DISTRACTION IS THE MOTHER TONGUE: Clare Longley, ‘Garden series with boundaries’, ReadingRoom [April 2020]

A response to Clare Longley’s exhibition ‘Garden series with boundaries’ at ReadingRoom, Melbourne, 14 February to 7 March 2020.



By Hester Lyon


There is a rambling garden in four paths. They allude towards alignment. If you traced each of these paths outward, they would incrementally diverge. Tread each path to provoke the limitations of referentiality.


To repeat an action varies greatly from the act of repeating a phrase in your mind. To walk the path, you have something to hold onto – a rose, a thorn, an arrow. To turn a phrase, you rely on your tongue against the roof of your mouth and your thoughts move to the extent that your tongue twists.


You can do both simultaneously.


Follow a path into distraction. Distraction is now the mother tongue.



Path 1

Expressive actors (2019)


The apocalypse has leaned in for a kiss. X turns her head offering her cheek. A tongue hits her flesh, momentarily akin. The effusive and offensive tongue. A muscle strong enough to draw you in but not long enough to entangle. The tongue is malleable to the extent that it learns to speak and brittle to the extent that it refuses to shout.


To be malleable as a material, metal or otherwise, is to be able to be hammered or pressed into shape without breaking. It is important to know the extent to which you will bend without breaking. When something is malleable it relies on the structures around it to maintain its volume as it changes. To be brittle is to be hard but liable to breaking easily.


Your vocabulary is malleable once propagated.


“Cut away the dead wood first — it will help you ‘see’ the shape of the plant without distraction.” [1]


X surveys the garden bed. There is a dracaena trofasciata over there, commonly seen in bedrooms, elsewhere. It is the snake plant, the mother in law’s tongue. It doesn’t belong in this soil but grows in these boundaries after years of forced propagation. Historically, the dracaena trofasciata’s plant fibres make bowstrings. X thought it simply mended energies. A wellbeing artillery.


The nexus of logic and illusion is a tightly drawn bow pointed at a moving target.


The mother tongue is the first language learnt from within your family, rather than at school or in adulthood. It is a carefully woven dependency. The mother tongue becomes your own tongue at some point, perhaps when you learn to spit and swill ideas for yourself. An orphaned bulb.


When one can no longer feel or express through speech or sight or smell they must lick. To pass the tongue over the surface of gravel or grass or the stem of an arrow is the choice. It is then you discover the limits of your own enquiry.



Path 2

Landscaping or, love languages (2019-2020)


X fires a bow and arrow at a distant rose. X misses the flowerbed.

The archer’s paradox denotes the phenomenon of the arrow consistently bending in accordance with the direction it was pointed when fully drawn. To bend is to shape or force something straight into a curve or angle


The arrow has pierced the grass in a crack between old pavers. The soil is so drought ridden that the arrow is lodged. X fingers the nock and fletching, bending the arrow back on itself. The fletching feels synthetic like the back of a rose petal.


This path has been walked before, in your mind. But now it has an arrow in its side. One circumnavigates the arrow with the twist of a tongue. A dependency on vocabulary can be overcome by nonsensical meandering.


The bow is the arrows’ parent. But it cannot be propagated.

The bow is a crutch.

The bow is a compass.


The stem of a rose is the rose’s parent.

The stem of a rose is a crutch.

The stem of a rose is a compass.


“Left unpruned, the unnecessary branches will suck up all the energy that should have been directed towards flowering and fruit production.”[2]



Path 3

By/from C.H.L x (2019/2020)


X moves with enthusiasm towards a path that leads inwards. Resembling a bullseye of concentric circles, the maze is at once flat and deep.


To be enthusiastic one often knows what they are forging towards.


To be blind with enthusiasm denotes an enthusiasm not tempered by any sense of realism or practicality. The phrases suggestive futility positions usefulness as the only rational framework through which to navigate reality. Instead it blinds us to the possibility of futility as a state of comfort.


When a plant is said to be blind it means it is without buds, eyes or terminal flowers, often because it has been sewn too shallow in the soil. A blind shoot will grow and grow and never produce a flower. Taunting and tricking the eye, an illusion of growth and sincerity.


“Don’t be discouraged by any failures.”[3]


To close one’s eyes is to give in to exhaustion. To escape the pursuit of productivity and welcome the possibility of not seeing and instead feeling.


X burrows a rose stem into the soil. The flower sits just visible, cradled in dirt. The stem stands with the pressure and warmth of the soil. If and when the bulb is thrust by the wind, X visualises each thorn encased by the earth. A love letter to possibility.


If we close our eyes, we are unable to escape the labyrinth unaffected.



Path 4

In which the subject artfully arranges her flowers (2019-2020)


X takes a rose from her bouquet and throws it at a moving target. There is a lattice of dependent and entangled sentimentalities between the rose, the garden and the path. But the path between these gestures’ changes depending on the look in your eye.


No matter how far you prune the roses you cannot restore the natives. Your tongue has doubled back on itself. Your tongue is now the distant cousin of your mother’s.


To propagate is to multiply a parent, involving a shoot into a pre-determined relationship. To send it down a path. You must cut below the terminal bud.


The act of repeating a word until it is indiscernible from its precursor is called semantic satiation. There is a comfort denoted here. That to repeat is to search for and find some kind of satisfaction. To be satiated by language through the act of multiple occurrences feels at odds with our rampant attempts to categorise. Curiosity is often positioned as an attempt to know more in an attempt to find an answer. Semantic satiation suggests that the more indiscernible a word becomes, the more satisfied we feel. There are choices to be made on the path to satiation. To gorge. To take the edge off. To fuel.


There is a uselessness in this act that forces us to focus not on the content of the word or symbol or visual but on the act of process.


Rose, rose, rose, rose, rose, becomes, becomes, becomes, becomes, becomes, arrow, arrow, arrow, arrow, arrow, path, path, path, path, path.


“Ensure you are drenching the soil, not just the tops of the leaves.”[4]


To repeat a word is to turn the soil and drain your mind.




[1] Laura Barry, ‘Common gardening mistakes everyone makes’, Better Homes and Gardens. September 4, 2018. https://www.bhg.com.au/common-gardening-mistakes?category=landscape_design_ideas

[2] ‘Tips for pruning roses’, Better Homes and Gardens. March 2, 2018. https://www.bhg.com.au/tips-for-pruning-roses

[3] Jane Pine, ‘5 secrets every green thumb knows’, Better Homes and Gardens. July 11, 2018.  https://www.bhg.com.au/5-secrets-every-green-thumb-knows?category=Garden

[4] Laura Barry, ‘Common gardening mistakes everyone makes’, Better Homes and Gardens. September 4, 2018. https://www.bhg.com.au/common-gardening-mistakes?category=landscape_design_ideas


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