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critical writing

critical writing, history

the modest vocation of photography?

June 26, 2017

I joined the library at Flinders University of South Australia as an alumni so as to  gain access to books that could help with my research for some of my photographic projects, such as  the  Tasmania Elegies and the Mallee Routes ones.  I also wanted to see how  photography had been incorporated into the  recent histories of the Australia visual arts after the boom in the 1980s and the postmodern revisions of modernism.   Was it now on a par with the traditional mediums of the visual arts within their  autonomous sphere,  and was it accorded the same art-historical tenets in the context of the coexistence of the multiplicity of styles and tendencies?

I started reading Christopher Allen’s  book Art in Australia: From Colonisation to Postmodernism that was  published in 1997.  Allen is currently a national art critic for The Australian, and if  he is currently working  as a conservative art critic,  his 1997 text acknowledges that  Australian culture has received its styles from elsewhere. There have been  Australian impressionists, post-impressionists, cubists, surrealists, abstractionists, pop artists and postmodernists.

Allen’s argument is that no visual style is simply received: the history of Australian art, so far as it merits a history of its own, is the history of our adaptation of these foreign styles to our own unique purposes.  This grounds Australian art deep in the broader currents of Australian history. Art becomes part and parcel of the history of our coming to terms with our unique physical, social and political environment. Whatever you do, you inevitably implicate yourself in a specifically Australian set of concerns,  and  to deny these implications is simply to implicate yourself further.

Wentworth Forest, Tasmania

No photographers are included in the colonial period and Max Dupain, Ponch Hawkes and Sue Ford are  mentioned in passing.   In   his  last chapter on postmodernism Allen says that postmodern photographers, such as Anne Zahalka, Fiona Hall and Bill Henson were unlike those photographers:

 who work grew out of of the observation and documentation of their social environment –which is after all perhaps photography’s  real, though modest vocation–these artists made picture of elaborately, prepared subjects….The most prominent of the photographer’s is, however, without a doubt, Bill Henson, if only because he achieves what is hardest for  the photographer–that is to construct an imaginary world: in his case it is a night-world of naked bodies, ruins and disaster.

Fair enough.   Yet there are no examples of a photography that is based on observation and documentation in his history.   Nor is there any consideration   of  the changing views of what constitutes observation and documentation in relation to visual composition and  the broader currents of Australian history;  or to the way that photography  represents  how Australians have come  to terms with their  unique physical, social and political environment.

So we can infer that, for Allen,   photography has a peripheral presence in  terms of the visual arts. Photography is not listed in the index of the text.  The core of the visual art in  Allen’s aesthetic rationality  is painting and photography is not considered to be  on a par  with the traditional mediums of the visual arts.  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…

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 to 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…

colour, exhibitions, film, history, Indigenous, landscape

The Lumen Seed: Questions for a Conversation

March 20, 2017

The  questions below were written by myself  in order to facilitate  a  conversation at the launch of Judith Crispin’s The Lumen Seed  book at the Atkins Photo Lab  gallery in Adelaide  on  Friday,  17th March  2017. The questions  were  structured around  The Lumen Seed book,   and they were designed to give some background to the construction of the text for the audience.   They place the emphasis  on Judith’s  photography rather than her poetry,  given that the space for the launch  at the Atkins Photo Lab  is a photography gallery. The audience pretty much took over once we got the conversation rolling.

The images in the post are mine and they were made whilst I was at  Lajamanu.  There  has been one review  of the book so far: –namely, this  review of  The Lumen Seed at the F-Stop photography magazine.  

Lajamanu 

1. Since few people in the audience would have been to either the Tanami Desert or Lajamanu we will start the conversation  here. Lajamanu is 4000 kilometres from Sydney and around 800 kilometres north west of Alice Springs. It’s remote and difficult to get to. So the first question is  why Lajamanu Judith?

2. Remote indigenous communities have a negative  profile in the mainstream media,  and those on the conservative side of politics want to close them down and shift people to the bigger towns. This is  currently happening in Western Australia with support from the Federal Government which has withdrawn funds for essential services including the supply of power, water and management of infrastructure.

When I was at Lajamanu I was surprised at how well the Warlpiri community was functioning. This indicated that  more is going on here  than Tony Abbott’s lifestyle choice. From my brief stay I gained the impression that the life of the community was premised on a synthesis of tradition and modernity.

Is that impression right? If so,  can you tell us how the Warlpiri are succeeding and what they are trying to do? Can you answer in terms of the Warlpiri’s conception of their relationship to Australian modernity.

3. What  do you think is the biggest threat to the Warlpiri’s future at Lajamanu?  Is it  the impact of climate change on the Tanami in the form of more droughts and floods? Or would it be the failure of the younger generation to continue to walk the difficult line  between tradition and modernity?

Trunk + bone

 

Photography book

My experience when I was at  Lajamanu in 2016 was one of being a cultural tourist. I was very uncomfortable in that role, and I wasn’t sure how to step beyond being a cultural tourist to photograph what I was seeing.

4. So Judith, was that your initial experience as a photographer at Lajamanu?  When did you start moving away from  being a cultural tourist to begin to  formulate the ideas behind the Lumen Seed project?

5. Why did you decide to incorporate the broader historical context around the Warlpiri and Central Australia into your photographic project?

Most photography books adopt a similar format: a series of photos in the form of a visual narrative with a brief, written introduction, usually written by someone other than the photographer. The emphasis is on the images. The Lumen Seed, in contrast, is much more multilayered and intertextual.

6. Can you tell us why you took this approach to a photography book?  Continue Reading…