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critical writing

architecture, black + white, critical writing, history, landscape, South Australia, topographics

the spatial turn + topographic photography

August 25, 2017

The idea of linking  the spatial turn in the humanities to my 1980s photos emerged whilst I was exploring my   photographic archive for the proposed Adelaide Art Photography: 1970-80 book to be published by Moon Arrow Press.  Noticing  a shift in my photography  from street to topographics,  I started to make connections  in  my archive blog  to the spatial turn in the humanities in relation to the landscape and space that had emerged in the 1980s. This spatial  turn refers to  the landscape and space being  understood in terms of  them being socially constructed and continuously reshaped.

The factory in this photo, which was situated near the railway bridge  has long gone. So have the mangroves,  replaced by  a housing development that was designed to revitalise Port Adelaide.  This then is an urbanscape whose history is that of being continuously transformed by the power of capital since the 19th century.  It is not a landscape the traditional English sense of  a picture of natural inland scenery,  or  the Australian sense of a national landscape painting associated with Romanticism as in the Heidelberg School.     Landscape in this traditional sense  usually veils historically specific social relations behind the smooth and often aesthetic appearance of “nature. The tradition of the  landscape in the visual arts acts to “naturalize” what is deeply cultural,  social and economic.

mangroves, Port River estuary

The emphasis of the Port Adelaide  photography, which  is on place  and the mapping of place,  is a part of the tradition of chorography  that seeks to understand and represent the unique character of individual places. In chorography, the skills of the artist (painter and writer) were more relevant than those of the astronomer and mathematician, which were critical in geography.  Choreography is a part of the  pictorial topographic mapping tradition.  Continue Reading…

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…