29
Apr
15

Review: ‘Earth Matters: contemporary photographers in the landscape’ at the Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 6th March – 3rd May 2015

 

The term “landscape” can be ambiguous and is often used to describe a creative interpretation of the land by an artist and the terrain itself. But there is a clear distinction: the land is shaped by natural forces while the artist’s act of framing a piece of external reality involves exerting creative control. The terms of this ‘control’ have be theorised since the Renaissance and, while representations of nature have changed over the centuries, a landscape is essentially a mediated view of nature.”

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Dr Isobel Crombie. Stormy Weather. Contemporary Landscape Photography (exhibition catalogue). Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2010, p. 15.

 

 

What’s the story!

I wish I could say that this is a marvelous, magical exhibition, that it has value in its being in the world… but I can’t. The exhibition is very disappointing, dispiriting even. If this is the current state of contemporary photographers working in the landscape in Australia, then the Earth is in deep trouble (as if we didn’t know it already).

A large part of the exhibition is given over to the work of the ND5 photographic collective. I am not going to name the photographers here since most of the exhibited work does not contain specific names (unlike this posting). The work has been culled (an appropriate word given the theme of the exhibition) from numerous bodies of work spanning the years 2010-2013. Pairs of photographs have been renamed with poetic titles such as The lie of the land and The walls of the world with seemingly scant regard for the origins and stories of the photographs from their respective series, and then cobbled together in this present form under the banal title Investigations (2010-13). This process pays no heed to the original conceptualisation of each series and the concerns of the collective at that time they were made and here this produces a display that has little rhyme or reason. Text quotations (see below) try to remedy the situation to little avail.

Further, if you think of those lush coffee table books – “Australia from the air” or “The wonders of the Great Barrier Reef” then you get the picture. Technically, the work is superb but aesthetically and emotionally these images are invariably dead (perhaps that is the irony – I looked for irony but it was sadly lacking). The collective say that they are fascinated – in the broadest sense – by places and opposites:
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“We are fascinated in the broadest sense by places like the Pilbara, including our ignorance and insensitivity to them. We are not ‘in the Pilbara’ in the way that scientists collect and identify it. Rather, we are collecting what can’t be seen; evidence of our uncertainty, interaction, wanderings and pondering…

We were drawn to its boundaries and edges; between solid and liquid, weight and weightlessness, hot and cool, dry and wet, between ourselves and the rest of the world, and that line of habitation that encrusts, indeed misrepresents our nation … The problem is how we index, moralise and politicise land use, rather than appropriating or projecting country as an aesthetic object.”

ND5. “The Pilbara Project – Photographers’ Cut” 2011

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Firstly, the opposites thing is such an easy way out; and secondly, as Isobel Crombie notes in the quotation at the top of the posting, any artist’s view of the landscape is always a mediated view of nature. Through their lurid, hyperreal photographs of the land these photographs do exactly what this collective said they didn’t want to do… appropriate and project country as an aesthetic object. Here the pastiche is the real.

The group also seems to want to have AGENCY in both its meanings – as in photographic agency (a business or organization providing a particular service on behalf of another business, person, or group); or an action or intervention producing a particular effect. What the collective is doing, in the broadest sense (for that is what they are working with), is creating an ideology of the landscape. And it’s not an ideology that I buy into.

You could propose that a couple of the photographs build an argument around the conceit / concept of the sublime – to question whether it can be undermined through irony (the impression of multiple light sources in Stirling Ranges, 2013, below), or to question whether it actually belongs on the surface of the earth (the dust-storm, In my Garden, 2012, below), where it can only be viewed as if the lens is detached from the surface of the earth. But this is drawing a long bow when these are viewed in the context of the rest of the work.

It is worth quoting Joan Fontcuberta extensively here for he, much more eloquently than I, names this work for what it is:
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“Arthus-Bertrand is a highly experienced and highly regarded professional who has taken more than 100,000 aerial shots, covering almost the entire surface of the globe [author of Earth from Above – “as magnificent a coffee-table book as you could hope to find, whose successive reprints have sold in astronomical numbers”]. There is no doubt as to the quality of his work, on the contrary, we can only celebrate the fact that he and his team at the specialised agency Altitude continue to be so prolific and so creative. But his popular and commercial impact and the eagerness of the cultural institutions to clasp him to their bosoms prompt reflections that go to the very heart of documentary photography and its current crisis.

When paparazzi and the celebrity/human interest-genre reign supreme, serious photo reportage gives way to mere illustration, to the aestheticisation of the world and the masking of conflicts rendered insignificant by distance. Something is wrong when readers can say, ‘How picturesque the favelas are, with those bright colours! What wonderful colours these polluted rivers have!’ Bretch said photographic realism bounces of the façade of things: a photo of the Krupp factories shows us smokestacks and sheds, but tells us nothing about the relations of exploitation inside them. What was needed to refute him were photographers with the talent and the guts to demonstrate that it was a matter of critical sense and eloquence, that photography was a language which really could penetrate the camouflaging surfaces of the real.”

Joan Fontcuberta. “Cosmic Palimpsests,” in Joan Fontcuberta. Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy after Photography. Mack, 2014, pp. 156-157.

 

That photography was a language which really could penetrate the camouflaging surfaces of the real. In this case the wonderful, hyperreal, saturated colours of the polluted rivers – that really hits the nail on the head.

If, as the collective says, “they want to examine its particular confluxes of culture, industry, environment and history in order to begin to craft a stronger vision for its future” (The Pilbara Project – 2010) then they need to be more concerned about what is present in the landscape, what is present in the community not from several emotional steps removed. You only have to look at the work of Edward Burtynsky and his Australian Minescape series to understand that in his series the photographs are all made in a way, and with a concern that goes beyond technical competence and cinematic craft – something that can rarely be said of the work presented by ND5.

Personally, I believe one of the main reasons for being an artist is to seek to redefine the sets of opposites that we find, to excavate… to pull away the mundane description of things. And in my opinion, if you really LOOK AT THIS WORK – and that’s seems to be a simple thing to ask an artist to do, to really look at their own work – then you have to ask yourself ‘Why would I want to look at this?’ There is no story, no pulling away of the veil, for these are boring images cloaked, as Fontcuberta says, in the colours of polluted rivers, in the camouflaging surfaces of the hyperreal. Perhaps these contemporary “picturesque” images are the modern form of the end of Pictorialism?

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The lack of a story continues to haunt the rest of the exhibition as well. If we address the title Earth Matters in both its forms – that Earth really does matter to us; and that Earth matters (as in we are all made up of atoms and that matter commonly exists in four states (or phases): solid, liquid and gas, and plasma) then the work can relate to the body, place, landscape, etc… what an opportunity!

The usually reliable Rosemary Laing provides a dirge-like image that took me nowhere. Siri Hayes supplies a wonderful, ironic image (Wanderer in a sea of images 2013, below) with chopped down trees in a grand vista, a person taking a photograph of a person taking a photograph with belching power stations in the background – and then prints it at a massive scale which over stretches the boundaries of the technical possibilities of the negative. At a distance it just about holds up, but as can be seen from the closeup below (click on it for the large version) the image is blurred and distorted when printed at this huge scale. Photographs have a correct proportion to their significance as an image which is completely destroyed here.

David Tatnall exposes black and white pinhole images of the landscape which really didn’t do much for me, especially with an extraneous blurred human figure that really meant very little in the context of the images, while Harry Nankin’s work fails to convince. His creatures crawling over photo-senstised plates of glass and then displayed on a light box left me cold – and yet another artist where you had to look up the meaning of the title / word ekkyklêma to try and understand the story being told. Christian Bumbarra Thompson supplies an image that means nothing to the uninitiated (another story that can only be guessed at – there is no text to explain), while Anne Ferran’s beautiful, luminous ink-jet print’s on aluminium, Untitled (2008) are just that – beautiful and luminous – unless you know the backstory which is nowhere explained in the gallery. (The photographs are “more than a decade’s exploration of a piece of ground on the outskirts of the small village of Ross in central Tasmania. Today little remains of its past as a female convict prison, apart from some mounds of earth and scattered stones. Her photographs and video works about this site reflect the ongoing difficulty of grasping and making sense of a ruined and fragmented past.”)

And last but not least, to the star of the show: Silvi Glattauer’s series Sanctuary (2014, below). OMG, these are gorgeous!

Beautiful photogravure prints on cotton paper give a wonderful soft tonality to these alien environments. The worlds are like liquid mercury. I did a double take trying to work out what they were for quite a few seconds before I got it. Beautifully composed, quiet, sensitive and eloquent these are everything that so much of the rest of the show isn’t. The story is in the macrocosm and the microcosm, the world at our fingertips that we never see, that we are forever destroying. Not the broadest of brush strokes picturesque but getting in and getting your hands dirty, paradoxically revealing cosmic worlds that we usually only dream of. Finally a story worth photographing: some matter that really does matter.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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

 

 

Christian Bumbarra Thompson. 'I'm not going anywhere without you' 2009

 

Christian Bumbarra Thompson
Bidjara man of the Kunja Nation
I’m not going anywhere without you
2009
from the series Lost together
Chromogenic print
100.0 x 99.3 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired 2009
Reproduction courtesy of the artist

 

Installation photograph of 'Earth Matters' at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne

Siri Hayes (born Australia 1977) 'Wanderer in a sea of images' 2013

 

Siri Hayes (born Australia 1977)
Wanderer in a sea of images
2013
Ink-jet print on polyester
220.0 x 280.0 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

 

Siri Hayes’s exquisitely detailed photographs depict picturesque landscapes but landscapes that are also disturbed, perhaps devastated by fire, littered with debris, or cleared of their native vegetation for plantation timber. By using the conventions of classical landscape painting to photograph the contemporary landscape, Hayes draws our attention to environmental themes in this unique, large-scale installation.

 

Siri Hayes (born Australia 1977) 'Wanderer in a sea of images' 2013 (detail)

 

Siri Hayes (born Australia 1977)
Wanderer in a sea of images (detail)
2013
Ink-jet print on polyester
220.0 x 280.0 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

 

Silvi Glattauer (born Argentina 1966; arrived Australia 1974) 'Sanctuary' 2014

 

Silvi Glattauer (born Argentina 1966; arrived Australia 1974)
Sanctuary
2014
Six photogravure prints on cotton paper
27.6 x 27.7 cm (each)
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

 

Silvi Glattauer. 'Sanctuary I' 2014

 

Silvi Glattauer (born Argentina 1966; arrived Australia 1974)
Sanctuary I
2014
Six photogravure prints on cotton paper
27.6 x 27.7 cm (each)
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

 

Silvi Glattauer. 'Sanctuary VI' 2014

 

Silvi Glattauer (born Argentina 1966; arrived Australia 1974)
Sanctuary VI 
2014
Six photogravure prints on cotton paper
27.6 x 27.7 cm (each)
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Rosemary Laing. 'Swanfires, Chris's shed' 2002–04

 

Rosemary Laing
Swanfires, Chris’s shed
2002-04
Chromogenic print
110.0 x 235.5
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired 2011
Reproduction courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

 

Installation photograph of 'Earth Matters' at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne

Installation photograph of 'Earth Matters' at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne

 

Installation photographs of Earth Matters at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne

 

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953) 'Minds in the cave / fragment 2' 2014

 

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953)
Minds in the cave / fragment 2
2014
Pigment ink-jet prints on cotton pape
Collection of the artist

 

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953) 'Ekkyklema #1' 2014 (detail)

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953) 'Ekkyklema #1' 2014 (detail)

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953) 'Ekkyklema #1' 2014 (detail)

 

Harry Nankin (born Australia 1953)
Ekkyklema #1 (installation photographs)
2014
Gelatin silver chemogram films on starfire glass [on lightbox]
0.5 x 14.0 x 14.0 cm (each)
Courtesy of the artist
Collection of the artist
Note: 112 plein air silver gelatin shadowgram and chemogram films on starfire glass panes

 

 

An ekkyklêma (“roll-out machine”) was a wheeled platform rolled out through a skênê in ancient Greek theatre. It was used to bring interior scenes out into the sight of the audience. Some ancient sources suggest that it may have been revolved or turned.

It is mainly used in tragedies for revealing dead bodies, such as Hippolytus’ dying body in the final scene of Euripides’ play of the same name, or the corpse of Eurydice draped over the household altar in Sophocles’ Antigone. Other uses include the revelation in Sophocles’ Ajax of Ajax surrounded by the sheep he killed whilst under the delusion that they were Greeks. The ekkyklêma is also used in comedy to parody the tragic effect. An example of this is in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae when Agathon, portrayed as an effeminate, is wheeled onstage on an ekkyklêma to enhance the comic absurdity of the scene. (Text from Wikipedia)

 

Anne Ferran. 'Untitled' 2008

 

Anne Ferran
Untitled
2008
From the series Lost to worlds
2 ink-jet print on aluminium
120.0 x 120.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired with assistance from the Robert Salzer Foundation 2009
Reproduction courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne)

 

Anne Ferran. 'Untitled' 2008

 

Anne Ferran
Untitled
2008
From the series Lost to worlds
2 ink-jet print on aluminium
120.0 x 120.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired with assistance from the Robert Salzer Foundation 2009
Reproduction courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne)

 

 

Intellectually and emotionally engaging, sometimes austere, her [Ferran’s] photographs have explored histories of incarceration in prisons, asylums, hospitals and nurseries. They play with invisibility and anonymity, and are often haunted by things lost or unseen. Lost to Worlds 2008 was the culmination of more than a decade’s exploration of a piece of ground on the outskirts of the small village of Ross in central Tasmania. Today little remains of its past as a female convict prison, apart from some mounds of earth and scattered stones. Her photographs and video works about this site reflect the ongoing difficulty of grasping and making sense of a ruined and fragmented past.

 

Ninety Degrees Five. 'Earth matters' 2015 installation photograph

Ninety Degrees Five. 'Earth matters' 2015 installation photograph

Ninety Degrees Five. 'Earth matters' 2015 installation photograph

 

Ninety Degrees Five
Earth matters (installation stills)
2015
Multimedia, 10.13 minutes
Filmed and edited: Michael Fletcher
Score: Jo Quail-Sonver Collection of the artists

 

 

Earth matters: contemporary photographers in the landscape is an exhibition developed by MGA for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE; a Melbourne-wide arts festival exploring climate change and environmental ethics. MGA’s contribution to this festival highlights the ecological sensitivity of contemporary Australian photographers. Moving away from the detached ‘picturesque’ views of nature, so prevalent in the history of photography, these artists engage with the earth in immersive and connected ways.

Siri Hayes and Christian Thompson wander into epic vistas to enact comical self-portraits that capture the capricious nature of human presence on this planet. Silvi Glattauer peers into the interiors of bromeliad plants to find fecund microcosms that bubble with humble but hopeful vitality. Rosemary Laing pays tribute to ecological tragedy with a monumental photograph of bushfire devastation, while Anne Ferran ruminates over the tragic scars of colonial history in the landscape. David Tatnall’s eerie photographs have been produced with a rudimentary pinhole camera, embed in the environment to bear witness to the earth’s passing. Harry Nankin does away with the camera and its singular perspective altogether, using raw photographic film to record ecological forces in nocturnal landscapes.

Earth matters features a new installation by the Ninety Degrees Five collective alongside the work of other contemporary landscape photographers including Anne Ferran, Silvi Glattauer, Siri Hayes, Harry Nankin, David Tatnall and Christian Thompson. Ninety Degrees Five (ND5) is a collective of five Australian artists established in 2010, featuring Peter Eastway, Christian Fletcher, Michael Fletcher, Tony Hewitt & Les Walkling.

Text from the MGA website

 

Installation view of various Ninety Degrees Five 'Investigations' 2010-13 at the exhibition 'Earth Matters', Monash Gallery of Art

 

Installation view of Ninety Degrees Five Investigations 2010-13 at the exhibition Earth Matters, Monash Gallery of Art

 

 

 

Ninety Degrees Five
The lie of the land
(Christian Fletcher, left; Les Walkling, right)
2012-13
From the series Investigations 2010-13
Pigment ink-jet prints
Collection of the artists

 

 

Christian Fletcher
From the series South West Light
2012
Pigment ink-jet print (detail)

 

Ninety Degrees Five. 'The walls of the world' 2012-13

 

Ninety Degrees Five
The walls of the world
(Tony Hewitt, left; Peter Eastway, right)
2012-13
From the series Investigations 2010-13
Pigment ink-jet prints
Collection of the artists

 

Tony Hewitt From the series 'Shark Bay Inscription' 2013

 

Tony Hewitt
From the series Shark Bay – Inscription
2013
Pigment ink-jet print (detail)

 

 

About Ninety Degrees Five

“Our work … seeks to encourage and reinforce public concern for the fate of the earth, and our responsibility to act on that awareness.”

Les Walkling

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Ninety Degrees Five (ND5) is a unique collaboration of four photographers, Christian Fletcher, Peter Eastway, Tony Hewitt, Les Walkling and film maker Michael Fletcher.

ND5 initially came together for The Pilbara Project in 2010. The Pilbara Project was developed and produced by FORM, an independent, non-profit cultural organisation in Western Australia. Curated by William L. Fox, the Director of the Center for Art and Environment of the Nevada Museum of Art, and Mollie Hewitt (FORM), the collaboration resulted in the book, The Pilbara Project: Field Notes and Photographs Collected over 2010, and the first Pilbara Project exhibition: 52 Weeks On, in February 2011.

Subsequent ND5 projects, South West Light 2011, Shark Bay – Inscription 2012, EAST 2013 and NORTH 2014 consolidated the collective’s independence and artistic agenda. The result has been ten exhibitions on three continents since 2011. Each exhibition is supported by public performances and events, including broadcast media, workshops, master classes, and artist talks.

Investigations 2010-2013 is ND5’s latest installation that remixes works from the first three ND5 projects (The Pilbara Project, South West Light, and Shark Bay – Inscription) to highlight their transcending artistic projections and cultural concerns. In this sense ND5’s projects are a primary research model for their ongoing Investigations, and thereby demonstrate an engaging, enquiring, and speculative process, not just its resolved and published outcome. This is important because ND5 has also become a case study in what can happen when a group forms from diverse but supportive individuals who are secure enough in their own practice to experiment with it.

This model privileges something of the urgency and necessity surrounding our worryingly fragile relationship to land and landscape, place and belonging, rights and duties, environmental crisis and environmental justice, sovereignty and reconciliation, trust and despair.

Investigations 2010-2013 also extends ND5’s collaborative endeavour through the acknowledgement, quotation and incorporation of other voices no less concerned with such matters, and thereby seeks to promote this conversation beyond individuals and collectives.

ND5

 

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series 'Investigations' 2010-13

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series 'Investigations' 2010-13

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series 'Investigations' 2010-13

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series 'Investigations' 2010-13

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series 'Investigations' 2010-13

 

Text that accompanies the Ninety Degrees Five series Investigations 2010-13

 

Christian Fletcher. 'Stirling Ranges' 2013

 

Christian Fletcher
Stirling Ranges
2013
From the series South West Light
965mm x 2165mm

 

Tony Hewittt. 'Red Coast' 2014

 

Tony Hewittt
Red Coast
2014
From the series Shark Bay – Inscription
965mm x 965mm

 

Peter Eastway. 'South of Faure Island' 2014

 

Peter Eastway
South of Faure Island
2014
From the series Shark Bay – Inscription
965mm x 965mm

 

Les Walkling. 'In my Garden' 2012

 

Les Walkling
In my Garden
2012
From the series The Pilbara Project
965mm x 965mm

 

 

 

Monash Gallery of Art
860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill
Victoria 3150 Australia
T: + 61 3 8544 0500

Opening hours:
Tue – Fri: 10am – 5pm
Sat – Sun: 12pm – 5pm
Mon/public holidays: closed

Monash Gallery of Art 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.

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