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archives, critical writing, Tasmania, topographics

Tasmanian Elegies: antecedents

June 8, 2017

I have been slowly plugging away on the Tasmanian Elegies project. I have  been going through my film archives  and posting selected images on the Tumblr blog. I am up to my  2012 visit,   but I think that there is a gap of 4-5 years before I return to Tasmania on a phototrip. It looks as if the project  is starting to come together and that I will have enough images  to start thinking in terms of  a book for this project  after ‘The Bowden Archives: memory, text, place’    is done and dusted.  This is a project with a long gestation period.

I  will probably  enough images –see  the Tumblr blog— but it is the text that is going  to cause me trouble. Tasmanian Elegies  is at odds with the  emphasis on landscape photography   in Tasmania,  and that branch of landscape photography known as wilderness photography.I am probably going to have to go to a university library to access, and read  what Roslynn D. Haynes in her   Tasmanian Visions: Landscapes in Writing, Art and Photography (2006) has to say.

water tanks, Mt Lyell Mine, Queenstown

This emphasis on wilderness by Tasmanian photographers is understandable given the large number of wilderness areas  in Tasmania,  the ongoing threat to wilderness  from the mining and timber industries and the environmental movements defence of wilderness in the face of these threats.  Photography has become the chief visual instrument of environmentalists endeavouring to increase an awareness of the natural beauty and sublimity of Tasmania’s wilderness. Wilderness here  is usually  understood as  an unpeopled wilderness. Continue Reading…

critical writing, exhibitions, photography

The National: New Australian Art 2017

May 23, 2017

The National: New Australian Art  exhibition is impressive. It is spread across three of Sydney’s major art institutions (the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and Carriageworks), and it  claims to provide a  major focus on Australian art of our time. ‘Our time’, presumably, is  the contemporary postindustrial era of digital media, global capitalism,  mass entertainment,  constant flux, culture of excess,  and the proliferation of screens. This is  a time  of a  profound shift in orientation and sensibility as 21st-century Australia seeks to reimagine itself and to secure its identity within an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

This inter-institutional project of contemporary art continues Sydney’s claim to be the country’s leading centre of contemporary art. This  claim  had been  previously based on the Sydney Biennale, and then  the Australian Perspecta series  from  1981 to  1999  at the AGNSW.  The National in  Sydney–Australia’s global city–is a six year initiative, with  three editions  in 2017, 2019 and 2021,  and it  will profile a mix of emerging, mid-career and established artists from around the country and practising overseas.The websites of the above  three institutions say that the new and recently commissioned works encompasses a diverse range of mediums, including painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performance.

There is no photography was  my immediate reaction. This is confirmed by going though all the artists exhibiting in 2017.  No  photographers or photo artists. The closest is video art.   Photography, one can infer,  is not a part of contemporary art in post colonial Australia.   Neither are artists working in South Australia. Or Tasmania for that matter. So why these exclusion? Do  photographers and  the contemporary artists in the two excluded states  lack intellectual sophistication, critical nous  and the requisite  knowledge of art history?

Mt Lyell open mine, Queenstown

The exclusion  of photography from this exhibition of contemporary art  suggests the obsolescence of photography. It is outmoded, like the juke box.

My understanding of contemporary  art—the works exhibited at international Biennali  or Documenta — is that it refers to that  period frequently characterised by an inherently decentred, cosmopolitan, digitalised and globalised world order. In Australia it would be the post conceptual art after the Australian  Bicentennial in 1988,  and in situating  itself reflexively within the  contemporary,  it  is  art  in which formerly peripheral Indigenous and Australian art now has a key role to play. There are  different forms of artistic agency – aesthetic, poetic, social, political—  in the present,  multiple perspectives on contemporary life in Australia as a country, nation and state, the emergence of repressed histories,  an archival impulse, and the turn away from medium specificities.

The   question is, given the importance of digital images  on the internet,  why are art photographers not seen as a part of the networking of mainstream contemporary art?  This is  one  that explores the fault lines in  any fixed notion of Australian national identity,   the  different issues of contemporary life,  and  the ruins of modernity?  It’s a puzzle, especially when you see this kind of Photography Festival; a puzzle that suggests the obsolescence of photography.  Continue Reading…

digital, Melbourne, topographics, urban

in Melbourne: topographics

May 8, 2017

I had several days in  Melbourne  centred around working with Stuart Murdoch on Saturday editing  the 80 or so images for the Bowden Archives book.   Thanks to Stuart  I now have a dummy of  the book which I can show to various people to see how they react, their  impressions and judgements.

Whilst in Melbourne I helped Helga Leunig set her stall up at the Other Art Fair at the Facility in Kensington; saw some  Penelope Hunt’s  images from her  Remains to be Seen and Water Lilies   projects at her stall in the Other Art Fair; managed to  take a few snaps around Docklands;  had some printing done at Magnet; heard about an upcoming Melbourne Photo Festival; saw  the NGV’s Festival of Photography that featured Bill Henson and William Eggleston;   meet up with both  Eric Algra  re the Mallee Routes project and friends from the Lajamanu trip;  and was shown around  Sunshine by Stuart Murdoch. I wasn’t able to make  any photos for the Mallee Routes project on my  way back from Melbourne to Adelaide.

However, late on Saturday afternoon Stuart and I  went on a photo shoot on the Western Ring Road. It took us a while to access  this location situated amongst the various  freeways connected to the Western Ring Road  for our topographical  photo shoot:

Western Ring Rd, Melbourne

The photographic highpoint of the trip was this topographical photoshoot with Stuart even though  it was very windy and the lovely afternoon autumn light had gone.  We only had time to scope the location on this urban  freeway corridor and  to take a few photos with our medium format cameras.  It’s a good location for a large format shoot with the right conditions: clouds, afternoon winter light and little in the way of a south westerly wind.

This brief photoshoot  raised the question of a topographical approach to photography.  What is it? In  Andrew Sayer’s book Australian Art (2001)  topographics refers to the colonial drawings that came out of naval and military culture and derived from the need got recognise coastlines. Often they are views from the water looking towards the shore. The standard reference point  for contemporary Australian topographical photographers is the 1975 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape  exhibition  at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York which was  curated by William Jenkins, where  the photographers were mapping the built environment of  the late 20th century American western landscape with its motels, housing developments, office parks, and endless parking lots.

In the catalogue essay Jenkins  interpreted  the exhibition images of the American West and Midwest as being “reduced to an essentially topographical state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”.  The subsequent reframing and restating of the exhibition 40 years latter  interpret it as reinventing the genre of   the landscape as the photographers   grappled with finding a new idiom through which to represent the built environment. Continue Reading…

landscape, roadtrip, Tasmania

Tasmanian Elegies

April 19, 2017

I have started going though my photographic archive to select photos that I have made in Tasmania for the Tasmanian Elegies project. I wanted to move beyond  the ones in  the website’s gallery as they are a lot more in the archives and I didn’t know what t6o do with them.   So I have revamped an old Tumblr blog and turned it into a way of selecting the images from the archive. Hence we have Thoughtfactory’s Tasmanian Elegies blog.

This  publishing platform will allow me to see the images in terms of a project; a project that can become  a book,   if the images hold up and look interesting together.   Books, I am realising, have long lead times–a couple of years for me. The blog is the first step in constructing a text.

Mt Lyell mine landscape, 2012

One motivation for doing something with the images in the archives is the Griffith Review’s edition 39 on Tasmania–The Tipping Point, whose co-editor was Associate Professor Natasha Cica, the then director of the Inglis Clark Centre  for Civil Society at the University of Tasmania.  It consists of essays, articles, reviews and review articles on a wide range of cultural and media matters, as well as fiction and poetry’. The core argument is that Tasmania is in transition  from a resource -based economy (logging and mining) to a ‘smart island’ focused around culture, food, and tourism.

This is a big shift for a small population (just over 500,000)  still caught up in the battle between the environment and conservation  and economic development and growth,  and still experiencing a brain drain.    Continue Reading…

Adelaide, architecture, colour, critical writing

State of Hope: a review

April 8, 2017

The latest issue of  the Griffith Review is  no 55,  is called State of Hope and it is about contemporary South Australia.  It is edited by Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington    and the issue consists of  short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and photo stories.  Authors include Robyn Archer, John Spoehr, Peter Stanley, Angela Woollacott, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chris Wallace, Dennis Atkins, Nicholas Jose, and Ali Cobby Eckermann. This is an Adelaide and South Australia as primarily  seen by those working within a literary culture that includes print journalists in the mainstream media (i.e. Murdoch’s Advertiser no less).

The Griffith Review is a  leading literary magazine in Australia that  sees itself as a “high quality, agenda-setting, quarterly publication, delivering insight into the issues that matter most in a timely, authoritative and engaging fashion”. Griffith  Review peer reviews the submissions  to its various issues and  nearly all of  the members of the expert panel academics in universities in the eastern states. Previous issues have been  devoted to Tasmania and Queensland.

What is presented in these texts is the public role of writers as public intellectuals. Writers, it seems,  have a role to  to challenge and arouse the nation–ie., to speak truth to power— given the pressures of  the new media technologies and the forces of globalisation on Australia’s  literary culture—and, thankfully,  the old split between between academe,  creative writer and critic  is absent.

The  market blurb to the  State of Hope text says that:

As the industrial model that shaped twentieth-century South Australia is replaced by an uncertain future, now more than ever the state needs to draw on the strengths of its past in order to move ahead. Now, on the cusp of change, the state needs to draw on its talent for experiment and innovation in order to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. State of Hope explores the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.

This is a reasonable assessment.  South Australia is undergoing extensive de-industrialization that began in the 1970s and an uncertain  post-industrial  future does  loom. However,  South Australia is not alone in this–eg.,  witness Victoria. The process of de-industrialization  and an uncertain future also applies to Australia as a whole after the mining boom.   I also concur that the big shift to renewable energy in South Australia,  as  noted by some contributors,  is an indication of  the shape of a new future for the state.

One characteristic of State of Hope  that  I found   surprising was  the heavy doses of nostalgia with respect to the subjective memoirs of childhood and  youth remembered in Adelaide  in many of the literary contributions. This  nostalgia about the good times in South Australia’s past—-eg.,  when South Australia under Don Dustan could claim to lead the nation in politics, culture and civic virtue— does not engage with  the  contemporary revitalisation of urban life in the CBD.

construction, Franklin St, 2011

Contemporary Adelaide, which  is undergoing rapid change–not just decline– is overlooked  by the looking backwards to the golden days of cheerful,  suburban life in the 1960s and 1970s.  That is 40-50 years ago.  So what about now—everyday urban life in contemporary Adelaide?  Continue Reading…