Hugh Nichols: Much that is different from things in other lands

Jane Burton
Jane Burton

Since its creation much has been made of photography’s role in marking time. Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the decisive moment is still clung to as a marker of successful photography and economist Theodore Levitt knew that photography’s commercial viability was predicated on its time manipulating abilities when he famously stated that ‘Kodak sells film, but they don’t advertise film: they advertise memories.’ Even the title of this publication, Timemachine, tells us of the significance of this role.

But photography, as we know, is not just about marking time; it is equally about recording place. This is no simple task is a country as vast and variable as Australia, but it is one taken on whenever someone raises a viewfinder to the antipodean horizon. Despite the variety of terrain that constitutes the ‘Australian Landscape’, the Australian Gothic tradition has consistently unified these disparate geographies and has in recent years grown in significance to Australian contemporary photography.

The Gothic tradition, while somewhat amorphous and difficult to define, is generally understood as a conflation of the horrific, the romantic and the supernatural. Although it takes its lineage from European literature, Gerry Turcotte points out in his essay on the Australian Gothic that “long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters”. In other words, although Australia is not the ancestral home to the Gothic tradition it has always been a natural focus of the dark and wild imagination, since even before it existed as Western fact.

Upon the settlement of Australian and the initiation of voluntary migration, artistically inclined émigrés recognised immediately the gothic significance of the Australian landscape. One such artist was the writer Marcus Clarke, a significant figure in Australia’s literary history and author of seminal Australian Gothic text For The Term of His Natural Life. In his discussion of the poems of Edgar Allen Poe, Clarke discusses the Australian landscape in such a way as to make it wholly Gothic:

The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. The solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the falling leaves dropping lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums strips of white bark hand and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peels of semi human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, from the bottomless depths of some lagoon, the Bunyip rises, and, in form like monstrous sea-calf drags his loathsome form out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked to the memories of mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings – Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair.

While the gothic tradition began its life as a literary genre, it has spread its limbs into most other art forms you could care to name, including photography. Concomitant concepts that make it significant to both photography and film include the romantic world-view, a fascination with the sublime and an obsession with darkness. In recent years a number of particular Australian photographers have grown in prominence through work that recognises the Gothic nature of the Australian landscape. To describe their work using just the adjectives employed by Clarke in his description, this wave of photographic work is by turns funereal, secret and stern. It is stifling. It is sullen and despairing; melancholy, grotesque, ghostly, monstrous, loathsome, dismal, fear inspiring and, perhaps most of all, it is gloomy.

Although practising since the early nineties, Jane Burton has spent the better part of the last decade cementing her reputation as a focal point of all that is dark and menacing in Australian photography. Arguably she is second only to master of darkness Bill Henson in this regard and her work appears in almost any group exhibition you could care to name that takes as its theme the dark and unnerving. Recent examples include the unfortunately titled exhibition ‘Things that go bump in the night’ (Walker Street Gallery and Arts Centre, 2012), ‘Dark Dreams and Fluorescent Flesh’ (South Australian School of Art in Adelaide 2009) and ‘neo goth: back in black’ (University of Queensland Art Museum 2008).

From her landscapes to her nudes and interiors, Burton’s work is so completely immersed in the aethetic language of Gothicism that it comes as little surprise to learn she spent significant time during her formative years in Tasmania; the Gothic heart of Australia.

Growing up in the countryside of rural Victoria in an isolated farmhouse, my siblings and I created myths and fantasies about our surroundings. These were fed by my father’s eccentric collection of books; Saki, Edgar Allen Poe, The Brothers Grimm, BBC dramas like Dr Who, old Hammer-Horror movies. A move to Tasmania, a truly gothic landscape, reinforced my darker aesthetic tendencies. No one can escape the influence of that landscape and its history. It’s like being haunted.

Given the range of literary and cinematic influences that come to bear of Burton’s work and the fact that Tasmania Gothicism is more naturally inclined toward a European interpretation of Gothicism than more arid parts of Australia, it’s reasonable to say that her Gothicism is not necessarily or exclusively Australian in nature. The Australian landscape plays an inescapable role in her work, however, and this is most notable in her series ‘Motherland’ (2008) and ‘As Above So Below’ (2010), both of which demonstrate the terror latent in the Australian landscape. ‘Motherland’ seems to focus primarily on the desolation of pastoral existence, and the emotional isolation that this existence equates to for the Europeans who exist beyond the urban fringe in a land not designed to accommodate them. Although the series contains a number of interiors and images of man-made structures, the presence of the wild is never far. The structures are dilapidated and the landscape is present through the thin fabric of a curtain or in shadows thrown through a window. A child inhabits a number of the images and, although her face is largely inscrutable, her small figure and delicate features seem at odds with the gnarled trees and dried river beds that populate the landscape. This child could well be the very same child who is seen wandering and crying in Frederick McCubbin’s devastating painting, Lost. ‘As Above So Below’ is less to do with the uneasy relationship between Europeans and the landscape and more a gesture toward the power and appreciation for the sublime – a key subject of gothicism – made real through grandiose peaks and violent cloud formations.

Kurt Sorensen
Kurt Sorensen

The work of Kurt Sorensen likewise focuses on the uneasy relationship that exists between the Australian landscape and its European inhabitants. His work posits the idea that through photography we may uncover or make visible the traces of tragedies that have befallen those who seek to inhabit a land that is ultimately too primeval to be tamed.

I am interested in the anxiety, violence and ignorance that new comers, particularly the British colonisers, felt towards the landscape that many described as the ‘grey hell’. The fear that this new landscape conjured is evident in the colonisers’ attempts to plant ordered and ‘pretty’ gardens and trees in contrast to the gnarled trees and dense, unwieldy scrubs found in the wild.

Sorensen researches particular tales of tragedy, terror or disaster that have occurred during the Australian colonial period and travels to those locations to attempt to detect or recreate the traces they have left on the landscape. He has also been quoted as referring to his work as ‘dark folk art’. This reference seems to point out that, while the landscapes found within images such as those within his ‘Sofala’ series might easily find their way into the lenses of such Australiana photographers as Ken Duncan or Mark Gray, the coldness that Sorensen captures makes them appear anything but idyllic. With knowledge of his process, we begin to understand that Sorensen’s images do not support the much beloved Australian view of the outback as a backdrop to a folk narrative of larrikinism, perseverance, ingenuity and heroism. Through his work we become acquainted with a version of the Australian bush that is actively and often malevolently out of sync with the European culture; a place that Henry Lawson once described as “the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird and much that is different from things in other lands”. Indeed a large part of Sorensen’s practice is dedicated to the idea that European habitation of the Australian rural landscape is often “psychologically impossible”. In other words, you don’t have to be crazy to live there, but it helps.

Jane Brown
Jane Brown

Melbourne based photographer Jane Brown feels such an affinity for the gothic that she named a series of her work ‘Australian Gothic’ (2011). This series presents a range of monochromatic interior and exterior shots of bleak Australiana. The scenes vary quite dramatically, from the interior of a desolate and austere country pub, to a vast mountain range. The seemingly disparate nature of Brown’s subject matter results in it becoming heavy with implied narrative; in this way not dissimilar to Sorensen’s work.

I find it interesting how monochrome is used to differentiate the living and the dead, the past and the present. It has an ability to transcend the constraints of time, memory and death. I examine this a lot in my work – landscapes seem to have vestiges or traces of past life and memorials become otherworldly.

Although Sorensen does not work in black and white, he and Brown share an affinity for the ‘vestiges’ and ‘traces’ left on the Australian landscape, whether its geography is exterior or interior, urban or regional.

Sarah Rhodes
Sarah Rhodes

Providing an interesting perspective on Australian Gothicism is the work of Sarah Rhodes. Like Burton, Rhodes uses the symbolism of childhood to make us aware of the unsettled nature of the Australian landscape and our relationship with it. In her series ‘Play’ (2009-2011), Rhodes bears witness to the play warfare of children in the Break O’Day region of North-Eastern Tasmania. Despite the title of the series, there appears to be little that is playful about the children’s games. The children are, despite the presence of toys and the fact that they are clearly very young, frighteningly adult in their gaze and body language. This is particularly so in the series’ most celebrated title image, Play, which depicts a young boy with bow wrapped around his body and arrows clutched by his side walking toward camera with disturbing confidence and almost supernatural power.

In the catalogue essay that accompanies the series, writer Jane Stratton points out that Rhodes did not reproduce these images to her specifications using the children as models, but was instead invited into the world of the children in order to document it. It is an important distinction for Stratton to make because through making it we become acutely aware that the apparent synchronicity that exists between the children and the landscape is absolutely genuine and forged through countless hours of habitation.

Although it’s not clear if it was intended to be, the series is powerfully sinister and what makes it so is that, while the landscape seems wild and oppressive, the children appear absolutely at home within it. Unlike McCubbin and Burton’s lost young girls, these children are in complete command of themselves and their surroundings. Of course, anybody who has had much interaction with children would know that their natural instinct is to be wild, that they are taught to be civilised by adults who have, to a greater or lesser degree, long been subsumed into the order of mannered society. ‘Play’ reminds us of this fact and provides a lesson relevant to those engaging with contemporary photography Gothicism across all its practitioners: that in order to understand the Gothic potential of the Australian landscape, we might do well to revert to a less civilised way of being; that the wild  is best understood by the wild.

References

Ashley Crawford, Shadowlands, in ‘Australian Art Collector’, Issue 28, Ultimo, 2004

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver (ed), ‘The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction’, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2007

Simon Gregg, ‘New Romantics: Darkness and Light in Australian Art, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2011

Gerry Turcotte, Australian Gothic, in Mulvey Roberts (ed) ‘The Handbook of Gothic Literature’, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1998, pp 10-19.

Author Unknown, Edmund Pearce Gallery Website, Accessed December 2012, link

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HUGH NICHOLS is an arts, culture and music writer. He contributes with varying degrees of regularity to such unsuspecting victims as Un Magazine, Ampersand Magazine, Kill Your Darlings, Hysteria, Das Superpaper, Loud Online, No Clean Singing, International Society of Music Snobs & Elitists and Concrete Playground.

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