My debut curatorial effort, Borderlife, opens this coming Friday evening (August 28) at Canberra Contemporary Art Space. The show contains work by r e a, Julia Boyd, Rachael Freeman, Rose Montebello and Tess Stewart-Moore, and I hope that no one will be able to tell that I’ve never done this before. Hm.
To get you in the mood, here is the essay to accompany the show…
(if you’re in Canberra, and can’t be arsed plowing through 1000 words, come along to the show instead. It’s on until October 3rd)
‘For my part, I feel, that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life…’ Henry David Thoreau
Since the earliest days of white settlement in Australia, the landscape represented hardship and mystery, fear and awe. With no regard for the existence Indigenous Australians had taken over 40,000 years to perfect, the settlers saw a wilderness to be dominated and ‘civilised’, an awful distance to be reconciled, and a misguided hope of replicating something of the old countries they’d left behind.
Modern times find little changed. The built environments of metropolitan Australia offer a promise of safety and security – the ‘easy life’. The citizen, sealed within his air-conditioned high rise apartment, is oblivious to the realities of his own vulnerability in what remains our most awkward relationship with one of the world’s most unforgiving environments.
The city is an illusion of triumph and a symbol of dominance, yet Mother Nature is ever-present, strange and unpredictable. Soaring temperatures, freak storms, drought, fire and flood are continual reminders of how delicately we balance at the very edge of the world, where no amount of concrete and asphalt will alter the fact that man’s place will be contested until the very end.
Borderlife explores this uneasy association, highlighting an endless struggle for dominance over nature and the struggle for life within it.
Focusing on sites that eloquently represent this collision of power, Tess Stewart-Moore exposes human
obsession with construction and control. Through her lens the conquests of man are juxtaposed against those of nature, such as the resolute concrete of a dam and the mass of dark water it holds captive.
There is little evidence of life or the passing of time, only a great stillness, emptiness and crushing silence. The images seem like markers of a civilisation now abandoned; spaces which may have been empty for a moment or perhaps an age, perhaps images from beyond the apocalypse.
Stewart-Moore’s imagery can be placed within in an artistic tradition that operates through notions of the sublime: the feelings of terror and awe generated by viewing that which is vast or overwhelming and ultimately has the power to destroy us.
Whereas Stewart-Moore’s photographs are coldly commanding, the rich oil paintings of Rachael Freeman lure the viewer with elusive beauty and a warm familiarity. In her luminous landscapes, Canberrans at once recognise the glassy expanse of the Lake, the distinctive light, the curve of the hills and silhouette of the distant mountain ranges.
But there is something else here; something that at once permeates the psyche with a creeping disquiet. Above the serene vista hovers a foreign body; an amorphous cloud-like form, the presence of which seems to represent a sort of gathering dread. It spills and bleeds as though it can only grow larger and swallow what lies in its path.
Everything in its reach appears suddenly vulnerable. A homestead nestled in the hillside now seems impossibly small and alone, the soft dusk light now eerie and unnatural. Initially attracted by that which was familiar viewers are now repelled by a sickening distortion and growing unease in the face of nameless doom.
Julia Boyd builds upon Freeman’s investigation into the uneasy side of that which is domestic and familiar. Here it is the everyday object that becomes a window onto our surroundings. Human interventions in the landscape are depicted upon the very articles and materials that have played a part in its alteration and inhabitation; views of the brutal and banal.
A humming florescent light illuminates a bulldozer clearing the way for a sprawling new suburb, the endless expanse of mud pre-empting the banality to come. A picnic table depicts an idyllic mountain view: a reflection of the very environment it is intended to be used in.
The imagery upon these battered, time-worn objects brings to mind the saturated colour and kitsch, decorative nature of biscuit tins and jigsaw puzzles of days gone by, conjuring a shared nostalgia.
The dark assemblage works of Rose Montebello are of a similar ilk, yet they focus on a struggle that occurs irrespective of human influence. Her three-dimensional found image constructions capture tense encounters in the natural world, as though exploding from the pages of a National Geographic.
In exacting detail we behold predator and prey; frozen in time at the very edge of destiny. Montebello isolates age-old adversaries – owl and mouse, eagle and rabbit, each locked into roles in nature’s theatre. The haunting imagery forces us to consider our own delicate existence (are we the hunter or the hunted?), and the difficult notion that life can at once be so futile yet so full of purpose.
A meditation on dependence and fate, Montebello’s works exude a gravity and exquisite beauty that can only be found in life’s extremes.
One such extreme is enacted in the series PolesApart by r e a. These photographs and accompanying video work depict a lone Indigenous woman, her figure almost obscured amongst the gnarled blackened trees of the bush. In turn-of-the-century, almost funereal costume she appears fragile and out of place. She is clearly uneasy, certainly lost – we can only imagine she has been driven here in desperation by an unknown and unseen force.
Outside influences (such as those that have caused her to be dressed in constrictive and disabling garments), have rendered her vulnerable and irrevocably at odds with surroundings in which she would otherwise be familiar. In a state of flux and in flight, she exists as an alien in the country of her birth, a stranger in a strange land.
Playing to universal fears of abandonment, displacement and isolation r e a epitomises the experience of generations of Australians set amongst the claustrophobic crush of the bush.
The artworks of r e a, Stewart-Moore, Freeman, Boyd and Montebello are manifestations, both observed and imagined, of the unsettling influence of the land and nature on the Australian psyche, a glimpse of life on the edge.
Here, nature is a vast, brooding creature with whom we may perhaps never reconcile, a terrible and beautiful force whose power will ultimately reassert itself.