26
Jan
13

Exhibition: ‘Flatlands: photography and everyday space’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney

Exhibition dates: 13th September 2012 – 3rd February 2013

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This posting contains one of my favourite early works by Fiona Hall, Leura, New South Wales (1974, below) which is redolent of all the themes that would be expressed in the later work – an alien landscape that examines “the relationship between humankind and nature and the symbolic role of the [fecund] garden in western iconography.” In her work the “nature” of things (plants, money, videotape, plumbing fittings, birds nests, etc…) are re/classified, re/ordered and re/labelled.

Another stunning photograph in this posting is Minor White’s Windowsill daydreaming (1958, below). It is one of my favourite images of all time: because of the power of observation (to be able to recognise, capture and present such a manifestation!); because of the images formal beauty; and because of its metaphysical nature – a poetry full of esoteric allusions, one that addresses a very profound subject matter that is usually beyond ordinary knowledge or understanding. This alien presence, like the structure of an atom, is something that lives beyond the edges of our consciousness, some presence that hovers there, that we can feel and know yet can never see. Is it our shadow, our anima or animus? This is one of those rare photographs that will always haunt me.

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Many thankx to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All text accompanying photographs © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007.

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Cecil Bostock (Australia 1884–1939) 'Phenomena' c. 1938

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Cecil Bostock Australia 1884-1939
Phenomena
c. 1938
gelatin silver photograph
26.3 x 30.5cm
Gift of Max Dupain 1980

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Bostock remains an enigmatic personality in Australian pictorial and early modernist photography. This is at least in part due to his body of work being scattered on his death in 1939 as it was auctioned to cover his debts. Fortunately Phenomena was left to his former assistant Max Dupain who had worked with him from 1930 to 1933.

Phenomena was one of 11 photographs Bostock exhibited with the Contemporary Camera Groupe and it was placed in the window at David Jones along with other photographs such as Plum blossom 1937 by Olive Cotton and Mechanisation of art by Laurence Le Guay. Phenomena is a wonderful modernist work with its plays of light and dark and disorienting shapes and curving lines. It is impossible to tell exactly how the shapes are made or where the light is coming from, nor what the objects are. It could easily be exhibited upside down where the viewer could be looking down on objects arranged on a flat surface. Phenomena is a tribute to Bostock’s restless, inventive and exacting abilities.

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Fiona Hall. 'Leura, New South Wales' 1974

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Fiona Hall Australia b.1953
Leura, New South Wales
1974
Gelatin silver photograph
27.8cm x 27.8cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney purchased 1981
© Fiona Hall

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The rich tones and fine detail of Leura, New South Wales were made possible by Hall’s use of a large-format nineteenth-century view camera. The antiquated technology, once used by colonial photographers to document nature and the taming of the Australian landscape, here records instead the verdant foliage of a floral-patterned couch and carpet. Made at the beginning of Hall’s career, it demonstrates her burgeoning interest in the representation of nature. The relationship between humankind and nature and the symbolic role of the garden in western iconography has since been a recurrent theme in her work, which ranges across photography, sculpture and installation. Leura… differs from Hall’s other photographs in that it documents a “found” object. Hall’s later works, such as The Antipodean suite 1981 and her large-format polaroids of 1985, are of her own constructions and sculptures. Her Paradisus terrestris series 1989-90, 1996, 1999, of aluminium repousse sculptures takes the garden of Eden as its subject and treats it as an Enlightenment florilegium, wherein nature is classified, ordered and labelled. This kind of botanical transcription, like photography, was the process through which the alien Australian landscape was ‘naturalised’ by its colonists – a process which Hall wryly comments on in this acutely observed encounter within a domestic interior.

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David Moore. 'Light pattern, camera in motion' c. 1948, printed 1997

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David Moore Australia 1927 – 2003
Light pattern, camera in motion
c. 1948, printed 1997
Gelatin silver photograph
50.7cm x 40.3cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Gift of Karen, Lisa, Michael and Matthew Moore, 2004

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Simryn Gill. From 'A long time between drinks' 2005

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Simryn Gill Singapore/Malaysia/Australia b.1959
From A long time between drinks
2005
Portfolio of 13 offset prints
29.8cm x 29.7cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
© Simryn Gill

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Among Simryn Gill’s multi-disciplinary explorations of identity and belonging, investigations of suburban locations carry a particular resonance due to their often autobiographical nature. A long time between drinks 2009 is an intensely focused look at suburban Adelaide which was the artist’s first experience of Australia when she arrived in 1987 from Kuala Lumpur, and the city where she first exhibited. Gill returned to Adelaide in 2005 to revisit this early point of contact, producing an evocative series of 13 images.

The photographs impart an ostensible sense of alienation and isolation that corresponds to the artist’s position as an outsider looking in. Gill’s viewpoint of these empty streets that seem to lead nowhere is forensic and detached. But surprisingly, as repetitious compositions and details culminate across the photographs, the prosaic subject matter becomes increasingly surreal, abstract and even poetic.

As Sambrani Chaitanya has stated, “Gill’s work is an investigation of the limits of categorisation,”1 and this group of works, just as in Gill’s examination of Marrickville (where she now lives) in May 2006, emphasises the difficulty of defining an idea of place through mere description. Memory, time and pure invention are required to fill in the gaps. The eerie, yet evocative environment in these photographic prints is further enhanced by their presentation in a square box emulating those of sets of vinyl LP recordings.

1. Sambrani, C “Other realties, someone else’s fictions: the tangled art of Simryn Gill,” [Online], Art and Australia Vol.42, No.2, Summer 2004, p.220/

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David Stephenson USA/Australia b1955 'Sant’ivo alla Sapienza 1645-50 Rome, Italy' 1997

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David Stephenson USA/Australia b.1955
Sant’ivo alla Sapienza 1645-50 Rome, Italy
1997
From the series Domes 1993-2005
Type C photograph
55 × 55 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney purchased with funds provided by Joanna Capon and the Photography Collection Benefactors Program 2002
© David Stephenson

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With poetic symmetry the Domes series considers analogous ideas. It is a body of work which has been ongoing since 1993 and now numbers several hundred images of domes in countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, England, Germany and Russia. The typological character of the series reveals the shifting history in architectural design, geometry and space across cultures and time, demonstrating how humankind has continually sought meaning by building ornate structures which reference a sacred realm.2 Stephenson photographs the oculus – the eye in the centre of each cupola. Regardless of religion, time or place, this entry to the heavens – each with unique architectural and decorative surround – is presented as an immaculate and enduring image. Placed together, the photographs impart the infinite variations of a single obsession, while also charting the passage of history, and time immemorial.

2. Hammond V 2005, “The dome in European architecture,” in Stephenson D 2005, Visions of heaven: the dome in European architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York p.190

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“A new exhibition, Flatlands: photography and everyday space, examines photography’s role in transforming the way we perceive, organise and imagine the world. The 39 works by 23 Australian and international artists included in the exhibition have been drawn from the Gallery’s permanent collection of 20th century and contemporary photography.

Definitions of space have always depended on the scientific, social and cultural aspects of the human experience. At its birth in the 19th century, photography’s monocular vision was seen as the ultimate tool for representation and classification. Elusive phenomena such as distance, depth and emptiness seemed within grasp. Yet, limited to freezing single moments or viewpoints in time, the photograph’s ability to objectively represent the world was under question by the turn of the 20th century. Technological advancements, such as faster exposure times transformed the potential of the medium to not only show things that escaped the eye but new ways of seeing them as well.

Embracing partiality and ambivalence, modernist photography sought to capture the fragments, details and blurred boundaries in the expanses we call personal space. What the photograph began to reveal were dimensions which German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin described in 1931 as the ‘optical unconscious’ of reality. The works of photographers such as Melvin Vaniman, Frederick Evans, Harold Cazneaux, William Buckle, Franz Roh, Olive Cotton, David Moore, Josef Sudek, Minor White and Robert Rauschenberg explore the intangible in spaces which define our physical and spiritual relationship with reality. Windows, doorways, ceilings, staircases – these mundane and ordinary passageways suddenly acquire a centrality and metaphysical depth normally denied to them.

The edges between sacred and profane, public and private, natural and artificial, real and dreamed environments became further entangled in the subjective visions of late 20th century and contemporary photographic work. For Daido Moriyama, Fiona Hall, Pat Brassington, Simryn Gill, Christine Godden, Geoff Kleem, Leonie Reisberg, Ingeborg Tyssen, David Stephenson and Justine Varga, space is seen to be a product of the perception of the individual. Photographs are able to reveal realms outside of the scientific – that is those created by emotion, memory and desire.

As Fiona Hall commented in 1996, our belief might be maintained, for at least as long as the image can hold our attention, in the possibility of inhabiting a world as illusory as the two-dimensional one of the photograph.” Collectively, these images destabilise naturalised certainties while activating the imaginary dimension and the unsettling, albeit poetic potential of photography to impact and alter our view of the world.”

Press release from the AGNSW website

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Olive Cotton Australia 1911-2003 'By my window' 1930

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Olive Cotton Australia 1911-2003
By my window
1930
Gelatin silver photograph
20.3 x 15.1cm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors’ Program 2006

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Olive Cotton. 'Skeleton Leaf' 1964

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Olive Cotton Australia 1911-2003
Skeleton Leaf
1964
Gelatin silver photograph
24.7 × 19.6 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors’ Program 2006
© artist’s estate

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Minor White America 1908-1976 'Christmas ornament, Batavia, New York, January 1958' 1958

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Minor White America 1908-1976
Christmas ornament, Batavia, New York, January 1958
1958
From the portfolio Sound of one hand 1960-1965
Gelatin silver photograph mounted on card
Gift of Patsy Asch 2005
Reproduction with permission of the Minor White Archive
© Princeton University Art Museum

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Minor White. 'Windowsill daydreaming' 1958

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Minor White American 1908-1976
Windowsill daydreaming
Rochester, New York, July 1958
From the portfolio Sound of one hand 1960-1965
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Reproduction with permission of the Minor White Archive
© Princeton University Museum of Art

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Informed by the esoteric arts, eastern religion and philosophy, Minor White’s belief in the spiritual qualities of photography made him an intensely personal and enigmatic teacher, editor and curator. White’s initial experience with photography was through his botanical studies at the University of Minnesota where he learned to develop and print photomicrography images, a view of life that he saw as akin to modern art forms. White advocated Stieglitz’s concept of ‘Equivalence’ in which form directly communicated mood and meaning, that ‘darkness and light, objects and spaces, carry spiritual as well as material meanings’.1 White disseminated his photographic theories through the influential quarterly journal ‘Aperture’, which he edited and co-founded with his contemporaries Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Beaumont Newhall and others.

Like Stieglitz, White also worked in sequences that through abstraction, expression and metaphor emphasised his mystical interpretation of the visual world. The sequences allow for a dialogue to continue through and in-between the images, engaging the viewer in a visual poem rather than any strict or formal narrative. The series, Sound of one hand, exemplifies White’s study of Zen and esoteric philosophies, reflecting his meditation of the Zen koan from which he saw rather than heard any sound. The first of the series, Metal ornament, Pultneyville, New York, October 1957 presents an abstracted form that is both sensual and elusive, slipping in and out of ocular register. The ambiguous graduated tones and reflected light pull the eye into the centre of the image before vicariously dragging it back. This broken semi-elliptical shape is mirrored in Windowsill daydreaming, Rochester, New York, July 1958 as the gently moving curtains play with the light and shadows of White’s flat, creating abstracted organic forms. Abstracted forms of nature were of great interest to White as can be seen in the rest of the series that capture the frosted window of his flat with its crystallised ice, condensation and glimpses of the outside world.

1. Rice S 1998, “Beyond reality,” in A new history of photography, ed M Frizot, Könemann, Cologne pp.669-73

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Art Gallery Road, The Domain
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

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except Christmas Day and Good Friday

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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