Last week I went along to PhotoAccess to check out the latest installation of the multimedia work Jangil (Homesick) by now Melbourne-based Talbet Fulthorpe. I first saw this work in it’s earlier incarnation in late 2008, when I was completely blown away by how moving it was, its originality and the sheer amount of effort involved in its construction.
Following this, Talbet was kind enough to meet with me and talk me through the ideas behind the work and the process of creating it. As a result I ended up penning the following piece…
Talbet Fulthorpe and the Art of Preservation
Adjusting from darkness to light, you find yourself in strange surroundings. The sky above is immense and blue, and wisps of white cloud reach across it. The ground stretches out below; a golden expanse of earth dotted by stones and tussocks of long grass. Everything is crisp and uniform in appearance. Moving towards the distant trees the ground slopes downward to reveal a riverbed amongst the roots of the mangroves. Suddenly an old man’s voice can be heard. He is saying ‘that little creek went right around, followed the road around, right around… And up that little creek we’d go crabbing with a big hook, and we’d get the hook into the crab hole, and pull the crabs out’. You feel you can remember this yourself, as you look out over the river as if looking through his own eyes and the serene landscape envelopes you.
This is not some dreamscape or flight of the imagination. The experience is entirely virtual, an interactive video artwork entitled Jangil (Homesick), brought into being by artist Talbet Fulthorpe.
Jangil (Homesick) was Fulthorpe’s Honours work for his Bachelor of Arts (Digital Arts) at the Australian National University School of Art. Exhibited for the first time at the School of Art graduate exhibition at the end of 2008, the methods and concepts behind the work challenge the ever-shrinking gap between technology and reality, while questioning the role of new media in the preservation of memory, history and the environment.
For some time now Fulthorpe has been making interactive investigations into the tension between the built environment and the natural world. He is fascinated by the way in which after ‘conquering’ the landscape and constructing concrete worlds in towns and cities, urban societies then attempt to inject nature back into their surroundings. This is particularly evident in the urbanised regions of Australia, as here the landscape has been changed so dramatically in so short a time. Where once there was land unchanged for thousands of years there are now cities bursting at their seams and hundreds of kilometres of suburban sprawl; a shift that has come so quickly that much of it has been witnessed in a single lifetime.
Fulthorpe’s artwork has increasingly commented on these themes. One such example, Living on the Threshold, was an interactive sound work comprised of a projected video landscape of trees and grassland which becomes filled with images of people and buildings in response to the relative level of noise in the gallery space.
Despite being technical successes Fulthorpe felt that artworks such as this were too distant from his own personal experience, and sought to make more of an emotional connection with his next project. Here began the idea of Jangil. In keeping with the theme of altered landscapes he resolved to create an artwork about his family roots, and specifically his maternal Grandfather’s childhood home in Southport, Queensland, in the time before it was swallowed up by the Gold Coast.
Fulthorpe began gathering materials that would enable him to replicate the region as it was. Archival photographs from the Library of the Gold Coast, as well as aerial photos and detailed maps from the National Library of Australia gave him information about the lie of the land as well as its appearance, enabling him to create a geographically correct replica of the area.
The most important research, however, came in the form of interviews with his Grandfather, Richard Ball, in what became an oral history of the region from his perspective. A Kombumerri man who grew up on the banks of the Nerang River, Ball spent most of his childhood in the outdoors, fishing, exploring and playing, and it is these experiences that he related to his Grandson. If Fulthorpe had gone into the research process expecting a mythicised version of his Indigenous heritage it quickly became apparent that it was a far more personal account of his history that Ball wanted to pass on to the younger generation. Indeed, Fulthorpe found the experience deeply humbling and came to realise the capacity of his artwork to represent shared ideas of memory, history and family.
Collating the information gathered from maps, photographs and the interviews, Fulthorpe rendered a three-dimensional model of the area. He then imported the model into a 3D gaming engine, typically used to develop highly sophisticated video games, where the interactive elements of the work were then coded. The entire process took eighteen months to reach completion, during which time Fulthorpe had to teach himself how to utilise the functions of the gaming engine, having not used the technology previously.
The final result, projected at life size onto the wall of a darkened room, is a breath-taking recreation; the natural elements painstakingly rendered to digital perfection. This fabricated landscape is at once a realistic depiction and unearthly techno-dreamscape.
Standing before the projection, the viewer uses a standard video game controller to ‘walk’ in the landscape, enabling them to control their viewpoint, direction and propulsion over a vast expanse of virtual space. In one move of the thumb, the viewer can scan the horizon, gaze at the clouds, or look downward at the ground over which they are moving.
At certain trigger points in the landscape, Ball narrates in voiceover a specific memory associated with that place, sometimes chuckling, sometimes sombre; the way in which he remembers the area, in the years before the development boom and the urban sprawl that now exists there.
There is no doubt that Jangil enables the viewer to feel as if they are present at this very place as it was in the 1940’s. The work is so immersive that one can just about feel the breeze caressing the grass, or smell the fresh mud on the bank of the river. When Ball speaks, it is not as though we are listening to the stories of an old man but experiencing them through his own eyes, living his memories.
There is a sadness to Jangil, despite its beauty. Fulthorpe has not only captured the appearance of Southport in the1940’s but invites the viewer to enter it, and no sooner than they feel they are a part of this environment do they feel the weight of its loss. As the old man tells his story we realise that this place exists only in his memory, and now, in a virtual reality. This landscape, while in so many ways alive in appearance, is void of life; a world where there is no time, no past or future, only this one moment preserved forever to the fullness of the artist’s ability.
With advances in modern technology we are more than ever given the promise of preservation, and the hope that despite our many mistakes we can resurrect that which is fading or has already gone. In this way artwork such as Jangil has the burden of guarding our history, being not only a substitute for a place in the world but a method of preserving a Family’s story. Fulthorpe reminds us of what we had, and who has gone before. He warns us against the thoughtless march of progress, and, failing that, he offers us this relic, the best representation we have for that which has been lost.