Danielle Smelter

Tensions in the landscape

In Debt: Saving Seeds (Dave Jones and Steven Rhall) is currently on display at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Fitzroy. The exhibition was commissioned by Horsham Regional Art Gallery (HRAG) and CCP as part of ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE2015.

Last week I visited In Debt: Saving Seeds, an exhibition featuring work by Dave Jones and Steven Rhall responding to the Horsham based Australian Grains Genebank.  Viewing this exhibition brought me sharply back to my own time living in the Wimmera and I found myself reflecting upon the impact the landscape and agricultural environment has on the artistic community of the region. Of course Australian Art History is redolent in imagery of the Wimmera but what is perhaps less well known is the vibrant community of contemporary artists of the region.

The exhibition presents two distinct approaches to the subject matter, displayed on opposing walls. The crops in Dave Jone’s project are luminous and alluring, some possessing an ethereal quality, achieved through a technique called light extrusion. Yet there is an underlying tension present in the recognition of the contrivance of these representations. Produced in collaboration with local school students, Jones’ photographs encapsulate a wondrous futuristic landscape illuminated by the magic and hopeful vision of childhood. Although even young children of farming communities are attuned to the threat of failed crops, poor weather and crisis, as a parent my misgivings around a future influenced by genetic modification, climate change and food security introduce increasing layers of tension into my reading of these works.

Viewing Jones’ light extrusions immediately brought to my mind Rainbow based artist Belinda Eckermann’s research driven exploration of genetic manipulation, science, agriculture and luminosity. There are multiple intersections between their respective projects. I was struck by further correlations when I recalled Eckermann’s recent thesis had responded to the project Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2006) by Newcastle born artist Lyndall Osborne which was itself a response to the Millennium Seed Bank. Eckermann’s work explores the fluctuation between hope and repulsion for the agricultural future science may create. In pondering these connections it occurred to me that this tension is present in the artwork of multiple artists working in relation to the Wimmera landscape.

Dave Jones, In Debt: Saving Seeds

Belinda Eckermann, Trial Sequence, 2012

It is interesting then to compare the experience of Melbourne based Steven Rhall, the other exhibitor in In Debt: Saving Seeds, an outsider to the agricultural community. Rhall’s documentary project was produced during a residency at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham. The project’s namesake Shindig Box reveals a humorous treatment and indeed among Rhall’s analysis of place is an ongoing sense of irony or playfulness. Playfulness and community engagement is a uniting thread between Jones’ and Rhall’s projects. 

Reading Rhall’s blog entries throughout his residency is illuminating, providing glimpses of his outside view into the community and place he is inhabiting. Consideration of his previous engagement with issues of identity and belonging opens further readings into his selected subject matter and treatment. A video loop featuring the relentless shuffling and removal of lentils kept drawing me back. Watching, I sensed certain lentils were being discarded due to failure to meet specified but unrevealed criteria. A bit of sniffing around online tells me that what is occurring is a process called roguing, which ‘is the act of identifying and removing plants with undesirable characteristics’.[1] The idea of roguing at play beyond the agricultural sector is an undertone in the video sequence which seems to point to a sense of acceptance and rejection based upon set characteristics. Ideas surrounding who is welcome and unwelcome resonate with the artist’s engagement with eugenics but also his own position as an outsider to the community he is documenting.

‘I’m really interested in the environment that we are in as we grow and how this impacts on how we experience life and the person we become over time. As part of this is the idea of traits and other characteristics we inherit from ‘where we came from’ or origin. This can be biological, cultural, societal, familial. To some degree this relates to the work of the Geenebank where they concentrate on species endemic to Australia – kind of looking historically at a ‘best practice’ that brought about their existence and what current (and future) conditions are best for them and therefore us all as food.’[2] 

A sense that some of us may be expendable byproducts of a future agricultural landscape is confronting but not unique, rather it is revealed as part of a burgeoning global zeitgeist in Eckermann’s thesis The Grain, The Artist and The Snail. The tension in Rhall’s work is between what is presented and what is represented. 

Rhall refers to the straight works in his project as a response to the elements necessary to plant life but also implicated in climate change ‘Sun, heat, wind, earth, moisture, gas (as in O2 and CO2)’. His documentary engagement with the physical landscape called to mind Natimuk based photographer Melissa Powell. Her commercial work documenting agricultural land has bled into an artistic expression of the landscape via aerial photography. Her exhibition at Anita Traverso Gallery (2013) combines many of the geometric forms from her preceding exhibition of agricultural markings in fields of abundance with fractals found in nature and increasingly tenuous representations of life. Powell’s work presents a romantic engagement with her natural environment. It exudes a raw power present in the vastness of the landscape and more recently a sense of the tenuousness of our existence here. Images of barren trees and scorched and baked earth sit in opposition to lush verdant fields, hinting at grim possibilities should this earth fail to sustain us. The aerial perspective provides both the distance and vantage to romanticise and meditate upon the patterns of the landscape rather than fretting over scars and other telltale signs of stress evident upon the land, although if your attention lingers long enough the signs are certainly present.

Meditating upon sustenance and survival in the context of the Wimmera landscape my thoughts carried to the video work Stay or Go (2010) by Qantong based artist Anthony Pelchen. Dr Sheridan Palmer has highlighted the idea of sustained struggle for survival in Pelchen’s work. In Stay or Go the stillness of the Lake Hindmarsh landscape is repeatedly ruptured by the sound of gunshots, almost marking time with the motorcycle as it passes to and fro across the landscape and our field of vision, yet somewhat and increasingly out of sync, stirring a sense of discord and uncertainty. In what would otherwise be a meditative experience the gunshots introduce a growing sense of disruption. The spent shotgun shell is a recurring motif in Pelchen’s work, replete with personal symbolism and also the larger stage of death and survival ever present in an agricultural setting. Recent responses to environmental crisis generated under the moniker Code Maroon during the 2014 heatwave and fires are situated within the artist’s Qantong landscape, alternating between drama, relief, forbearance and foreboding. The ongoing psychological territory of Pelchen’s personal reflection and the experience of living somewhat tenuously in the Wimmera environment find strong resonance in this series revealed in real time to followers via his Facebook feed. 

In one of those random instances of synchronicity that sometimes occur, at the same time as I find myself contemplating these contemporary instances of tension in relation to the Wimmera landscape, Suzette Wearne, curator of the exhibition Weird melancholy: The Australian Gothic (currently on display at the Ian Potter Art Museum), has recently spoken of the prevalence of fear in settler and modernist representations of the Australian landscape. In contrast to traditional readings wherein the landscape is romanticised she perceives fear in response to a foreign landscape that can be both fierce and unforgiving. 

The landscape is such a dominant part of the experience of inhabiting the Wimmera region that it is intrinsically bound in the psyche of the local population. It is however interesting to contemplate a select body of work by artists of the region directly engaging with the land and how the environment continues to inspire their creativity as well as imbuing a sense of tension. Although the tensions are somehow specific to their unique rural setting they are universal in that agricultural issues inevitably bleed into urban communities and in that sense their contemporary issues can be felt as harbingers of our imminent concern.

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