. This is a term which is used by writer Lisa Fletcher, as a theoretical model for studying islands that merges both the scientific and the literary to illustrate the ‘dynamic and constitutive relationship between places and the ways they are depicted’.3 It is the potential of these ethereal islands that is considered by Dyhin: an exploration of spaces that are enacted, changeable and reflective. The Fata Morgana then becomes a facilitator for not only thinking about the world but also the development of language in which such thought can take place.
Like the island, the Fata Morgana‘s separation from a physical reality, not only allows it to exist within a space unencumbered by the functions of the real world but to question and present alternatives to those very parameters. In Dreaming of Fata Morgana, Dyhin invites us to consider alternative spaces in which the world as we know it is inverted, replicated, distorted and perhaps even made anew.
1. Stephanos Stephanides and Susan Bassnett, ‘Islands, Literature, and cultural Translatability’, Transtext (e)s, 2008, p. 8
3. Lisa Fletcher, ‘…some distance to go’: A Critical Review of Island Studies’, New Literatures Review, 2011, p 19
Megan Robson is the Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. She graduated from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South...