Review: ‘En Plein Air’ photographs by Siri Hayes at Gallerysmith, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 12th March – April 18th 2009


Siri Hayes. 'Gunnai man land' 2008


Siri Hayes
‘Gunnai man land’


“I have predominantly focused on the parts of the Gippsland landscape that have been impacted by white settlement. I have composed various human interactions that are sometimes associated with Western art and its construction. For example, ‘Moe Madonna’ references Raphael’s ‘Goldfinch Madonna’. The narratives are intentionally odd and incongruous with the surrounding location. My son and I seem out-of-place in a barren paddock while the autumn mist shrouds distant gum trees and electricity pylons. The soil here has been compacted beyond repair by cattle hooves – an inappropriate animal in Australia’s delicate ecosystems. As we sit on this barren plain, I read to Oliver from a European pre-schooler book titled ‘Autumn’, creating an interesting juxtaposition with the antipodean equivalent season.

The work in this exhibition considers the pre-colonial Gippsland landscape and how industrial ‘progress’ has altered it. Hopefully it provides pause for thought.”

Siri Hayes exhibition notes. March 2009


Siri Hayes. 'Moe Madonna' 2008


Siri Hayes
‘Moe Madonna’


Siri Hayes. 'Kite' 2008


Siri Hayes


A handsome group of large photographs in crisp white frames is displayed in the large space of Gallerysmith, Melbourne. Undoubtably they are well taken and printed photographs but conceptually their thematic development is confused. The photographs purport to investigate how industrialisation has changed the Gippsland landscape since colonisation whilst referencing human interactions that ‘are sometimes’ associated with Western art.

‘Gunnai land man’ is very effective in this quest juxtaposing as it does an indigenous Australian and fallen tree on a bare track with a smoke billowing power station symbolic of the industrialisation of the area looming in the background. Other photographs are less successful. What a man flying a kite has to do with the pre-colonial Gippsland landscape is beyond me and the juxtapositional incongruity sought by the artist simply does not work here despite the presence of the power station on the plains in the distance. The symbology has more to do with Japanese art than it has to do with Western art.


Raphael. 'Madonna of the Goldfinch' 1505-06


‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’


The conceptual narrative of the photograph ‘Moe Madonna’ only partially works as well. The destruction of the landscape has been caused by pastoralisation not industrialisation. In the image that Hayes is referencing the Madonna is front and centre set in an idyllic landscape. In the work by Hayes the incongruity has to be explained, has to be verbalised in text for the association to be didactically made. The interpretation leaves no room for personal reflection and when I looked at this image, the mother and child was so small in the landscape, the placement so obviously constructed that there incongruity turned to disbelief: namely that I simply did not believe the mis en scene being created.

Other narratives are equally confusing. In ‘Paper bag lovers’ (below) I had to ask the gallery director what was going on in the photograph because the bodies where so small in the landscape (in fact it looks like one body) and you can’t really see the paper bags on their heads because the bodies are just an amorphous mass containing no detail at all (you can just see the body in the photograph below in the mid distance just below the large central tree). Why paper bags anyway? If something intentionally odd and incongruous is sought to be portrayed in the landscape perhaps Hayes should look at the work of Eugene Meatyard to see a real subversion of the body/landscape dichotomy.


Siri Hayes. 'Paper Bag Lovers' 2008


Siri Hayes
‘Paper Bag Lovers’


Eugene Meatyard. 'Lucybelle Crater & her 15-year-old son's friend, Lucybelle Crater' 1970-1


Eugene Meatyard
‘Lucybelle Crater & her 15-year-old son’s friend, Lucybelle Crater’


 The one standout photograph of the exhibition is ‘Plein air explorers’ (below). This is confirmed in the sales of the show as all six prints of this photograph have been sold. One can see why!

The title is perfect, the construction of the image faultless. The naked white man stands proudly surveying his conquered domain, the land, whilst around him artists (reminding me of the dilettantes of the Victorian age going on day trips), hunker down into the ground with their easels oblivious to the desiccated trees around them. Here the photographer just observes, doesn’t construct, the incongruity of it all. The artists draw the white man based on direct observation of him and not on their conceptions or conventional images or memories of him while ignoring their surroundings. Here is the paradox, the ironic perfect storm that the artist was conceptually seeking: the representation of landscape based upon direct observation “in the open air” ignored for a perfect white arse while on the horizon smoke stacks of a power station stand in silent witness to the present and imminent destruction of the world. What a photograph! Can I have one now please?

M Bunyan


Siri Hayes. 'Plein air explorers' 2008


Siri Hayes
‘Plein air explorers’




170-174 Abbotsford St, 
North Melbourne, 
Victoria, 3051

Opening hours: 
Thursday and Friday 11-6 
Saturday 11-4

Gallerysmith website

Siri Hayes website

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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.

April 2009
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