Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Letting the light come in

John Austin and I met at a forest festival in Northcliffe last year. He was sitting in the pop-up cafĂ©. My first impression was of a man who observed his space in a quiet, intense but unobtrusive manner. I’ve known other professional photographers who have the same way about them. Witnesses, I guess, those people astute of eye and with a mind that constantly frames the scene. They are lens rather than subject. We talked about going into the forest that day. ‘I can’t go into the forest any more,’ he said quietly. ‘It just makes me too sad.’ *
On Friday John is showcasing the very best of his work over the last twenty three years and a major part of the exhibition is about the forest protests of the 1990s and early 2000s.

 'Watch', Lane SF, detail

                                                                                              Broke Inlet

John also photographs landscapes and portraits, and is particularly enamored with the littoral . He and his wife Rae came to stay at Broke Inlet while I was there a few months ago. In the early morning, I saw their figures stepping through reeds and around trees on the shore of the inlet. They'd been here many times before to photograph the place where water and land constantly renegotiate boundaries.

                                                                                      Broke Inlet Fishtrap
Later we had breakfast in Claire House and chatted. In 1994 John had decided to move down to the southern forests, to work in a more quiet and contemplative way. ‘But when I moved into the forest I found the truth.’ The battle to save the south west’s old growth forests from large scale logging wasn’t even on John’s radar until he moved to the tiny timber town of Quinninup. ‘There was nothing quiet and contemplative about it all,’ he said. ‘It was mayhem. It was like a battle scene.’*

                                                                                       Tank Girl and her Mate
In the thick of it

John Austin's survey documents an integral part of our recent cultural clashes when it 
 comes to primary industry versus conservation in small towns of the south west. I would liken it in context to the work of photographer Ed Smidt in Albany, who documented another eco-cultural turning point in the 1970s: people protested the killing of another monolithic species -  the whales - while the industry's working class clung to 'the way things were' and the businessmen bailed when world's markets dropped out.

I'm really pleased and proud to be opening John Austin's exhibition this Friday at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery.  After I met John and Rae at the cafe in Northcliffe, he read Salt Story and asked me to write the essay for his survey catalogue. He said he wanted something different to the usual art theory essay. I was happy to oblige and after many hours interviewing John with my phone and pen and paper at Broke Inlet, and later in his darkroom, we had an essay ready for the exhibition.

John Austin: Survey II 1994 - 2017 will open this Friday at 6pm and run until 26th of November.

*Excerpts from 'Letting the Light Come In: John Austin's relationship to forest, woman and land's edge.' By me. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What will Country say about me when I'm gone?

What gossip would Country impart at a party, after us humans have walked out of the room? I've often wondered about this. Recently I visited the place where a friend took his own life and I can safely say that nature doesn't give a fuck. Nature doesn't remember or care much for us interlopers. Today, another writer told of how, after the US mortgage crisis, people walked away from their houses. The animals moved in and the backyard pools filled with reeds and frogs.

In this context, I love the quote from filmmaker Wim Wenders about landscape photography. It is paradoxical and yet weirdly correct.

I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilisation. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.

The quote came from the great film review by Lauren Carroll Harris on the new Oz movie 'Killing Grounds.' Here

Taj Mahal

This is so lovely. Thanks to a friend's recommend.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mum and the motherless nest

Mum found a bird's nest while walking in the forest recently.

She got her magnifying glass, held it under my eyes, and said, 'Look a bit closer.'

Mum spent her working life in midwifery and palliative care, so she is across the minutiae of birth, death and rebirth. This one stumped her.
'What happened?' she asked me, as we stared at the tiny skeletal chicks no bigger than my thumbnail.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Xenotopias and the Australian Gothic

A xenotopia, according to landscape writer Robert Macfarlane, is an uncanny or unsettling landscape, an out of place place. From the Greek: xeno - strange or different, and topos - place.

Ah finally, I thought when I read this. Now I have a word for those odd unsettling places, those quickening borderlands that I'm drawn to, whose ancestral scars seem sown into the country. I would argue that places described as xenotopias say more about the visitor; that it is the visitor and not the place, who feels uneasy.

That said, Country can hold events in its body, the same way human ancestors can pass down physical and emotional manifestations of trauma. I believe in this. Blaze Kwaymullina wrote a beautiful essay on ancestral scarring here: Country Roads, Take Me Home; Prisons, Movement and Memory.


The academic writing I've read on the Australian Gothic tends to focus on the English colonial experience in Australia first, of trying to navigate Country that felt threatening and was populated with fabulous beasts.The swans were black instead of white and trees shed their bark, not their leaves. Massive granite bosses stood sentinel, reminiscent of European pagan sites. If this country and its beasts didn't kill them, it would oppress, impede, baffle and terrify the protagonists. The ghosts would rise up to strike them down.  

I think that writers still use those ideas for historical fiction, contemporary and even futuristic dystopian drama, using landscape as a major motivating force. (The Sound has been described as Australian Gothic.) Tasmanian writers, artists and film makers do the Gothic brilliantly. In fact I think the Tasmanian Gothic is in a class all of its own. A major motivator is the landscape, swathing a silent, wounded history of the island.


Last night I dreamed of the sea eagle. It looked down at me from the spar of a power pole on the overpass into the city. In the morning when I awoke at the inlet it was from the marri tree at the water’s edge that the eagle regarded me. It looked sanguine, interested as I called in its own eerie language. Later I saw the bird cruising the shoreline, hunting, wings tilted up like a dancer’s fingers, as it does every day. I called again but the eagle ignored me. (from my story Living at Clarkie's Camp, out in November)

At the inlet there are myriad Gothic tropes: monster dogs circling my house, cathedrals of trees dripping bark and a memory of rain, a sense of isolation and often discomfort. There is an intense, cold stilling at certain times of the day. Even the birds stop calling. It feels as though nature, though it cares nothing for me ('here lies one whose name was writ in water'), is not only obliterating its own history but holding onto it, layering bones, humus and earth stars over the death, decay and rebirth. Out in the middle of the inlet lie the fossilised stumps of enormous trees, dead for millennia. Fungi feed on the living. The tree I call my Gateway Guardian is burled to a grotesque disfigurement from centuries of insect attack.

Here are the ghosts from the past. Here lived Clarke, hoping to hide from the people who wished him dead. Here are the young women who went into the night forest to hunt wild pigs after a funeral. Here are the wise, funereal crows and shrieking black cockatoos, the black swans that gossip as they fly. Here lives the hermitess, the woman in the tower. Here is the line of stoic weatherboard shacks facing to the sea, holding their own histories.

It feels like a Borderlands, a space in between. Sometimes I jokingly call the place where I live Winterfell and the name is met with a ready, dour nod. The inlet, the islands within and the country  are fiercely loved by the shack-dwellers who know the place intimately. And yet they say that some 'strange things have gone on around here.' 
The country is eerie and beautiful and easy to become obsessed with.
I feel that this place, this xenotopia, is not finished with me yet.