Posts Tagged ‘Wesley Stacey

16
Mar
14

Review: ‘Wildcards: Bill Henson shuffles the deck’ at Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 1st February – 30th March 2014

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Installation photograph of 'Wildcards: Bill Henson shuffles the deck' at the Monash Gallery of Art

Installation photograph of 'Wildcards: Bill Henson shuffles the deck' at the Monash Gallery of Art

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Installation photographs of Wildcards: Bill Henson shuffles the deck at the Monash Gallery of Art

1/ stygian gloom
2/large grouping of 14 works by Wesley Stacey

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UNKNOWN_WEB

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Unknown
Untitled
c. 1900
Cyanotype print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Acquired 2012

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vapid [vap-id]
adjective
lacking or having lost life, sharpness, or flavor

Origin:
1650-60;  Latin vapidus;  akin to va·por [vey-per]
noun
a visible exhalation, as fog, mist, steam, smoke diffused through or suspended in the air; particles of drugs that can be inhaled as a therapeutic agent.

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This is an unexceptional exhibition, one that lacks jouissance in the sense of a transgressive kind of enjoyment, an investigation of the subject that gives pleasure in taking you to unexpected places. At times I felt like a somnambulist walking around this exhibition of photographs from the Monash Gallery of Art collection curated by Bill Henson, pitched into stygian darkness and listening to somewhat monotonous music. It was a not too invidious an exercise but it left me with a VAPID feeling, as though I had inhaled some soporific drug: the motion of the journey apparently not confined by a story, but in reality that story is Henson’s mainly black and white self-portrait. The photographs on the wall, while solid enough, seemed to lack sparkle. There were a couple of knockout prints (such as David Moore’s Himalaya at dusk, Sydney, 1950 below, the Untitled Cyanotype, c. 1900, above and Mark Hinderaker’s delicate portrait of Fiona Hall, 1984, below) and some real bombs (the large Norman Lindsay photographs, modern reproductions printed many times their original size were particularly nauseous) and one has to ask, were the images chosen for how they were balanced on the wall or were they chosen for content?

Henson states that there was no concept or agenda when picking the 88 photographs for this exhibition, simply his INTENSITY of feeling and intuition, his intuitive response to the images when he first saw them – to allow “their aesthetics to determine their presence… our whole bodies to experience these photographs – objects as pictures as photographs.”1 Henson responded as much as possible to the thing which then becomes an iconography (which appeals to his eye) as he asks himself, why is one brush stroke compelling, and not another? The viewer can then go on a journey in which MEANING comes from FEELING, and SENSATIONS are the primary stuff of life.

One of Henson’s preoccupations, “is an interest in the photograph as an object, in the physical presence of the print or whatever kind of technology is being used to make it.”2 He would like us to acknowledge the presence and aura (Walter Benjamin) of the photograph as we stand in front of it, responding with our whole bodies to the experience, not just our eyes. He wants us to have an intensity of feeling towards these works, responding to their presence and how he has hung the works in the exhibition. “There are no themes but rather images that appeal to the eye and, indeed, the whole body. Because photographs are first and foremost objects, their size, shape grouping and texture are as important as the images they’re recording.”3

Henson insists that there was no preconceived conceptual framework for picking these particular photographs but this is being disingenuous. Henson was invited to select images from the MGA collection with the specific idea of holding an exhibition, so this is the conceptual jumping off point; he then selected the images intuitively only to then group and arrange then intuitively/conceptually – by thinking long and hard about how these images would be grouped and hung on the wall of the gallery. I would like to believe that Henson was thinking about MUSIC when he hung this exhibition, not photography. Listen to Henson talk about the pairing of Leonie Reisberg’s Portrait of Peggy Silinski, Tasmania (c. 1976, below) and Beverley Veasey’s Study of a Calf, Bos taurus (2006, below) in this video, and you will get the idea about how he perceives these photographs relate to each other, how they transcend time and space.

This is one of the key elements of the exhibition: how Henson pushes and pulls at time and space itself through the placing of images of different eras together. The other two key elements are how the music rises and falls through the shape of the photographs themselves; and how the figures within the images are pulled towards or pushed away from you. With regard to the rise and fall, Henson manipulates the viewer through the embodiedness of both horizontal and vertical photographs, reminding me of a Japanese artist using a calligraphy brush (see the second installation image above, where the photographs move from the vertical to the square and then onto panoramic landscape). In relation to the content of the images, there seems to be a preoccupation (a story, a theme?) running through the exhibition with the body being consumed by the landscape or the body being isolated from the landscape but with the threat of being consumed by it. Evidence of this can be seen in Wesley Stacey’s Willie near Mallacoota (1979, below) where the body almost melts into the landscape and David Moore’s Newcastle steelworks (1963, below) where the kids on the bicycles are trying to escape the encroaching doom that hovers behind them.

One of the key images in the exhibition for me also reinforces this theme – a tiny Untitled Cyanotype (c. 1900, above) in which two Victorian children are perched on a bank near a stream with the bush beyond – but there are too many of this ilk to mention here: either the figures are pulled towards the front of the frame or pushed back into the encroaching danger, as though Henson is interrogating, evidencing un/occupied space. Overall, there is an element of control and lyrical balance in how he has grouped and hung these works together, the dark hue of the gallery walls allowing the photographs to exist as objects for themselves. Henson puts things next to each other in sequences and series to, allegedly, promote UNEXPECTED conversations and connections through a series of GESTURES.

As Henson notes,

“Maybe it’s the fact that the photographs have the ability to suggest some other thing and that’s what draws you in – that’s that feeling, the thing that slips away from thought. These are really the same things that apply to our meetings with any work of art, whether it’s a piece of music or a sculpture or anything else. There’s something compelling, there’s something there that sort of animates your speculative capacity, causes you to wonder. Other times, or most of the time, that’s not the case. Certainly most of the time that’s not the case with photography.”4

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For me, there was little WONDER in this exhibition, something that you would go ‘oh, wow’ at, some way of looking at the world that is interesting and insightful and fractures the plaisir of cultural enjoyment and identity. While the photographs may have been chosen intuitively and then hung intuitively/conceptually, I simply got very little FEELING, no ICE/FIRE  (as Minor White would say) – no frisson between his pairings, groupings and arrangements. It was all so predictable, so ho-hum. Everything I expected Henson to do… he did!

There were few unexpected gestures, no startling insight into the human and photographic condition. If as he says, “Everything comes to you through your whole body, not just through your eyes and ears,”5 and that photographs are first and foremost objects, their size, shape, grouping and texture as important as the images they’re recording THEN I wanted to be moved, I wanted to feel, to be immersed in a sensate world not a visible exhalation (of thought?), a vapor that this exhibition is. Henson might have painted an open-ended self-portrait but this does not make for a very engaging experience for the viewer. In this case, the sharing of a story has not meant the sharing of an emotion.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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1. 
Interview with Bill Henson by Toby Fehily posted 01 Feb 2014 on the Art Guide Australia website [Online] Cited 18/02/2014.
2. Ibid.,
3. Fiona Gruber. “Review of Wildcards, Bill Henson Shuffles the Deck” on the Guardian website, Wednesday 12 February 2014 [Online] Cited 16/03/2014
4. Fehily op. cit.,
5. Fehily op. cit.,

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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.

WARNING

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should be aware that the following posting may contain images of deceased persons.

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John Eaton. 'Sheep in clearing' c. 1920s

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John Eaton (born United Kingdom 1881; arrived Australia 1889; died 1967)
Sheep in clearing
c. 1920s
Gelatin silver print
15.6 x 23.8 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2003

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Fred Kruger. 'Queen Mary and King Billy outside their mia mia' c. 1880

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Fred Kruger (born Germany 1831; arrived Australia 1860; died 1888)
Queen Mary and King Billy outside their mia mia
c. 1880
Albumen print
13.4 x 20.8 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired 2012

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David Moore. 'Himalaya at dusk, Sydney' 1950

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David Moore (Australia 1927-2003)
Himalaya at dusk, Sydney
1950
Gelatin silver print, printed 2005
24.5 x 34.25 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection donated by the Estate of David Moore 2006
Courtesy of the Estate of David Moore (Sydney)

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Stacey-willie-near-mallacoota

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Wesley Stacey (born Australia 1941)
Willie near Mallacoota
1979
From the series Koorie set
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Christine Godden 2011

Published under fair use for the purpose of art criticism

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David MOORE Newcastle steelworks

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David Moore (Australia 1927-2003)
Newcastle steelworks
1963
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Acquired 1981

Published under fair use for the purpose of art criticism

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“One of those preoccupations is an interest in the photograph as an object, in the physical presence of the print or whatever kind of technology is being used to make it. Part of the reason for that is that photography, more than any other medium, suffers from a mistake or misunderstanding people have when they’ve seen a reproduction in a magazine or online: they think they’re seeing the original. A certain amount of photography is made with its ultimate intention being to be seen in a magazine or online, but most photography, historically, ended up in its final form as a print – a cyanotype, or a tin type or a daguerreotype or whatever it might be.”

Interview with Bill Henson by Toby Fehily posted 01 Feb 2014 on the Art Guide Australia website [Online] Cited 18/02/2014. Used under fair use for the purpose of art criticism.

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REISBERG-WEB

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Leonie Reisberg (born Australia 1955)
Portrait of Peggy Silinski, Tasmania
c. 1976
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2003

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VEASEY_calf_WEB

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Beverley Veasey (born Australia 1968)
Study of a Calf, Bos taurus
2006
Chromogenic print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Acquired 2006

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“I think when you look through any collection, you’re often struck by the kind of pointlessness and banality of photography. It doesn’t matter which museum in the world you look at. It’s like, “is there any need for this thing to exist at all?”. It probably comes back to the capacity of the object, the image to suggest things, the suggestive potential rather than the prescriptive, which is a given in photography of course, the evidential authority of the medium preceding any individual reading we have of particular pictures. Maybe it’s the fact that the photographs have the ability to suggest some other thing and that’s what draws you in – that’s that feeling, the thing that slips away from thought. These are really the same things that apply to our meetings with any work of art, whether it’s a piece of music or a sculpture or anything else. There’s something compelling, there’s something there that sort of animates your speculative capacity, causes you to wonder. Other times, or most of the time, that’s not the case. Certainly most of the time that’s not the case with photography.”

Interview with Bill Henson by Toby Fehily posted 01 Feb 2014 on the Art Guide Australia website [Online] Cited 18/02/2014. Used under fair use for the purpose of art criticism.

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POIGNANT-WEB

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Axel Poigant (born United Kingdom 1906; arrived Australia 1926; died 1986)
Jack and his family on the Canning Stock Route
1942
Gelatin silver print, printed 1986
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Acquired 1991

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JOHNSON_light-performance_WEB

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Tim Johson (born Australia 1947)
Light performances
1971-72
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Acquired 2011

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FAHD_alicia_WEB

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Cherine Fahd (born Australia 1974)
Alicia
2003
From the series A woman runs
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2011

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STACEY_friends-WEB

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Wesley Stacey (born Australia 1941)
Untitled
1973
From the series Friends
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by Bill Bowness 2013

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“That was one of the things that interested me and continues to interest me about photography: how these things inhabit the world as objects. And indeed we read them not just with our eyes but with how our whole bodies read and encounter and negotiate these objects, which happen to be photographs. And that’s very much a thing that interests me in the way that I work. I feel sometimes that I only happen to make photographs myself and that it’s a means to an end… So there’s a sense in which I’m interested in these objects that happen to be photographs and the way that they inhabit the same space that our bodies inhabit. Everything comes to you through your whole body, not just through your eyes and ears – it’s a vast amount of information. Watching something get bigger as you draw closer to it, not just matters of proximity, but texture or the way objects sit in a space when they’re lit a certain way – all of this is very interesting to me, always has been.”

Interview with Bill Henson by Toby Fehily posted 01 Feb 2014 on the Art Guide Australia website [Online] Cited 18/02/2014. Used under fair use for the purpose of art criticism.

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HINDERAKER_Fiona-Hall_WEB

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Mark Hinderaker (born United States of America 1946; arrived Australia 1970; died 2004)
Fiona Hall
1984
Gelatin silver print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2003

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LLINDSAY_Norman-and-Rose-WEB

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Lionel Lindsay (Australia 1874–1961)
Norman Lindsay and Rose Soady, Bond Street studio
c. 1909
Gelatin silver print, printed 2000
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by Katherine Littlewood 2000

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STRIZIC_BHP_WEB

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Mark Strizic (born Germany 1928; arrived Australia 1950; died 2012)
BHP steel mill, Port Kembla, 1959
1959
Gelatin silver print, printed 1999
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
Donated by the Bowness Family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2008

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

Opening hours:
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Sat – Sun: 12pm – 5pm
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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

 

 

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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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