Review: ‘The Paper’ by Rosemary Laing at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 5th April 2014 – 3rd May 2014


Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Monday' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Monday
C Type photograph
110 x 214cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne



I always look forward to new work by the incomparable Rosemary Laing with great anticipation. I have never been disappointed. This magnificent group of five images is no exception, one of the photographic highlights so far this year in Melbourne.

These large, Type-C analogue landscape format photographs feature decomposing newspapers literally (being words) carpeting the forest floor. These site-specific interventions feature no digital manipulation and, as the erudite catalogue essay by George Alexander observes below, investigate the replacement of our daily newspaper by online information bytes, “the graphic graphic newsprint breaking down like typographic stew,” the “transmigration of matter from one form to another,” “a meditation on time,” recycling, deforestation, information overload. These concepts build on earlier fragments from work by the artist (such as groundspeed2001) into something transformational, transnational and, even, otherworldly.

These entropic panoramas, which hang mysteriously between words and worlds, are indeed meditations on time and space. As Annette Hughes states,

“Laing’s pictorial space, like that of cinema, is generally art-directed, constructed, rehearsed, performed and shot in physical time and space, and though it could easily be Photoshopped these days, that’s not the point. The art object is only the end product of the making of these images. Being able to see the many human hours devoted to their execution is also a way of building duration back into the photograph.”1

Here’s my tuppence worth on Laing’s new work.

This suite of photographs has a panoramic immersiveness. The viewer feels as though time has stood still when looking at these photographs, where the newspapers are analogous to snow upon the ground, imparting something of a dream-like existence to the images. There is a talismanic quality to the images, like a standing stone circle that is believed to have magic powers and cause good things to happen. And they are full of symbols, such as arrows, to mark the way (see The Paper, Wednesday, earlier, 2013, below).

These are not unquiet images, suspended midway between fantasy and reality, but (un)quiet images – a subtle but pivotal difference. They possess the quietness of the forest but also the isolation and loneliness. They are based on a harmonic instability, like a minor chord at the beginning of a Beethoven symphony, which is then eventually resolved in the major. These images are the journey of that resolution. The words, the flesh of the textural body, has been pulped: that immersive instability of the fecund body laying down in the soil of mother earth.

The viewer is disorientated. We have no idea where we are, the paper (the word and world) creating for the body this foggy, dream-like atmosphere. As in all of Laing’s work, there is an inquiring instability here, one that seeks the resolution of stability through the love of the human body and of our existence. I stand still before them.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Hughes, Annette. “ABIGAIL SOLOMON-GODEAU Rosemary Laing,” Review on The Newtown Review of Books website 3th July 2012 [Online] Cited 27th April 2014. No longer available online

Many thankx to Tolarno Galleries for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Tuesday' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Tuesday
C Type photograph
110 x 209cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne


Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Wednesday, earlier' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Wednesday, earlier
C Type photograph
110 x 203cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne



Rosemary Laing

The Paper

A forest is carpeted with truckloads of newspapers. A cacophony of printed voices layers the soil horizon of the ground. The former surface litter of loose and partly decayed organic matter is overlaid with pulped tree product. The 21st century cultural carpet of current events and mercenary babble is already time-lined by weathering, which is fast-tracking the decomposition of the worded pages. The graphic of newsprint is breaking down like typographic stew, falling apart like old lacework, dissolving like paint – it’s losing its imprint as fallen branches and leaves scatter over it. It seems to expect that over time it will disappear beneath what comes after, what fresh coats some future century will lay over it.

For this undertaking, Rosemary Laing located her activity among the woodlands of Bundanon, a casuarina forest peppered with eucalyptus and Burrawang. Located in the Shoalhaven of southern New South Wales, the site was originally the land of the Wodi Wodi people of the Yuin nation. Layered with subsequent occupations since the early 19th century, in 1993 the properties were gifted by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd and became the Bundanon Trust – a place for artists of all disciplines to work and a place for all people to draw inspiration.

Two unique opportunities here were made possible by the Trust to Rosemary Laing. The opportunity to develop and consider her actions unhindered by a time frame; together with access to the Bundanon collection of the influential gnarled ceramics that Arthur’s father Merric Boyd (1888-1959) made with their blue and green underglazes and swaying lines of treescapes on clay.

As it happened, while making this work, the place was inundated with floodwaters. Natural disaster has often enclosed her work, as in swanfires (2002-2004), with its incinerated sheds and buildings, following bushfires in the Sussex Inlet area – also part of the Shoalhaven. Destruction sculpts and re-sculpts the world, and Laing joins the material cycle, the perpetual transmigration of matter from one form to another. A “terrible beauty”, as a friend remarked.

This series is called The Paper, for the daily newspaper – our long time companion and a primary fix for information of the world – that is swiftly being superseded by the new material technologies of our times. If the overwhelming flood of data and culture and spin is hitting us with some 500,000 discrete bits of information at any time, then we may be faced with inabilities to absorb that Total Noise. We probably missed the 25 bits that were important. The latest innovations of the Infosphere replay confections of overstimulation and boredom, sugar-hits of overload followed by emotional numbness.

Yet the covering of the ground that we saw in 2001 with groundspeed – not far geographically from this site – isn’t the same as here in the series The Paper. The point of loungeroom carpets in groundspeed was as an index of the latecomer’s sense of belonging. A kind of comfort zone for the non-indigenous, bridging old world and new. The carpeting this time – as she writes in her notes – “seems to be composting the present as a past about to happen; taking a once-upon- a-time not-that-long-ago standard as the ground-amendment-of- tomorrow already.” It is, among other things, a meditation on time.

Every new presentation of Laing’s work is also a running commentary on her previous corpus of work. The Paper explores themes touched upon in – Natural Disasters (1988), groundspeed (2001) with its patterned loungeroom carpets out in the ‘wild’ and in 2006, weather with its cyclone of newspaper shreds – while constantly replenishing what had remained surplus to that work. And this compost of earlier fragments, that are dismembered and scattered and gathered again, expands her material formation on this site.

From top to bottom the planet is being transfigured. Something essential is changing now and forever. The “global” has become everyone’s “local”. The human race is going through things it has never experienced before – as we are forced to join the caravan of this moment in time.

Hellish or heavenly? Promised Land or Wasteland? Take your pick. You do get the sense – with the dramatic shiny green of the ancient Burrrawang palms scattered about – of human impermanence against the bedrock temporal dimensions of the primitive Gondawan rainforest margins. As anyone who has spent time slogging through genuine bushland, and sensing the century’s long pulse of trees: we’ve fallen out of tune with the eternal present of the animal world, we’ve fallen into Time with its past and future, the chopped-up time of daily newspapers.

Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones … wrote Shakespeare (As You Like It, 2.1). The quote recalls the medieval idea of the Book of Nature that we are here to read, whose infinite pages unfold enormous landscapes: some see good, some evil, some both, some neither. Laing’s art takes root in a fissure, in that crack in the covenant between word and world, and the historical moment is right: we are in the age of the “trans-book” with the rise of the Kindle and iGoogle, and with it the end of newspapers, the demise of print and the retrenchment of journalists.

So as you enter the space, walk around the room with the suite of images – named for the days of the week – there’s an entropic feel with their grubby matte and muted beauty. Underfoot, things fall apart, the riggings of the page disintegrate into tissue, print naturalises into leaf mould, and words on paper are composted back into wood pulp and waste slurry. Accordingly, to make the images this time around, she put her dalliances with digital cameras and print-output machines aside, in favour of analogue, for all the lovely limitations and imperfections of light on cellulose triacetate, and the physical shadings of Laing’s printer in the darkroom.

The curving earth is a body, and these lacework landscapes show off the marks of ageing. The woods are a damp chamber, with a thick carpet of newspapers, and many doors open to the wind and faraway light. The images enclose you in brushwork of soft jade while the soggy colours of disintegration make time tangible.

There’s nothing said about the world here (recycling, deforestation, information overload) that you couldn’t find more reliably elsewhere. It’s rather Laing’s process of invention, through the hinterlands of her material imagination, that communicates her unexpected vision, tells her story of an imagined afterwards of along-the-way. There’s a stand of trees in these pictures still growing inside the shellacking and composting of our times.

George Alexander
September 2013

Published with permission


Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Wednesday' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Wednesday
C Type photograph
110 x 197.5cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne


Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Thursday' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Thursday
C Type photograph
110 x 207cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne


Rosemary Laing. 'The Paper, Friday' 2013


Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
The Paper, Friday
C Type photograph
110 x 196.3cm
Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne



Tolarno Galleries
Level 4
104 Exhibition Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Phone: 61 3 9654 6000

Opening hours:
Tue – Fri 10am – 5pm
Sat 1pm – 4pm

Tolarno Galleries website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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