Posts Tagged ‘Simryn Gill

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 of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

Opening hours:
Open every day 10am – 5pm
except Christmas Day and Good Friday

Art Gallery of New South Wales website

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01
May
11

Exhibition: ‘Photography & place: Australian landscape photography, 1970s until now’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Exhibition dates: 16th March – 29th May 2011

 

Debra Phillips. 'Untitled 7 (view from model plane launch area)' 2001

 

Debra Phillips (Australian, b. 1958)
Untitled 7 (view from model plane launch area)
2001
From the series The world as puzzle
Two Type C photographs
68 x 80cm each
Image courtesy the artist and BREENSPACE, Sydney
© Debra Phillips

 

 

Hot on the heels of my reviews of Stormy Weather: Contemporary Landscape Photography at NGV Australia and Sidney Nolan: Drought Photographs at Australian Galleries, Melbourne comes the exhibition Photography & place: Australian landscape photography, 1970s until now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. An insightful, eloquent text by Vigen Galstyan (Assistant curator, photographs, AGNSW) accompanies the posting.

Marcus

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Many thankx to Susanne Briggs for her help and to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for allowing me to publish the photographs and the text in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Douglas Holleley, 'Bottle-brush near Sleaford Bay, South Australia' 1979

 

Douglas Holleley (Australia, United States of America, b. 1949)
Bottle-brush near Sleaford Bay, South Australia
1979
Four SX-70 Polaroid photographs
61 x 76 cm
AGNSW collection, purchased 1982
© Douglas Holleley

 

 

Australian born and American based photographer Douglas Holleley has experimented with many aberrant photographic techniques over the course of his career. Holleley received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1971 at Macquarie University before relocating to America to undertake a Master of Fine Arts, studying at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York between 1974 and 1976. Founded by Nathan Lyons in 1969 and affiliated with important photographers including Minor White and Frederick Sommers, the Visual Studies Workshop was a bedrock institution that fostered innovative photographic practice from the 1970s onwards. It was here that Holleley received tutelage from Ansel Adams in 1975. His early photographic output includes hand coloured black and white photographs as well as photograms and gridded arrangements of Polaroids. He later began experimenting with digital photography, applying the same principles of the photogram to his experiments with a flatbed scanner.

During the time spent studying photography in America in the 1970s Holleley became interested in Polaroid technology. When he returned to Australia in 1979, before later relocating permanently to America, Holleley commenced an extensive photographic project of documenting the Australian bush with a Polaroid SX-70 camera, effectively becoming one of the first professional practitioners of the medium in the country. The resulting images were presented as a series and published as a book – Visions of Australia – in 1980. Employing a refined formalist vocabulary, Holleley produced photographic mosaics by arranging his Polaroids into gridded compositions.

Dissected, disassembled and then collated within the pictorial frame, the landscape in Holleley’s works becomes slightly unnatural and detached. These works negate linear single point perspective by focusing on the ground and reducing the scene to a formal composite. Here, the expanse of the view and the horizon does not dominate the space of the image. The tessellating images produce a ‘whole’ that is slightly misaligned and unsettled. In some works, the photographer’s shadow is visible. It asserts itself as an ambivalent presence that is not tethered to the scene. This spectral form heightens the sense of disquiet that pervades the images.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 16/01/2020

 

Ian North. 'Canberra suite no 2' 1980, printed c. 1984

 

Ian North (New Zealand, b. 1945)
Canberra suite no 2
1980, printed c. 1984
From the series Canberra suite 1980-81
Type C photograph
37 x 45.7 cm
AGNSW collection, gift of the artist
© Ian North

 

Ian North (New Zealand, b. 1945) 'Canberra suite no 7' 1980, printed c. 1984

 

Ian North (New Zealand, b. 1945)
Canberra suite no 7
1980, printed c. 1984
From the series Canberra suite 1980-81
Type C photograph
37 x 45.7 cm
AGNSW collection, gift of the artist
© Ian North

 

 

Ian North is an Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts at both the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. He is a photographer, painter and writer, and was the founding curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia 1980 -1984. Throughout his career, he has been concerned with the legacy of Australian landscape, the impact of colonial narratives and their established visual conventions and, as a consequence, the politics of representing the subject. …

North’s methodology is concerned with the processes of vision and interaction as they have shaped the landscape. In Canberra Suite North presents an encyclopaedic record of Walter Burley Griffin’s intricately designed city, exploring the spatial interface between nature and humanity. The works are absent of human life – reminiscent of Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-six Gasoline Stations. The emotional ambivalence of the images is reflected in their use of colour, like that of postcards. As one of the first instances of larger format colour art photography in Australia, the images topographically map space as a depersonalised, banal subject. Yet their colour, like that of landscape painting, highlights flora, revealing the number of non-native plants included in Canberra’s design. As such, these artefacts of North’s private wanderings and systemic mode of looking are able to subtly critique colonialism.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 16/01/2020

 

 

EARTH SCANS AND BUSH RELEVANCES: Photography & place in Australia, 1970s till now

For many of us, landscape is a noun. A view from the window or the balcony, a strange immaterial ‘thing’ that makes people exclaim in awe, point to in pride, recall nostalgically, pose in front of or be used to bump up real estate prices. If one is an urban dweller, which most Australians are, then the landscape exists essentially as a mirage, something to create in the backyard, occasionally look at on holidays or hang on the walls. However, noted American cultural theorist and art historian W. J. T. Mitchell has proposed that we should think of landscape as a verb: an act of creation on our part that engenders cultural constructs, national identities and shared mythologies.

Photography & place is an exhibition that investigates this process of ‘landscaping’ through the work of 18 Australian photographers between the 1970s and now. Their significant contribution to representation of landscape broke new ground in what has always been a confounding topic. Indeed, as Judy Annear has pointed out in a 2008 essay in Broadsheet magazine, the practice of documenting and interpreting the notion of ‘place’ in Australian photography has been fragmentary in comparison to traditions in America, Europe or New Zealand. This reluctance to focus on the natural environment is perhaps a residue of the ‘terra nullius’ polemic, which shifted the attention of many photographers on the building of colonial Australia. Photography from the mid 19th to the early 20th century by photographers such as Charles Bayliss and Nicholas Caire actively documented the conquest of nature by white settlers, or presented views of untouched wilderness as epitomes of the picturesque: endless waterfalls, lakes, forests in twilights, enigmatic caves and an occasional nymph like creature prancing. Despite Bayliss’ efforts to show the indigenous people on their land, they are, as Helen Ennis observed in her 2007 book Photography and Australia, conspicuous by their absence: the land that we see surrounding them in early Australian photography by the likes of J.W. Lindt is often a mass-produced painted studio backdrop.

The advent of modernism in the 1930s only served to entrench the photographers deeper into the urban space. ‘Place’ is the city and it is here that industry, progress and culture shapes the Australian identity. It is still difficult to dislodge the iconic images of Max Dupain and David Moore as epitomes of Australianness, promulgated as they were through countless renditions in mass media and consumer culture. But as post-modern anxiety started to seep through the patchwork of the Australian dream, it was landscape that many critically informed photographers turned to as a tool for analysis and revision.

A number of factors conflated in the mid 1970s, engendering a radical shift in perspectives. One of the primary forces that began to reshape the approaches to landscape in Australian photography was the awareness of new artistic movements taking place in USA and Europe. The enormously influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape held in 1975 at the George Eastman House, Rochester, consolidated the spread of minimalist and conceptually informed photography which was avidly embraced by a younger generation of Australian photographers. One can also cite the rise of the Australian greens movement in Tasmania, the increasing awareness of Indigenous cultures and rights and not the least, the phenomenon of university-educated photographers as key milestones during this decade.

Lynn Silverman, Douglas Holleley, Jon Rhodes, Wes Stacey and Marion Marrison were among the practitioners who pointed their lenses out of the city, often exploring the fringes of human settlement and sometimes as in the case of Silverman, Stacey and Holleley, venturing into the desert. The element that collectively stamps their work is the ostensible fragmentation of the landscape. Instead of the holistic, positivist postcard views of Australia, we get something resembling a lunar vista. The palpable sense of alienation in American expatriate Lynn Silverman’s striking Horizons series from 1979 echoes in the disorienting grid-based Polaroid assemblages by Holleley conjuring up a space that appears hostile and to a degree indifferent to our presence. The foreignness of these landscapes is not necessarily a malevolent force as was customary to show in a slate of Australian New Wave films of the 70s and 80s. Rather a much more meditative stance is taken in regards to our relationship to a place which has been claimed without being understood or in many ways respected. Ingeborg Tyssen’s photographs hint at existing presences, forms and phenomena which are full of life and meaning that remain perpetually unresolved to an outsider. The imported paradigms of Western culture can not take root in this environment. One could easily define the landscape photography of this period in Lynn Silverman’s words as “an orienting experience” and a belated attempt at a proper reconnaissance of the land.

The coolly detached outlook that underlines the investigative drive of most of these photographers is magnified by their adoption of serial or multi-panel formats. It was certainly a way to expand and collapse the accepted faculties of the pictorial field, challenging and questioning the accepted notions of photographic ‘truth’. Jon Rhodes demonstrates the inherent power of this simple device in his cinematically sequential Gurkawey, Trial Bay, NT 1974, which transforms a seemingly wild and uninhabitable swamp into a joyful playground of an Aboriginal child.

In some instances the photographic approach is more concerned with elucidating the nature of the photographic image itself and the way it can influence and control our perception. As Arnold Hauser has lucidly described in his groundbreaking Social History of Art, images have always been used to secure and infer political power. As such, the metamorphosis of a visual representation into an iconographic one carries within it an element of danger as images begin to seduce the viewer away from objectivity. Indeed, images of Australia have been the most relentlessly and carefully used signifiers in promoting a (colonial) national consciousness by political, commercial and cultural institutions. In this light, it is not difficult to see the works of Wes Stacey and Ian North as acts of iconoclasm. Stacey’s droll and gently parodic series The road 1973-75, charts a snapshot journey that goes nowhere. Seemingly random, half-glimpsed shots of empty dirt roads, sunburnt grass mounds and endless highways emanate a sense of rootlessness and displacement, negating any possibility of objectification or identification with the landscape. Instead of epic grandeur and jingoism we get something that is confronting, uncomfortably real and in no way ‘advertisable’.

‘The Real’ is even more startling in Ian North’s subversive Canberra suite 1980-81, where the utopian dream capital has been reduced to banal ‘documents’ of depopulated, custom-made suburbia. The hyperreal concreteness of North’s Canberra gives the city an aura of a De Chiricoesque waking nightmare. In line with the set practices of conceptual photography of the period, North has distilled his images from any sign of formal mediation, forcing the viewer to focus on the raw content. It is through this forensic directness that the strange incongruity of human intervention within the landscape becomes ostensible.

Daniel Palmer has noted that North’s images “are highly prescient of much photography produced by artists in Australia today”. Certainly by the 1980s photographers became more actively engaged in analysing the nature / culture median. Strongly influenced by feminist and post-colonial theory, a number of practitioners used photography as a medium to document ideas rather than objective reality. Anne Ferran and Simryn Gill are particularly notable in this regard. Both artists are concerned with the historical and political dimensions of the locations they chose to photograph, resulting in multi-layered and complex strategies that require more involved intellectual interaction from the audience. Gill’s ‘staged’ photographs relate to us the agency of nature and time upon the cultural environment. Synthesis and amalgamation of outwardly irreconcilable elements – imported plants, Australian bush, cotton shirts – slowly, but surely melt into new, as yet unknown entities in Rampant 1999. The force of inevitable decay is absolute yet imbued with generative power as well. Exploring the constantly shifting certainties of what constitutes a ‘place’ the artist draws the audience into questioning its own role in this transformative process.

Ferran takes a more archaeological position in relation to her subject matter. Her eerie surveys of rather ordinary grass mounds in the series Lost to worlds 2008 become evocative paeans to obliterated lives, once we learn that the mounds are all that remain of the factories where convict women were sent to work. Looking at these shimmering ghost worlds one is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s essay The Ruin where the writer analyses the capacity of ruins to reveal the “philosophical truth content”. It is through this allegorical device that Ferran achieves a degree of rehabilitation for the absent histories she photographs.

History, in its manifold and troubling guises, is directly ‘exposed’ in the landscapes of Ricky Maynard, Michael Riley and Rosemary Laing. As Indigenous photographers, Maynard and Riley have played an important role in translating the cultural and political status of Aboriginal peoples into a ‘language’ that is universally understood. Their work remains firmly rooted in the traditions of contemporary art, yet the heavily symbolical slant shows a more ardent and personal engagement with the Australian landscape. Riley’s expressionistic series flyblown 1998 sums up in a few strategically juxtaposed metaphors the spiritual dimension of the landscape, while simultaneously revealing the diverging connotations of Australia’s fundamentally divided identity. The colonial legacy is shown as one of conquest and domination that clashes with the artist’s engagement with country. Maynard’s Portrait of a distant land 2005, explores the same dichotomy in more site specific terms. After permanently settling in Flinders Island, Maynard decided to return to the portrayal of Tasmanian Aborigines, taking a more collaborative approach. He sees this as a way of bypassing the propensity of the photographic image “to subjugate its subjects”. The resulting series is a profoundly poetic treatment that rises above social documentation to suggest the wider implications of historical change and disclose the ability of people to overcome what the artist has described as victimisation through a deeply compassionate relationship with the land. Ultimately Maynard gives us an edifying testimony to the affirmative power of the landscape as collective memory.

Interest in the political aspects of landscape photography has continued unabated into the 21st century. Yet a more philosophically inclined thread has become evident in the last two decades. No longer is it enough to deconstruct and pull apart ideas about landscape’s relationship to identity and nationhood. What photographers like Bill Henson, David Stephenson, Simone Douglas and Rosemary Laing question is the very possibility (or impossibility) of seeing itself. If positioning oneself in relation to nature seems like a distinct, albeit problematic proposition in the 1970s and 80s, the later works in the exhibition are resolutely ambivalent on the subject.

What can one grab onto when faced with the endless expanses of white in Stephenson’s The ice 1992, the terrifying darkness of Henson’s night scenes or the infuriating haze of Douglas’s twilight worlds? Perhaps the only recourse is to dissolve into the beckoning ‘forever’ of the vanishing point in Laing’s To walk on a sea of salt 2004. This void is not a boundary point between nature and culture – it is where culture ends and an entirely new state of consciousness begins: the realm of the sublime and the imagination. As history seems no longer to be trustworthy, ‘place’ can only be constructed as a metaphysical entity. It is a curious turnabout in some ways that echoes some of the early, turn-of-the-century encounters with the Australian landscape by photographers such as John Paine and Norman C. Deck. The sense of fear and awe towards the unfamiliar environment permeates their images, transcending the merely investigative / didactic motives of most colonial photography. What has eventuated from walking into this environment? Subjugation? Destruction? Incomprehension? Indifference? By going back to the point zero of the void and the sublime, contemporary photography negotiates a second attempt at engagement with nature through a renewed and deeper understanding of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with this life-giving force.

Vigen Galstyan
Assistant curator, photographs 1

 

  1. Galstyan, Vigen. “EARTH SCANS AND BUSH RELEVANCES: Photography & place in Australia, 1970s till now,” in Look gallery magazine. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, 2011, pp. 25-29.

 

 

Rosemary Laing. 'After Heysen' 2005

 

Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
After Heysen
2005
Type C photograph
110 x 252 cm
On loan from The Australian Club, Melbourne
Image courtesy of the arts & Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
© Rosemary Laing

 

Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959) 'to walk on a sea of salt' 2004

 

Rosemary Laing (Australian, b. 1959)
to walk on a sea of salt
2004
Type C photograph
110 x 226.7 cm
Image courtesy of the arts & Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
© Rosemary Laing

 

Jon Rhodes. 'Hobart, Tasmania' 1972-75 from the album 'Australia'

 

Jon Rhodes (Australian, b. 1947)
Hobart, Tasmania
1972-75
From the album Australia
1 of 53 gelatin silver photographs
11.9 x 17.7 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1980
© Jon Rhodes

 

Jon Rhodes (Australian, b. 1947) 'Tuncester, New South Wales' 1972-75 from the album 'Australia'

 

Jon Rhodes (Australian, b. 1947)
Tuncester, New South Wales
1972-75
From the album Australia
1 of 53 gelatin silver photographs
11.9 x 17.7 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1980
© Jon Rhodes

 

Michael Riley (Australian, 1960-2004) 'Untitled' 1998 from the series 'flyblown'

 

Michael Riley (Australian, 1960-2004)
Untitled
1998
From the series flyblown
Pigment print
82 x 107.8 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Anonymous gift to the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander and Photography collections 2010
© Michael Riley Estate. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

 

Michael Riley (Australian, 1960-2004) 'Untitled' 1998 from the series 'flyblown'

 

Michael Riley (Australian, 1960-2004)
Untitled
1998
From the series flyblown
Pigment print
82 x 107.8 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Anonymous gift to the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander and Photography collections 2010
© Michael Riley Estate. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

 

 

Michael Riley received his first introduction to photography through a workshop at the Tin Sheds Gallery in Sydney, 1982. A Wiradjuri / Kamilaroi man, the artist moved to Sydney from Dubbo in his late teens. He became part of a circle of young Indigenous artists drawn together in the city at that time. A founding member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative Riley was also a key participant in the first exhibition of Indigenous photographers at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sydney in 1986 (curator Ace Bourke). In 2003 Riley’s work was selected for the Istanbul Biennial, and in 2006 his work was permanently installed at Musée de quai Branly, Paris. A major retrospective toured nationally in 2006-2008.

Riley’s fine art photography began in black and white but he quickly progressed to large-scale colour, a format that also expanded the cinematic qualities of his images, no doubt reflecting the influence film and video were having upon the artist as he worked simultaneously with these media. He produced, for example, the documentaries Blacktracker and Tent boxers for ABC television in the late nineties.

The photographic series flyblown bears a close relationship to the film Empire which Riley created in 1997. Like the film, these photographs give expression to the artist’s concern with the impact of European culture upon that of Australia’s Indigenous population, specifically, as he described it, the ‘sacrifices Aboriginal people made to be Christian’ [Avril Quaill, ‘Marking our times: selected works of art from the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Collection at the National Gallery of Australia’, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 1996 p. 66].

Christian iconography looms large in the series, as it has across much of Riley’s work. In flyblown, an imposing reflective cross is raised in the sky. Repeated in red, gold and blue its presence is inescapable. A symbol capable of inspiring awe, fear, devotion, Riley also engages with its elegiac qualities so that it functions as memorial marker. Another image depicting a bible floating face down in water conceptualises the missionary deluge, perhaps; submersion and loss through baptism, definitely.

flyblown reverberates with a subtle ominous hum – the quiet tension that precedes a storm. The parched earth beneath a dead galah seems to ache for the rain and water promised in the other images of clouds and dark skies. The nourishment Christianity offered and the inadvertent drowning of traditional culture that often followed is implied.

Visually linking the natural environment with religious symbolism Riley articulates Indigenous spirituality’s connections to country and widens his examination beyond to examine the sustained environmental damage. The negative side effects of pastoralist Australia are indicated by contrasting images of the long grass of cattle pastures with that of drought and wildlife death.

Riley’s success in articulating these issues and complexities, incorporating religious iconography so laden by history and meaning is a testament to his sensitivity and subtlety. Allowing room for ambiguity, Riley provides space for the mixed emotions of the subject and its history.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 16/01/2020

 

Simryn Gill. 'Untitled' 1999 from the series 'Rampant'

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, b. 1959)
Untitled
1999
From the series Rampant
Gelatin silver photograph
25 x 24 cm
AGNSW collection, gift of the artist, 2005
© Simryn Gill

 

 

In Rampant, Simryn Gill turned her eye once more on Australia ‘… to see if I could find friends among the local flora’. This series of photographs was shot in sub-tropical northern New South Wales and shows unnerving images of trees and plants dressed up in clothes. In the photographs these ghostly forms are seen lingering in groves of introduced plants such as bamboo, bananas, sugar cane and camphor laurels. The plants are dressed in lungis and sarongs, generic clothing from South and South- East Asia, where many of these plants originate. Rampant is a form of memento mori, a record of the aspirations that saw plants only too successfully introduced into a pristine terrain which was unable to offer any resistance to their feral ways.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard condenses his complex thinking on creativity and the human imagination into the metaphor of a tree, with its living, evolving growth and the simultaneity of being earth bound and heaven reaching, symbolising both the real and ideal.1 However, what happens when that tree is a camphor laurel, an admirable thing in its native land but out of place and wrecking havoc along the creeks of rural New South Wales?

Many once-useful species are now noxious weeds and over-successful colonisers, despised for their commonness, their success, their over-familiarity, and for being where we feel they should not be. They disrupt the order we would like to impose and remind us of our fallibility when attempting to play god and create our own earthly Edens. The language of natural purity that we use to protect our landscape also resonates with the nationalist rhetoric used to police our borders and to decide who are acceptable new arrivals and who are illegal aliens, often determined through scales of economic and social usefulness.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 16/01/2020

 

  1. Gaston Bachelard, ‘The totality of the root image’, On poetic imagination and reverie, editor and translator Colette Graudin, Spring Publications, Quebec, 1987, p. 85.

 

Anne Ferran. 'Untitled' 2008 from the series 'Lost to worlds'

 

Anne Ferran (Australian, b. 1949)
Untitled
2008
From the series Lost to worlds
Gelatin silver print
© Anne Ferran

 

Anne Ferran. 'Untitled' 2008

 

Anne Ferran (Australian, b. 1949)
Untitled
2008
From the series Lost to worlds
Gelatin silver print
© Anne Ferran

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941) 'The road: Outback to the city 3' 1973-75

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941)
The road: Outback to the city 3
1973-75
Folio 1 from “The Road” a portfolio of 280 photographs
Fuji Colour machine print
© Wesley Stacey

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941) 'The road: Surfers to Hobart 15' 1973-75

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941)
The road: Surfers to Hobart 15
1973-75
Folio 16 from “The Road” a portfolio of 280 photographs
Fuji Colour machine print
© Wesley Stacey

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941) 'The road: Port Hedland/Wittenoon/Roeburne, WA 14' 1973-75

 

Wesley Stacey (Australia, b. 1941)
The road: Port Hedland/Wittenoon/Roeburne, WA 14
1973-75
Folio 10 from “The Road” a portfolio of 280 photographs
Fuji Colour machine print
© Wesley Stacey

 

 

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

Opening hours:
Open every day 10am – 5pm
except Christmas Day and Good Friday

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06
Jul
10

Review: ‘Simryn Gill: Gathering’ at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 22 April – 18 July 2010

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Pearls' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Pearls
1999
Private collection

 

 

This is a strong survey exhibition of the work of Simryn Gill at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Like most survey exhibitions it suffers from a slightly piecemeal approach, dipping in and out of various bodies of work to try to make up a holistic whole. Conceptually this is not a problem as the thematic development of Gill’s work, her narrative arc if you like, is evident throughout. Visually this causes some work to seem isolated and left me wanting more connection between pieces and rooms as you walk around.

Highlights included May 2006 (2006), Pearls (1999 – ongoing), Untitled (interiors) 2008 and Throwback (2007).

In May 2006 (2006) 817 silver gelatin photographs are mounted in columns of images, each column making up one of 30 rolls of film, one shot every day of a month photographing the artist’s immediate neighbourhood in Marrickville, Sydney, in the month in which the film expiration date occurred. Each column has a different number of images and are mounted along the one of the largest walls in the Heide galleries, producing an effect almost like a DNA sequence. Abstract scenes of pathways, fences, cars in streets, broken gutters, planes flying houses, trees, people walking, abandoned telephone directories, Hills hoists, coffee shops, windows, rooftops and factories inhabit the frame of reference – the environment seeming to be abandoned both literally and metaphorically. Empty chairs move from picture to picture. No Parking here!

There are some great angles in these photographs a la Robert Frank ‘The Americans’ with excellent use of short depth of field shooting across tabletops for example. Above all there is a sense of abandonment, desolation and isolation in the intersection of spaces. Even in strong sunlight there is a strange, haunting melancholy present – an innate understanding of the subconsciously known archetype of space and place, that sense of belonging – and an absolute recognition in the viewer of that.

In Pearls (1999 – ongoing, see photograph above) friends provide Gill with a book of personal value, which she then transforms into beads of paper and then strings them together as necklaces which she then returns to the owner as a gift. The colours, length and heaviness of the necklace depends on the book chosen – the reconstructed text lying like pearls of wisdom against the skin of the giver/receiver, the meaning of the book transformed through the process. What a beautiful gift to receive.

Untitled (interiors) (2008), my second favourite work of the day, features bronze sculptures cast from the empty spaces created by dry cracks in the ground found near Nyngan and Lake George, New South Wales. The sculptures present the cracks inverted so they become like miniature mountain ranges, the cracks in the earth filled and metamorphosing until they thrust into the air, the empty spaces of the earth uplifted, negative/positive spaces interchangeable. This is a simple but beautifully resolved work. Unfortunately I do not have any photographs to show you of these sculptures.

Other work includes My own private Angkor (2007, see photograph above), photographs taken at a housing estate in Port Dickson that is becoming overgrown and returning to the surrounding landscape that Gill has made into her own Angkor Wat in reverse, featuring the detritus of a vanquished, constructed environment; four black and white photographs from ‘Forest’ (1996) featuring text on leaves; a glass case of curiosities like the Victorian cabinet of curiosities that includes a jar of plastic cowboys and indians, a bowl of Mindanao pearls, found and made spherical objects, cast tin and mango seeds (Some of my best friends suck mangoes, 1998) and different noses of cast tin (Bouquet 1994); Untitled (1998 – ongoing), a glass case full of found and blunt objects arranged like a seismograph recording, small at the ends and big in the centre featuring scissors, clubs, spoons, knives, bottle top openers, tweezers, letter openers and salad servers!; and Paper boats (2008, see photographs below), table and floor covered by paper boats made from the torn out pages of Encyclopedia Britannica 1968 with the invitation to “Please make boats” with no explanation as to how, exactly, to make them – human knowledge as text, detritus, object, place, manufacture and commission.

The absolute star of the exhibition is the installation Throwback (2007, see photographs below). The installation features the interior parts of a Tata truck (the engine and axles) recast in termite mound soils, river clay, laterite, sea shells, fruit skins, coconut bark, resin, and fibre laid on a huge dissecting table (much like the body in Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632)) – the layout of the engine and axles evoking the spine and interior skeleton of the body. Unfortunately I do not have an overview photograph of the whole work but parts of the work can be seen in the photographs below. The Tata truck spent its working life plying the roads of the forests of Malaysia:

“With the rise of China and India, a voracious market for scrap metal has developed, hastening the disappearance of particular objects, Gill recovers the modern forms of the truck parts by casting them in natural materials found near her studio in Port Dickson.” (Wall text from the exhibition)

.
This is an outstanding work that left me stunned with it’s beauty and insightfulness. It literally took my breath away and for that reason alone a visit to this exhibition at Heide is well worth the journey.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

.
Many thankx to Jade Enge and the Heide Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“The work of Simryn Gill considers questions of place and history, and how they might intersect with personal and collection experience … Using objects, language and photographs, her work conveys a deep interest in material culture, and in the ways that meaning can transform and translate in different contexts. Through the reinterpretation or alteration of existing objects, the photographing of specific locations, and the forming of collections, Gill contemplates how ideas and meanings are communicated between people, objects and sites.”

.
Wall text from the exhibition

 

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Untitled' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Untitled
1999
Gouache on National Geographic magazine pages (1970s)
Courtesy of the artist, BREENSPACE, Sydney and Tracy Williams Ltd, New York

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Untitled' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Untitled
1999
Gouache on National Geographic magazine pages (1970s)
Courtesy of the artist, BREENSPACE, Sydney and Tracy Williams Ltd, New York

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'My own private Angkor' 2007

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
My own private Angkor
2007
Courtesy of the artist, BREENSPACE, Sydney and Tracy Williams Ltd, New York

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Throwback' (detail) 2007

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Throwback (detail)
2007
Interior parts of Tata truck, termite mound soil, river clay, laterite, seashells, fruit skins, leaves, bark and fibre, flowers, glue, resin, milk
Buxton Collection Melbourne
Courtesy of the artist

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Throwback' (detail) 2007

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Throwback (detail)
2007
Interior parts of Tata truck, termite mound soil, river clay, laterite, seashells, fruit skins, leaves, bark and fibre, flowers, glue, resin, milk
Buxton Collection Melbourne
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

This exhibition (22 April – 18 July) presents the work of leading Sydney-based Malaysian artist, Simryn Gill. Featuring objects, books, collections, photographs and text pieces from the last six years of Gill’s practice, it explores the artist’s pursuit of meaning through materials, forms and ways of working, such as collecting, reading, archiving, arranging, casting and photographing.

Described in 2009 in the New Yorker as ‘quietly dazzling’, Gill’s work is internationally recognised. She has been honoured with solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, both in 2006. Born in Singapore in 1959, Gill lives and works in Sydney and Port Dickson, Malaysia, and has participated in significant exhibitions internationally, including documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany (2007), the Singapore Biennale (2006), the Biennale of Sydney (2002 and 2008), the São Paulo Biennial (2004) and the Venice Biennale (1999).

An MCA touring exhibition curated by Russell Storer, it has been expanded by Heide to include the Australian premiere of Gill’s major work Throwback, originally produced for the documenta 12 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2007. Throwback reworks the inner machinery of a 1985 Tata truck that plied the roads of Malaysia. With the economic rise of China and India, a voracious market for scrap metal has developed, hastening the disappearance of particular objects. Gill recovers the modern forms of truck parts by casting them in natural materials – found near her studio in Malaysia – including river mud, coconut husks, reconstituted termite mounds and fruit skins.

Gill has also produced a new work, an artist’s book reflecting on the gardens at Heide.

Gill’s practice considers how we might experience place as an intersection of personal and collective histories and geographies. Through the reinterpretation or alteration of existing objects, the photographing of specific locations, and the forming of collections, Gill contemplates how ideas and meanings are communicated between people, objects, and sites.

Several works in the exhibition invite audience participation. Paper Boats invites visitors to add their own unique paper boat to the installation by tearing pages from a 1968 Encyclopaedia Britannica and using the sheet to make an origami boat. Another work, Garland (2006) encourages us to hold, touch and rearrange objects collected by Gill on the beaches of Port Dickson, Malaysia, and the islands off Singapore – fragments reshaped by sea and sand that take on almost organic form.

A selection of books, sketches, collections and experimental pieces from the early 1990s to the present, some produced for exhibitions and others never intended as artworks will also be presented as part of the exhibition. Together they offer an insight into Gill’s artistic processes and her interest in art-making as an active engagement with the world.”

Press release from the Heide Museum of Modern Art website [Online] Cited 01/10/2010 no longer available online

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Paper boats' 2008

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Paper boats
2008
Encyclopaedia Britannica (1968 edition)
Courtesy of the artist and BREENSPACE, Sydney

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959) 'Paper boats' 2008 (detail)

 

Simryn Gill (Singapore, b. 1959)
Paper boats (detail)
2008
Encyclopaedia Britannica (1968 edition)
Courtesy of the artist and BREENSPACE, Sydney

 

Addendum: A Pencil for Your Thoughts

 

Heide pencil

 

Heide pencil, the confounding pencil

 

I love to visit Heide, the elegant buildings, the art, the cafe, a stroll in the gardens looking at the sculpture. What I don’t like is being accosted by gallery attendants on my last three visits, twice on the last visit alone to review the Simryn Gill exhibition – accost being not too harsh a word for some of the approaches. The request: to not write in the gallery with a pen but to use a pencil (rushed to the scene of the crime post haste!)

I don’t like writing with a pencil, they go blunt and I can’t read my notes. I like writing with a pen.
This is a ridiculous state of affairs, the only gallery in Melbourne that I know of that has such a ‘nanny state’ rule.

Do they think that I am going to:

a) spear the pen into the gallery wall
b) attack the attendant with the pen (after this last visit the thought did cross my mind!) or
c) scribble all over the art work like a child …

 

The more we are treated like children the more child-like we become.

“Put the pen on the ground … Step away from the pen.”

 

 

Heide Museum of Modern Art
7, Templestowe Road
Bulleen, Victoria 3105

Opening hours:
(Heide II and Heide III)
Tue – Fri 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
Sat/Sun/Public Holidays 12.00 noon – 5.00 pm

Heide Museum of Modern Art website

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06
Dec
09

Review: ‘Simryn Gill: Inland’ at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy

Exhibition dates: 9th October – 13th December 2009

 

Rampant (1999)

“Both populating and haunting the patches of now feral vegetation evoking a sense of foreign/alien source that has been strained, even lost in the act of transplantation. It also parodies the fear of rampant occupation that historically imbues aspects of Australian to Northern neighbours.”10

In Rampant Gill photographed outbursts of introduced plant species in the Australian landscape such as bamboo and sugar cane, which now grow wild and uncontrolled in subtropical northern New South Wales. Again Gill incorporates performative elements, interacting with nature through ‘dressing’ the plants in garments such as lungis and sarongs which were worn by immigrant workers who harvested these crops. Gill explores of the connections between botany, geography and the idea of plants as ‘humanised’ entities – seen in these strange single or groups of ‘figures’ appearing displaced within the Australian landscape.

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Untitled' 1995

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Untitled
1995
From the series Rampant
7 gelatin silver photographs
28.0 x 26.0cm Courtesy the artist and Breenspace, Sydney
© Simryn Gill

 

 

This is a strange survey exhibition of photographs by Malaysian-born Australian artist Simryn Gill at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne – photographs that form distinctive bodies of work that support the artist’s other conversations in art but do not form the main backbone to her practice. Perhaps this is part of the problem and part of the beauty of the work. While the work investigates the concepts of presence and absence, space, place and identity and the cultural inhabitation of nature there is a feeling that this is the work of an artist not used to putting images together in a sequence or body of work, not connecting the dots between ideas and image. Intrinsically there is nothing wrong with the conceptual ideas behind the photographs or the individual photographs themselves. The photographs don’t strike one as particularly memorable and they fail to mark the mind of the viewer in their multitudinous framings of reality.

In the series Forest (1996-1998, see photograph above and below) a selective vision of nature is invaded by cultural texts, torn pages of books mimicking natural forms such as roots, flowers and variegated leaves. The ‘natural’ context is inhabited by the cultural con-text to form a double inhabitation – “this strange hybrid nature before the paper rots away, suggestive of how nature is culturally inscribed and the futility of this attempt at containment.”1

This is a nice idea but the photographs fail to hold the attention of the viewer mainly because of the inability of the viewer to read the text that has been grafted onto the natural forms. I literally needed more from the work to hang my hat on and this is how I felt about much of this work presented here. This feeling persists with another series Vegetation (1999, see photographs below). Mundane landscapes are inhabited by faceless human beings, their absence/presence marking the landscape while at the same time nature marks them. A good idea that needed to be pushed much further.

The main body of work in the exhibition is the series Dalam (2001, see photographs below), a 258 strong series of colour photographs presented in the gallery space in gridded formation (Dalam, in Malay, can mean ‘inside’, ‘interior’ or ‘deep’). Featuring a photographic record of the interior of numerous Malaysian homes these clinical yet someone hobby-like photographs record the minutiae of domestica – the intimacy of the interior balanced by a sense of isolation and loneliness through the absence of human presence. Here, “the living room may be seen here as a cultural and social mask for its inhabitants. It’s the space into which others are welcomed on our own terms and onto which we project a portrayal of ourselves.”3 Although the work asks us “to rethink our concepts of spaces and domesticity in relation to various aspects such as socio-cultural identities, history and memory,” as presented in the gallery space the viewer is initially overwhelmed by the number, colour and construction of the interiors.

Personally I found that in the mundanity/individuality of the repetition I soon lost interest in looking intimately at the work. The photographs lack a certain spark, a certain clarity of vision in the actual taking of the images. None of the wonderful angles and intelligence of camera positioning of Eugene Atget here and maybe this is the point – the stifling ‘personality’ and banality of human habitation echoed in the photographs – but I would have rather have looked at a single monumentally intimate, magical image by Candida Hofer than all of these photographs put together!

Unfortunately in this survey exhibition there is only one photograph from what I regard as Simryn Gill’s best body of work, A small town at the turn of the century (1999-2000, see photograph below). Perhaps this was an oversight as this series would seem to bind the others more holistically together. Photographs of this excellent series can be viewed on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery website and their presence in this exhibition would have certainly raised the bar in terms of the artist’s vision of nature, place and identity. The square colour format, the interior/exterior of the environments and naturalness of the photographs and their the fruitful bodies really have an eloquent power that most of the work at the Centre for Contemporary Photography seems to lack. Other than the last body of work, Inland (2009, see photograph below) that is.

In the smallest most intimate space at the CCP are some of the most intimate images of Australian place that you will ever see. Spread out on a table in small stacks of jewel-like black and white and Cibachrome images the viewer is asked to done white gloves (ah, the delicious irony of white hands on the Australian land!) to view the empty interiors, landscapes and (hands holding) rocks of the interior. These are beautifully seen and resolved images. The rocks are most poignant.

Gill digs beneath the surface of this thing called Australian-ness and exposes not the vast horizons, decorous landscapes or rugged people (as Naomi Cass states below) but small intimacies of space and place, identity and memory. In the ability to shuffle the deck of cards, to reorder the photographs to make their own narrative the viewer becomes as much the author of the story being told as the artist herself – an open-ended intertextual narrative guided by the artist that investigates the very root of what it is to be Australian on a personal level. I enjoyed this reordering, this subjective experience very much.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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

 

  1. Anon. “Simryn Gill: Selected Work,” on Indepth Arts News website. [Online] Cited 12/05/2019
  2. Gill, Simryn. “May 2006,” in Off the Edge, Merdeka 50 years issue no. 33, September 2007, p. 83
  3. Day, Kate. “After Image: Photography at the Fruit Market Gallery,” on Culture 24 website. [Online] Cited 6th December 2009 no longer available online

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Forest #5' 1998

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Forest #5
1998
From the series Forest
16 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Forest #13' 1998

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Forest #13
1998
From the series Forest
16 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Untitled' from the 'Forest' series 1996

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Untitled
1996
From the series Forest
16 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

 

Forest (1996-98)

Upon close inspection, this series of large scale black and white photographs of lush tropical plants reveal strips of paper and fragments of text which are embedded into tree trunks, covering leaf surfaces, transforming into aerial mangrove roots, weaving their way up walls and mimicking banana flowers.

The artist states: “I decided I needed to echo my situation in my art activities, and started making small interventions in the very rare wild places around where we lived, like gardens of unoccupied houses, roadside growths of tapioca and yam”.7

Returning from Australia to Singapore with her family, Gill went into overgrown gardens and open spaces she was familiar with to construct these site interventions, armed with glue and a range of books – some given to her by friends, others sourced from garage sales – including the colonial texts of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and an Indonesian version of the Hindu tale Ramayana. These works were explorations by Gill into her personal sense of place and history, as an outsider in Singapore. Works in the same series were created in other similar environments in countries such as Malaysia. Although they originate from specific locations, they can be read as anywhere in the tropics.

The process of entering these ‘little bits of jungle’ to construct these works was referred to by Gill as her ‘guerrilla activities’,8 and were temporary site specific interventions which she sought to document.

Her friend and fashion photographer Nicholas Leong, chose the camera and film which required long exposure, suiting Gill’s requirements to create large, dense flat tonal images. Together they documented the works before the paper was to rot away and return nature. This introduced Gill to analogue photography and its slow processing, which she values and continues to use.

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Untitled' from the 'Forest' series 1996

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Untitled
1996
From the series Forest
16 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Vegetation #1' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Vegetation #1
1999
From the series Vegetation
5 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

 

… In these works which were begun at a residency at Artpace in Texas, Gill begins the process of masking and disguising, of naturalising human figures into the landscape (in this case herself) through obscuring their heads with fruit and vegetation, that was to be so important in her later bodies of work such as A small town at the turn of the century.

Curator Sharmini Pereira has written: “In this series of photographs, her self-portrait dominates but only as a stream of disguises involving plants in various geographic locations; tumbleweed and aloe in Texas, mangrove and black boy in Australia, and bird’s nest fern in Singapore. The images bear an uncanny resemblance to a sequence of B-movie stills, where vengeful alien-plant-people threaten to over run the planet. Many Hollywood films have of course played out such narratives as a projection of Cold War anxieties fearful about the threat of Communist contamination. But if Vegetation represents the future through some fear located in the past, it does so through a mimetic representation of the present… Vegetation parodies the camera’s framing of today’s culture contact.

Beyond their still pathos, the enchanting appeal of these photographs lies in their somersaulting between the mythical moment of first contact and its reversal, which the mimetic moment of secondary contact ushers forth. The artist, “unrecognisable” in her jeans and desert boots and wearing her new plant hairstyle, lampoons the power of mimicry as a means of being both alien and indigenous at one and the same time. In as much as Vegetation offers us the chance to poke fun at the natives, it is also an image of the new 21st-century native – able to deliver the laughs rather than be controlled by them. It is here that we observe the breadth of relief that resides in the welcome opportunity to view imitation as a way of moving beyond the imitated…” in “Simryn Gill – Selected Work”, AGNSW, 2002

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Vegetation #5' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Vegetation #5
1999
From the Vegetation series
5 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

 

Vegetation (1999)

“Nature becomes just another clichéd signifier of place and of localness, which one may adopt while passing through a ‘strange’ place, or migrating to a new place, or indeed as a cover for invasion.”9

In these small framed photographs, Gill is now the subject within the natural environment. The series was started in San Antonia, Texas in 1999 and was part of a two-month residency during which time she produced a new body of work. Gill was wondering if – in this mimicry of nature – she actually could ‘disappear into the landscape’. On field trips she collected a range of desert plant matter, including aloe and tumble weed and took this back to the studio to construct headdresses. Again, using Nicholas Leong as the photographer, Gill then went back to the location to shoot the series. She continued to work on the series in Singapore using the mangrove and in Australia, the grass tree occasionally referred to as a ‘black boy’. The series is closely related to A small town at the turn of the century in its playfulness and parody of ethnographic portraits.

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Vegetation #3' 1999

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Vegetation #3
1999
From the Vegetation series
5 gelatin silver photographs
© Simryn Gill

 

 

Simryn Gill: Inland is a survey of photography and takes place in a photography gallery. It is important to declare at the outset, that while photography forms a significant and wondrous part of her practice, Simryn Gill does not consider herself a photographer; “For me, the taking of photographs is another tool in my bag of strategies, in that awkward pursuit of coherence we sometimes call art.”2 Simryn Gill: Inland embraces this conundrum as an entry point for considering Gill’s photography, and how photography might function more broadly as a way of engaging with the world.

Seven major series wind almost chronologically through the gallery – in this first survey of Gill’s photography – following a path, quite literally, from outside to inside, from found in nature to found in culture and back. Commencing with three series located outdoors, Forest (1996-1998), Rampant (1999) and Vegetation (1999), the survey moves to Gill’s sweeping interior series Dalam (2001). On the cusp of outside and inside is Power station (2004), which makes a curious and visceral analogy between the interior of her childhood home in Port Dickson, Malaysia and the interior of an adjacent power station. Like a medieval Book of Hours, the hand-sized concertina work Distance (2003-2009) is an attempt by Gill to convey the interior of her home in Marrickville, Sydney to someone residing outside Australia.

Gill’s most recent work Inland (2009), commissioned for this survey and photographed during a road trip from northern New South Wales to South Australia and across the bight to Western Australia, is at the heart of the exhibition. Gill’s only moving image work, Vessel (2004), commissioned for SBS Television, closes the exhibition’s journey with the almost imperceptible passage of a small fishing vessel across the horizon. To ground the exhibition, or perhaps to oversee our journey, one image is selected from Gill’s highly regarded series, A small town at the turn of the century (1999-2000).

Seeking an understanding of the politics of place informs her recent series. Inland confounds what is normally expected from photographs of Australia’s interior and eschews decorous landscapes, vast horizons or smiling rugged people, for modest interiors of homes. Indeed there are no people present, only the houses they have inhabited as evidence of their subjectivity.

Inland consists in piles of small jewel-like Cibachrome and black and white prints sitting on a table for viewers to peruse, heightening the provisional nature of its description, leaving open-ended the question of what can be known through photographic representation.

Naomi Cass,
 Exhibition Curator and Director 
Centre for Contemporary Photography

Press release from the Centre for Contemporary Photography website [Online] Cited 01/12/2009 no longer available online

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Dalam No. 226' 2001

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Dalam No. 226
2001
From the series Dalam
Chromogenic print
9 1/4 in. x 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm x 23.5 cm)
© Simryn Gill

 

 

Dalam (2001)

Dalam (Malay for ‘deep’, or ‘within’) is a suite of 260 photographic images, the result of Malaysian artist Simryn Gill’s sojourn across her home country over an eight-week period. She went up to the homes of complete strangers and asked to photograph their living spaces. Dalam is an expansive yet uncannily intimate survey of Malaysia at the turn of the century, a mélange of disparate ethnicities, religions, ideologies and allegiances. The title itself alludes to the depiction of interior spaces as signifiers of the individual lives that inhabit and activate them, but, even more importantly, it suggests an exploration of the social fabric of contemporary Malaysia. As the artist observes: “In conceiving the work I had wondered what the ‘inside’ of a place might look like. Do lots of people held together by geography add up to the idea of a nation or single unified group?” Dalam questions what historian Benedict Anderson famously dubbed “the imagined community”, or the various divergent structures that shape the modern nation-state.

Text from the Singapore Art Museum website [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Dalam (Malay for deep; inside; interior), is a series of two hundred and sixty colour photographs arranged in grid formation on the gallery walls.

“Gill deliberately began Dalam with the intention to document the living rooms of residents of the Malay peninsula, and her focus in each photograph is to capture the sense of place conveyed by the living room of the occupants.”11

Accompanied by a close friend, Gill took these over an eight-week period as they travelled across the Malaysian Peninsula. In towns mainly outside the city regions she knocked on the doors of strangers and asked if she could enter their houses to photograph their living rooms. Surprisingly, almost everyone agreed, and the resulting series gives a fascinating insight into the character of the Malaysian Peninsula, made up of a broad mix of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Gill was again exploring her conflicting experience of being both insider and outsider; raised in Malaysia but also having lived outside for a very long time.

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Dalam No. 162' 2001

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Dalam No. 162
2001
From the series Dalam
Chromogenic print
9 1/4 in. x 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm x 23.5 cm)
© Simryn Gill

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Dalam #39' 2001

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Dalam #39
2001
From the series Dalam
Chromogenic print
9 1/4 in. x 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm x 23.5 cm)
© Simryn Gill

 

 

How We Are in the World: The Photography of Simryn Gill

Simryn Gill: Inland is a survey of photography and takes place in a photography gallery. It is important to declare at the outset, that while photography forms a significant and wondrous part of her practice, Simryn Gill does not consider herself a photographer; “For me, the taking of photographs is another tool in my bag of strategies, in that awkward pursuit of coherence we sometimes call art”.1 Simryn Gill: Inland embraces this conundrum as an entry point for considering Gill’s photography, and how photography might function more broadly as a way of engaging with the world.

Seven major series wind almost chronologically through the gallery – in this first survey of Gill’s photography – following a path, quite literally, from outside to inside, from found in nature to found in culture and back. Commencing with three series located outdoors, Forest (1996-1998), Rampant (1999) and Vegetation (1999), the survey moves to Gill’s sweeping interior series Dalam (2001). On the cusp of outside and inside is Power station (2004), which makes a curious and visceral analogy between the interior of her childhood home in Port Dickson, Malaysia and the interior of an adjacent power station. Like a medieval Book of Hours, the hand-sized concertina work Distance (2003-2008) is an attempt by Gill to convey the interior of her home in Marrickville, Sydney to someone residing outside Australia. Gill’s most recent work Inland (2009), commissioned for this survey and photographed during a road trip from northern New South Wales to South Australia and across the bight to Western Australia, is at the heart of the exhibition. Gill’s only moving image work, Vessel (2004), screened on SBS Television, closes the exhibition’s journey with the almost imperceptible passage of a small fishing vessel across the horizon. To ground the exhibition, or perhaps to oversee our journey, one image is selected from Gill’s highly regarded series, A small town at the turn of the century (1999-2000).

Gill’s photography takes place within a broader practice that curator Russell Storer describes as “… subjecting found objects, books, local materials and sites – each of which carry specific meanings and histories – to a range of processes including photographing, collecting, erasing, casting, tearing, arranging, stitching, rubbing, wrapping and engraving”.2 Gill takes humble things in the world and shifts them; rearranges them with seemingly endless patience, craft and grace, to communicate something about how the object has come into being. This is not a matter of changing context to appreciate formal qualities as might a connoisseur, but rather a quest for understanding place.

Always evident in the found object is some kind of story that, as Gill gathers the item, is folded into the meaning of her work. The constituent parts of her installations – be they items found on the shore or collected from around her studios in Port Dickson or Sydney, or indeed a particular site Gill photographs – are gathered for their ability to evoke a history. Movement across the globe, of people and vegetation, both enforced and deliberate, if not the subject of her work is certainly a link. While not a unique story, resettlement is part of Gill’s individual and familial history. Her parents originally moved from India to Malaya prompted by the range of human predicaments, from political and economic upheaval, through to adventure and marriage. The displacement of objects echoes the journeys of people.

Naomi Cass Exhibition Curator and Director Centre for Contemporary Photography, extract from catalogue essay [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'A small town at the turn of the century #5' 1999-2000

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
A small town at the turn of the century #5
1999-2000
Type C photograph
From a series of 40
91.5 x 91.5 cm
Private collection, Sydney
© Simryn Gill

 

 

A small town at the turn of the century 1999-2000 is a series of 40 type C photographs taken by Gill in the town the artist grew up in. The documentation of the people and place of ones past could be highly nostalgic. Added to this is the moment at which Gill chose to document – the turn of the 20th into the 21st century. Such references to time and memory, the past and the present are potent but Gill has covered each of her subjects’ heads with tropical fruit. Rather than being absurd or ironical the head coverings move the images away from being portraits and into the broader realm of context. The context however is not necessarily as revealing as the viewer might wish. There are numerous variations on dress, interiors, exteriors, pose, and accoutrements that suggest activities (whether work or play). While it is usually clear that the environment is tropical (because of the fruit and foliage) the images provoke a complex set of reactions to the possible messages. Faceless, Gill’s subjects are ciphers constructed by external objects, presented with affection.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Distance' 2003-08

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Distance' 2003-08

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959) 'Distance' 2003-08

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Distance
2003-08
Artist book
Installation views, Centre for Contemporary Photography

 

 

Distance (2003-2008)

Distance, an artist’s book of small colour photographs is produced as a hand-sized concertina work in an edition of just five. This beautiful work is “like a medieval Book of Hours”12 and is displayed in an elegant museum-like cabinet with a protective perspex covering. Distance was produced after many conversations Gill had with friends and family overseas and is an attempt to show them what her home is like. She took one hundred and thirty photographs, using a medium format camera, of everything in the interior of her home in Marrickville, Sydney; however the results seemed to fail in producing a truthful representation of her home, as Gill says, “the final result is almost like an incoherence, it’s too close, there is too much information”.13. Naomi Cass wrote with reference to this, ‘While Distance fails to communicate the gestalt of home, it is remarkable in its details and beauty’.14

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

Simryn Gill. 'Inland' 2009

 

Simryn Gill (Australian, born Singapore 1959)
Inland
2009
Cibachrome and silver gelatin photographs
Photographs (quantity variable)
13.0 x 13.0 cm (each)

 

 

Inland (2009)

“Through an extraordinary ability to engage with strangers, Gill and her fellow traveller Mary Maguire photographed the living rooms of eighty homes ranging in geographical location, socio-economic and cultural background.”15

Inland (2009) is a new series, which was commissioned for this exhibition. Using the same process to produce Dalam, Gill photographed this series on a road trip; however this time in Australia, from northern New South Wales to South Australia and across the bight to Western Australia. The photographs include views of the horizon, skyscapes, interior still life compositions and close ups of stones collected by Gill during her travels. Inland is at the heart of the exhibition and the mode of presentation differs to all other series in the exhibition, as these precious handmade small scale colour and black and white images are assembled on a table in piles for the visitor to examine, with white gloves.

Text from the education resource for the exhibition Simryn Gill: Inland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy [Online] Cited 12/05/2019

 

 

Centre for Contemporary Photography
404 George St, Fitzroy
Victoria 3065, Australia
Phone: + 61 3 9417 1549

Opening hours:
Wednesday – Friday 11am – 5pm
Saturday and Sunday 12pm – 5pm

Centre for Contemporary Photography 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, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr 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.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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