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Upcoming exhibition insights

Andrea Huelin takes us inside the studios of the collective group Sixfold Project to delve into their upcoming exhibition, Meanwhile, showing at NorthSite from 18 November 2022 to 28 January 2023.


Ask an artist why they choose to work alongside others – even if they don’t really see them much, collaborate or socialise with them – and they may talk about a number of practical benefits. Important factors for many artists are the sense of shared endeavour, of community, of invisible moral support in what can be an emotionally fraught, physically challenging business involving sustained effort and will, often with unpredictable outcomes. The artists of Sixfold Project have devised a shared creative space like this, but it is not under the one roof. Indeed, it is not even in the same Australian state.

The six women met and began exhibiting together in Cairns, far north Queensland, but they are now working in their own studios, from various locations around Australia and New Zealand. Still, they benefit from this sense of working communally. Highly self-motivated, and prolific in their own careers, these mid-career artists don’t seek coaching, banter, or comparing notes as they negotiate their place in the art world – they already have the runs on the board. They are professionals who have seen the benefit in connecting with each other and sharing their journeys towards their collaboratively determined goal, purely because of the energy and reinforcement of purpose that is created by their common, simultaneous striving. As they have shown in the past, the power of their collective artistic sensibilities is powerful indeed.

The latest exhibition by the artists of Sixfold Project – Barbara Dover, Louisa Ennis-Thomas, Rose Rigley, Raewyn Biggs, Julie Poulsen and Jennifer Valmadre – is called ‘Meanwhile’, celebrating the power of the collective creative experience, while bringing their own philosophical and personal frameworks to the themes of time and place. New work for the exhibition has been created simultaneously by these artist colleagues, across disparate geographic locations.

The artists work in isolation but meet regularly via video connection to exchange thoughts and processes, and to seek candid responses; gradually refining and clarifying their intentions and experiments. The artists describe this process as an ‘energising’ opportunity to ‘reject, reshape, reaffirm and renavigate their works through a shared creative process’. Their work includes painting, sculpture, photography and installation, with a variety of experimental mixed media, as is the group’s usual multi-disciplinary approach. In each other, these individuals have recognised a similar work ethic, and a willingness to be fearless with their art making. Supported by each artist’s simultaneous efforts, they contemplate their experiences and preoccupations, and seek to express their evolution.

For some of the Sixfold Project artists, these contemplations are biographical. As she often does in her work, Julie Poulsen began with an idea expressed in words, in this case a poem reflecting on her experience of time. The resulting paintings and assemblage fragments are joyful jumbles of beaches and bodies, pets and play – perhaps a realisation that the act of collecting experiences through photographs, sketches and memories, and then giving them new life in her skilfully haphazard paintings is a beautiful way of experiencing life. Like so many memories or thoughts leading from one to another, her semi-abstract images seem to continue from panel to panel within the large diptych ‘Meanwhile the beach is warm’, with lines of stitching providing a visible manifestation of the intuitive process of resolving an artwork. Padded panels give a sensory dimension to the artworks, accentuating the assembled nature of the pieces.

Similarly, Rose Rigley began with a poem, written in the style of a fable, reflecting upon her family of origin. In her moving story about being a witness to the experience of victims of the Stolen Generation, Rigley contemplates ideas of connection, belonging, cruelty, kindness, strength and healing. The resulting sculptural pieces are organically shaped, tubular and transparent, crocheted from salvaged copper wire with what must have been no small degree of sustained physical exertion, determination and patience. As the artist says, ‘These disembodied tongues… (are) an ongoing mantra to hope and a helpless penance to the challenge of an unchangeable past.’ The installation has a gentle poignancy that characterises Rigley’s work.

For Raewyn Biggs, time and place were distorted by sudden illness in her family and international lockdowns, as she found herself a stranger in an unfamiliar expat community within a foreign city – Auckland, New Zealand. For ‘Meanwhile’, Biggs presents large-scale photographic projections that place her within, but clearly outside her new environment with its seemingly welcoming, colourful shopfronts. The artist portrays herself as a masked superhero figure, bravely landing in this new place that needs her, but she is unable to reveal her true identity.

Jennifer Valmadre’s mastery of her mediums is such that she can break the rules and let her ideas be guided and influenced by the materials themselves as she pushes them to uncharted places. Her trust in her process and her resulting track record of extraordinarily original work has led to this new series, ‘Bowls of colour’, multiples of wall-mounted, semi-spherical forms made from casting plaster with nylon and fibreglass. The gelato-coloured concave surfaces have the inlaid techniques of encaustic painting, which contrast with the dark, nut-like shell on the convex side. The product of a long process of experimentation in colour theory and aesthetic conventions, this installation is highly original and intriguing.

Louisa Ennis-Thomas continues to experiment with form, texture and challenging materials in ‘Parasite (Clinging to the belly of the world)’: her speculative investigation of themes of exploitation and adaption. The textile installation is made up of more than 50 human-sized forms, cut and sewn from discarded agricultural sacks and suspended from the ceiling in an upside-down ‘forest’. The open weave of the hessian brings to mind skin as well as bark, creating an unsettlingly sense that the forest might be natural, but it is clearly a human-made plantation of sorts, with the limp forms clinging to the ceiling in rows. The installation, which Ennis-Thomas describes as an exploration of ‘our human desire to control, cultivate and harvest resources…and the global impacts this relentless preoccupation sets in motion’, shows the curiosity and intellect that characterises her oeuvre.
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In a magnificent synergy of ideas, Barbara Dover’s new work ‘Reckoning’ continues her career-long focus on the perils facing our environment, particularly animals who are caught up in the effects of a warming planet. The sculptural installation is foreboding exemplified: it takes the form of traffic safety cones formed from concrete, with found animal hair encased within, and protruding in places as if the animal was trapped in the form. The contrast between the organic animal-derived materials and the brutal concrete delivers that sucker punch of heartfelt recognition that Dover does so well. Dark, pockmarked forms of bollards in the installation, ‘Sentinel’, bring to mind charred ruins, while porcelain safety lights in ‘Detour’ suggest warning and threat.

Accompanying their individual bodies of work are two installations made in collaboration by all six artists. ‘Meanwhile’ is a playful video showing footage from each of the artist’s lives and working processes, giving environmental context to the artworks on show, and illustrating that the artists are simultaneously living different lives in different regions, with the connecting thread of creative progress towards the exhibition.

The installation in the Void space at the NorthSite Gallery is a collection of multiple artworks and objects that represent the creative development processes in each artist’s studio. The installation is like stolen peeks through windows or curtain partitions into the artists’ private studio workplaces, where there is evidence of the artists’ trials and errors pinned to walls, laid out on the floor, or waiting for attention on easels. This is the scene of the artists’ battle with their materials, processes and their own ambitions (and shortcomings) for the body of work they are focused on.

The Sixfold Project artists have circumvented the challenges of many mid-career artists, as well as those of artists living in isolated regional areas, by creating their virtual co-working space. Within this space, the artists have permission – indeed, more like an imperative – to be ambitious and to aim for excellence within their own practices. Working together, they have the confidence to go down the dark and sometimes scary path of the unknown, and to wrestle with materials and processes that might bring their ideas to light. In doing so, they are lifting the standard of contemporary art in their own regions by modelling determination and hard work, quality and professionalism to their fellow artists, their art students and mentees, their collectors and their gallery networks. Most importantly, their highly resolved and thoughtful artwork is adding to the visual language archive of human (and animal) experience; bringing us new ways to understand our world and ourselves.


Words by Andrea Huelin
2022


 

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The Regional Arts Development Fund is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Cairns Regional Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland.

Illuminate FNQ Indigenous Science Festival

NorthSite recently partnered to support an Art Science Talk event for the inaugural illuminate FNQ Indigenous Science Festival.

The exhibition, Yuk Wuy Min Nguntamp, by Keith Wikmunea and Heather Koowootha produced by NorthSite in collaboration with Wik and Kugu Art Centre was included in the Friday activities of the Illuminate program. Heather Koowootha provided an extremely insightful explanation of her paintings of plants and natural resources that embody deep Wik cultural knowledge.

If you are interested in hearing more about this exciting new festival that drew scientists from across the world to Cairns and celebrated local ancient knowledge systems, check out the link to their wrap-up video, produced by artist and volunteer illuminate FNQ Board Director Dr. Jenny Fraser.

For more information about illuminate FNQ Indigenous Science Festival visit: https://illuminatefnq.org/home/


In other news, Dr Jenny Fraser has recently been awarded the prestigious 2022 Australia Council Award for Emerging and Experimental Arts! Congratulations Jenny!

Dr Jenny Fraser – Australia Council Award for Emerging & Experimental Arts

2023 — 2024 Program Call Out

NorthSite is a leading contemporary art gallery working with over 300 artists each year to deliver exhibitions and programs to the Cairns region and beyond. In 2021 NorthSite delivered over 20 exhibitions and over 100 programs. The NorthSite team have extensive knowledge and connections within the arts industry to support artists achieve their goals wherever possible.

Applications for our 2023 — 2024 exhibitions and programs are now open. We welcome emerging and established artists to express their interest in our 2023 — 2024 program call-out.

Open: Monday, 8 August 2022
Deadline: Monday, 26 September 2022

 
Apply Today

Repatriate essay by Carol McGregor

“The constructed nature of history and of identification is arbitrary, not fixed, but open to new possibilities of meaning and identification.”1

Repatriate brings together four artists who met and study together at the Queensland College of Art’s (QCA) Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) program, Griffith University, Brisbane alongside collective members Dion Beasley and Cairns (Gimuy) based artist Bernard Singleton Jr.

The title of the exhibition is usually associated with the return of objects or people, back to where they came from. An expanded definition includes to restore: to restore origins, allegiance, or citizenship2—adapted here as the duty and social responsibility to restore foundations. Specifically in this exhibition, a call to restore Australia’s true foundational historical accounts and memories.

Curated together the artworks are simultaneously loud and deeply poetic, informing us in a clear voice how histories are recorded, often skewed, and owned. The artists generously give us understandings why there must be honest considerations and fluidity for growth to restore our nation’s genuine narrative.

Darren Blackman’s (Gureng Gureng, Gangulu Nations), body of work speaks to the notion that there are two versions of the colonisation of Australia. In this process, Blackman proclaims his clan’s sovereignty through questioning the integrity of Eurocentric narratives that cling to “settlement,” and the purpose of that single ideology.

Blackman’s research uncovers how former Federal Education and Youth Minister Alan Tudge in 2021 argued that the problem with the draft changes to the national history curriculum “it [the impact of colonisation] gave the impression nothing bad happened before 1788
and almost nothing good has happened since.” Tudge emphasised how the planned updates downplayed Australia’s Western heritage and how we need to recognise that “…our democracy is based on our Christian and western origin with a reference to the importance of the values of patriotism and freedom”. 3

Australia’s shared history is one true history and there is fundamental responsibility for truth telling and to right wrongs—including in our education system.

As we witness the successive failures of the 2007 Close the Gap campaign 14 years on, and an Aboriginal Deaths in Custody rate of 1 death every 14 days since the Royal Commission Inquiry released its findings in 1991, with resemblances of protest banners, Blackmans complex text puzzles directly address failings in the dominant Eurocentric narrative.

Blackman states “the agenda is clear, Imperialism rebranded became capitalism, the Commonwealth Government of Australia continues to oppress First Nations people to continue the wilful destruction of their homelands to access resources. As a nation matures, questions are asked, conversations have started, the oppressors are nervous and the oppressed empowered. The truth hurts.”

Kyra Mancktelow (Quandamooka with links to the Mardigan people of Cunnamulla) in Gubba Up Mancktelow explores early encounters between the First Fleet and First Nations people and where culture was systematically damaged by the introduction of colonial garments—particularly the cast-off government and military jackets gifted to Aboriginal men as a way of assimilation and to cover up blak skin. As Mancktelow states her Ancestors “were named savages by the nakedness of their skin.”

‘Gubba Man’ or ‘Gubbamen’ were originally mispronunciations of “government” and subsequently ‘Gubba’ referred to all white people. Today ‘Gubba Up’, loosely translates to ‘whiten up’ – a phrase used by First Nations peoples to describe the need to change your way of life to suit your environment. To gubba up is to whiten up; to whiten up is to cover up. Gubba up and lose your Aboriginal identity. 4

In research led practice Mancktelow references colonial paintings from 1810-20 where Aboriginal men were depicted in ill-fitting jackets and coats.5 Mancktelow carefully recreates these garments in tarleton cloth. Tarleton was chosen purposely as it is a material used in the print making industry to remove ink from the etching plate. Mancktelow uses tarleton as a metaphor for the attempt to rub away the identity of cultural ways and knowledges.

The garments are uniquely relief printed and these all most transparent forms, are strongly overprinted with traditional weapons. By placing cultural artefacts on the garments Mancktelow directly signifies the continuum of culture and the untold history of resistance to assimilate and to gubba up.

Mancktelow’s artistic response is to the misconception recorded in colonial archives that cultural ways did not survive ‘successful’ assimilation and that beliefs, values and cultural practices were displaced by the governing Western society.

In his studies Dylan Mooney (Yuwi, Torres Strait/South Sea Islander) considers his Ancestor’s Yuwi shields housed in national and international institutional collections. Mooney seeks out spending time with these artefacts and reflects on them being so far away from Country, from their makers and the makers families.

Returning to the studio and after creating life size lithograph prints of the shields, Mooney hand colours the images, unequivocally reconnecting himself with the objects.

As part of his research process Mooney often visits Yuwi Country around Mackay and the areas the shields were made. Subsequently Mooney has worked with Elders hand carving his own shields from similar trees—understanding the process and connection these artefacts have to their creators and the land it came from.

Mooney takes this understanding and draws from his photographs on the back of the prints, the landscape and Country—restoring in a defined way the shields to their origins.

Dylan Sarra (Taribelang/Gooreng Gooreng) has been investigating the Burral Burral (Burnett River) Petroglyphs, on his Ancestors Country close to Bundaberg. Burral Burral flows from the Great Dividing Range and was the lifeblood of the Taribelang people. In a unique artistic tradition, the petroglyphs or rock-engravings were situated on an isolated outcrop of the river’s sandstone with an area of 3348 square kilometres and were considered the largest Aboriginal rock-engraving site on the east coast of Queensland at the time.

Between 1971 and 1972 a selection of 92 stone blocks from Burral Burral containing Aboriginal engravings and weighing up to 5 tonnes, were cut out of their original and traditional site and distributed to multiple locations across Queensland.

This was carried out by the State Government under the provisions of the then Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1967. The site was subsequently flooded during a dam construction and the removed blocks are still scattered across Queensland.

In his studio-based-practice research Sarra creates his own petroglyphs to understand how the stone feels to carve—the effort and skill needed in a similar way his Ancestors carved the Burral Burral stones. Sarra plans to create 92 individual carvings to represent the shattering and displacement of his Ancestors petroglyphs.
Each of his carvings is then replicated as prints with detailed lithography processes.

Sarra’s final body of work explores the stories surrounding the stones and will ultimately include bringing all 92 prints together symbolically restoring the Burral Burral Petroglyphs and “lighting of the embers to continue the conversation of repatriation.” 6
The invitation to local Yirrganydji Traditional Owner, Bernard Singleton Jr to contribute and respond to the ideas contained within Repatriate provides a powerful presence and further contemplation.

“Cultural extraction is still happening. The taking away bits of history without providing any context for it. The dark pasts that are hidden or forgotten and the emotional consequences that are ongoing. This representation of extraction practices that signifies our old people were in unison with Country and solutions
were at hand.”7

Darren Blackman, Kyra Mancktelow, Dylan Mooney, Dylan Sarra, Bernard Singleton Jr and Dion Beasley are First Nations artists that deeply investigate Australia’s histories from a true perspective, and as knowledge holders offer visual form and skilled poetic ways of informing us. Their research and artworks are conduits for truth telling and as such how we move forward as a nation.


Essay by Carol McGregor
2022


 

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1 Gordon Bennett, “The Manifest Toe” in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Australia, p 42
2 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repatriate
3 https://ministers.dese.gov.au/tudge/roaring-back-my-priorities-schools-tudents-return-classrooms
4 https://www.nsmithgallery.com/artists/53-kyra-mancktelow/works/
5 As they did not wear the jackets or garments ‘correctly’ Aboriginal people were often ridiculed such as in the 1819 watercolour ‘Sauvages de la Nouvelle Galles du Sud’ attributed to Alphonse Pellion.
6 Dylan Sarra 2022
7 Bernard Singleton Jr 2022

NorthSite x CIAF 2022 July Program

We’re pleased to announce the release of our CIAF x NorthSite 2022 Program. From Artist Talks to Exclusive Events here are all the dates to save in your calendar for next week. We’ve also extended opening hours in the Shop and Gallery (see bottom of page).

Location: NorthSite at Bulmba-ja, 96 Abbott Street, Cairns City 4870


Tuesday, 5 July | $15 Tickets
6 PM CIAF x NorthSite Exclusive Preview
Get Tickets


Wednesday, 6 July | Free event
1 PM Artist Talk: Keith Wikmunea & Heather Koowootha
2PM Artist Talk: Grace Lillian Lee & Dr. Ken Thaidau Snr
Come Along


Thursday, 7 July | Free event
1 PM Artist Talk: Repatriate
2 PM Artist Talk: Bana Yirriji Art Centre
Come Along


Friday, 8 July | Free event
1 PM Artist Talk: Teho Ropeyarn & Mr Graham Brady
Join the Talk


Saturday, 9 July| Free event
11 AM Designer Talk: IndigeDesignLabs
Join IndigeDesignLabs


Sunday, 10 July | Free event
1 PM Artist Talk: Grace Lillian Lee & Dr. Ken Thaidau Snr
Join the Talk


Extended Opening Hours

Monday, 4 July: 10 AM — 5 PM
Tuesday, 5 July: 10 AM — 9 PM
Wednesday, 6 July: 10 AM — 5 PM
Thursday, 7 July: 10 AM — 7:30 PM
Friday, 8 July: 10 AM — 7:30 PM
Saturday, 9 July: 10 AM — 7:30 PM
Sunday, 10 July: 11 AM — 2 PM

Take a look at all the exhibitions showing in the NorthSite Gallery at Bulmba-ja Arts Centre: See exhibitions

NorthSite x WOW Cairns

WOW Cairns 2022 was a huge success providing a strong local program that heard the voices of many women through entertaining and conversation-provoking events. In the lead up to WOW Cairns, held at Bulmba-ja Arts Centre from Friday 13 to Saturday 14 May 2022, NorthSite assisted in the development of 2 spectacular exhibitions which will be running until June 2022.

The WOW Cairns Women’s Show is a celebration of women painters from across Far North Queensland curated especially for WOW Australia by NorthSite. The exhibition features the work of Janet Koongoteema, Jean Walmbeng, Julie Poulsen, Margaret Upton, Maharlina Gorospe-Lockie, Hannah Murray, Anne Nunn, Betty Sykes, Lenore Howard, Agnes Wotton, Claudine Marzik, Netta Loogatha, Nickeema Williams, Kim Marsden, Bernice Burke, Hannah Parker, Philomena Yeatman, Paula Savage, Laurel McKenzie, Fiona Elisala-Mosby, Matilda Aidan, India Collins, Tia Adoberg, Matilda Nona, Caroline Mudge, Tamika Grant-Iramu, DOULA, Margaret Mara, Rhonda Woolla, Melissa Waters, Delissa Walker and Mersene Loban. This exhibition is showing until 25 June 2022.

Gathering is a culture-based community collaboration, led by leading local artists Elverina Johnson of Paperbark Arts and Francoise Lane of Indij Design. During WOW Cairns the artwork was built upon with themes inspired by the waterways weaving through Country; nurturing and sustaining life. The final sculptural form which looks like a paperbark bulmba is currently on display within NorthSite at Bulmba-ja Arts Centre.


WOW Cairns Women’s Show
Gathering
Gathering event

Ceramicist Kim Nolan is selected for Unleashed 2022

Congratulations to Kewarra Beach-based artist Kim Nolan who will be exhibiting work in Unleashed 2022 at Artisan, the home of Queensland Craft and Design, situated in Bowen Hills, Brisbane.

Unleashed is a longstanding biennial exhibition project, drawing together a select cohort of early-career Queensland craft and design practitioners and launching their careers. Exploring the convergence between craft and design, Unleashed has been instrumental in launching some of our state’s best talent.

Kim Nolan and 5 other leading craftspeople from Far North Queensland were nominated by Lauren Carter (Retail Manager, NorthSite Contemporary Arts) and Kim’s work was selected through a process with institutional partners from across Queensland.

The panel comprised of:
Ruth Della, Curator, HOTA (Home of The Arts)
Megan Williams manager, University of Southern Queensland Art Gallery
Cassandra Lehman, curator, artisan
Ashleigh Campbell, Director, NorthSite Contemporary Arts
Tracey Heathwood, Director, Artspace Mackay
Dr Beata Batorowicz, Associate Professor, School of Creative Arts, University of Southern Queensland

Kim Nolan will now be exhibiting new artworks in this year’s exhibition, alongside Chris Miller and Lisa Kajewski STUDIOFLEK – Gold Coast, Dan Watson – Sunshine Coast, Ellie Coleman – Toowoomba, Hailey Atkins – Brisbane, Kim Nolan – Cairns, Kate Harding – Mackay.

Unleashed 2022: Fresh Meet from 11 June – 20 August 2022 in Artisan’s Main Gallery and Small Object Space.

Snap up a few of Kim’s ceramics in the NorthSite Store before she is discovered by southern design friends.

View Ceramics by Kim Nolan

 

The ‘m e r i’ project presented at BNE Powerhouse

NorthSite is delighted to announce that the ‘m e r i’ project by Wendy Mocke will be reinvigorated at Brisbane Powerhouse from the 25th May to 25 June 2022 presented by WOW (Women of the World) Australia. The ‘m e r i’ project, was first presented on Gimuy Walubara Yindiji country and Yirrganydji country through Northsite Contemporary Arts within Bulmba-ja Arts Centre.

The ‘m e r i’ project is a powerful exhibition of photographs and stories, initiated from years of conversations with young Papua New Guinean women. Whilst unpacking questions surrounding cultural identity and Black womanhood, the artist encountered a recurring theme: Young PNG women often feel silenced and actively fight against a limited vision of what is deemed possible for themselves. The common portrayal of PNG women in western media is often associated with tragedy or poverty. It is the harmful nature or the western gaze that minimises the full breadth and complexity or the Melanesian woman.

This creative project focuses on the re-contextualizing of PNG women. Its aim is to find innovative ways for PNG women to define themselves. To speak their truth to power, without fear of erasure.

 


WOW Australian Exhibitions at Brisbane Powerhouse
Look Back — The ‘m e r i’ project at NorthSite
Artist Wendy Mocke

Q&A: Traditional Burning with Victor Bulmer

Matthew Stanton and Victor Bulmer sitting in the gallery with Matthew's artworks behind them


VICTOR BULMER — Mandingalbay Yidinji man

Traditional Burns

Victor Bulmer has provided an essay on Traditional Burning practices, giving content to the artworks within Matthew Stanton’s exhibition Deep North.

Objectives and outcomes for managing land through traditional burning practices.

Why?
Regerminate native species with the heat of the fire being required to germinate the seeds.

Plants that are less resilient to high heat levels make it important for us to check the humidity of the grasses to ensure that the heat rate stays at a minimum so as not to destroy the country and risk the fire getting out of control.

So, it is vital before beginning a Traditional Burns that the level of humidly is understood.

Matthew Stanton, Deep North, installation view at NorthSite Contemporary Arts. Photo: Matthew Stanton

In reference to the burn that we did in the blood woods plain (Jalja) area was to promote new native grass roots to come through.

Story of the medicine water – This is the story of one Yidinji man who had his leg bitten off by a crocodile but after sitting in these special waters at this site, his leg grew back, and he survived.

High heat rate burns can kill out the seed banks – can destroy weeds and other introduced plants.

In this area of the Blood Woods Plain there was extensive deforestation with the land being cleared for timber – therefore the burns are necessary to bring new shoots back into the area.

That area is significant for one of our key storylines – which consists of the two brothers – Guyala and Damarri – They gave us moiety – and our wet season (Gurabana) and dry season (Guraminya)

Guyala and Damarri are the creators of Country and Landscape.


VICTOR BULMER

Ecologist, Djunbunji Land and Sea Rangers Coordinator, Djunbunji

February 2022

 

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Deep North essay by Matthew Dunne

Matthew Stanton, Deep North, installation view at NorthSite Contemporary Arts, 2022. Photo: Matthew Stanton


Deep North

MATTHEW DUNNE — Director at Tall Poppy Press

February 2022

Deep North

In Deep North, Matthew Stanton challenges viewers to consider the scale of ecology and our own assumptions about the landscape. Awash in meticulous colour, the images are often landscapes containing damage and decay. Even some images of relatively undamaged forest, or recovering forest, are undercut by murky waters and allusions to land clearing. The seduction of intense greens deliberately subverts what we think we are seeing: many of the photographs appear to show a jungle – alive and near conscious – yet what we are looking at is often a tragedy, camouflaged in what we expect an Eden to look like: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This is most noticeable in images of plant life. These plants appear alive and abundant, an undisturbed paradise amongst Australia’s tropics. Yet Stanton deliberately shows, in each of these images, an invasion, and one that native wildlife is losing. I think that this is one of the qualities that makes this work so unique: we look at an image and what it appears to be is the opposite (often) of what it is. This juxtaposition points to how poorly many of us, ecological lay people, actually understand landscape and plant life. Wider pastures, rolling grassy hills or the lone tree in a field all satisfy our enjoyment of visual symmetry and simplicity, providing us with an expansive view, yet these are landscapes flayed: all the skin removed and the meat laid bare. Nowhere is this clearer than an image of a bougainvillea. The saturation of the plant’s flowers seems gaudy in amongst the house, wire fence and its tilled ‘nature’ strip. It is almost comical how well preserved this single plant is and how offensive the absence of much green or alive is. We see, in this image, the ugliness of how we often do view the land: a petting zoo and a decoration, rolled into one. This view, in spaces humans develop, can lead to an attempt to control, never allowing nature to have its own life, constraining it to what we allow it to become.

More of the work calls for us to recognise ourselves. Most tellingly in an image of erosion where what appears to be a river bank is completely exposed, dirt and clay chipped away, with plant roots exposed, a tree hanging on, new grass growing in some cracks in the erosion, a McDonalds cup suspended in amongst the lashed bank. At the top of the bank there appears to be some steps and a place to sit, where people have carved into the rock a mix of tags. In this image, the marks of graffiti imply that erosion, too, is a form of marking. Much like the tagger may walk past their work and think ‘ha! That’s mine’, this image suggests that so too should we see erosion and feel ownership of it. Our marks lie all over the landscape, not just in the cities and suburbs, but along rivers, buried far from our homes. There is nothing alien or foreign about what is presented: we see ourselves and our undermining of nature. What could be a more symbolic than a riverbank’s inevitable decline?

Perhaps the most unique images are those of cultural burns. These photographs, taken of Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji people’s traditional fire management, speak to a sense of time and a lack of ego. Here, nature is used to manage nature. The landscapes, despite being actively burned, appear fecund and alive. There is a gentleness, surprisingly so, of the fire, the bush and the image. Stanton is reminding us that not all interventions are bad, not all marks are destructive, but that there do exist methods that are symbiotic, not parasitic. The fire management also calls us to consider time. Ecology, colonisation and climate change all ask us to sit with time in a way that is uniquely difficult. No longer considering just our own actions or our own lifetime, we are challenged to see our actions as part of a century or millennia of incremental impact. It is perhaps not impossible to imagine similar fire management fifty, one hundred or a thousand years ago and, in viewing this, we are reminded of the length of time nature needs and the shortness of time in which we can ruin something.

Here it is worth considering colonisation. Australia’s history of colonisation can feel both recent and impossibly long ago. Deep North reminds me of the quickness of change that has been enacted on the people and country of Australia. In such a short length of time, species were wiped out, people usurped and persecuted, processes that defined the landscape for long periods of time thrown out. Unfortunately, it is misleading to write about this process as if it is in the past tense. Biodiversity loss in Australia is staggering, extinction has not stopped, and the decline of space for native land has continued. Each year a new extractive project threatens places long loved and vitally important. The desire for wealth and jobs in marginal seats sees the environment sacrificed time and time again.

Slowly, I hope, there seems to be a shift to reverse some of this, returning land to traditional owners, finding avenues to enable native wildlife more space, a challenge to the assumption that industrial agriculture and a one-sided use of land is the default. In this vein it is upsetting to wonder: why do we let colonial-era relationships to land and space define how we continue to treat the world? Have we not learned? What have we traded and how could it possibly have been worth it? Why do we continue to choke what we claim defines our nationhood, what we love? These impossible questions come from the work only because of its engagement with time and scale.

Time also feels almost palpable in the image Room – After Tarkovsky as what was built appears to be slowly swallowed by the greenery. Even though this photograph was made inside a former cane-farmer’s residence that likely has a storied history, when compared to the endlessness of biological and geological time, construction itself feels so short-term and inert. Time makes the folly of industry is plain to see. Despite thinking that a building lasts, what really endures is the plant life: moving slowly, but surely, edging in and suffocating what was built, absorbing it. This challenges us again: nature will absorb and live with what we have introduced, should we not then act more carefully?

Stanton’s photographs trace ecology both as an intricate web and as something that recognises and pushes back on us. As the cleared land for the house leads to increased run off, the existing erosion worsens and the river becomes less clean. These ripple effects are one of the most frustrating and overwhelming aspects of ecology: it is too big for our brains to ever encapsulate. An ecosystem defies our ability to understand it and, at times, this is not just overwhelming but somewhat scary. Many of the images in this body of work feel suffocating, like we are being grown over ourselves, slowly constricted and taken in. There is a sense that we are not just looking but being looked at, regarded. Our response can be primeval and reptilian: caught in nature’s headlights with nowhere to go. Ecology, therefore, overwhelms our analytical minds and sits squarely in the deeper, more ancient, and less considered parts of our brain: the places fear lives.

This emotional reaction underscores that nature is what we have made it. Nature has no ego and, as such, we are limited in how we can empathise with the life and processes happening. And we have made it this way – through generations of domineering and separation – we feel suspicion and a form of the uncanny when seeing unkempt nature. Nature does not care about us or our needs, nature does not care for our works or our beliefs. Nature can be a cradle and a horror film precisely because despite years of killing it, it renews, re-emerging where we least expect it. Yet this discomfort is essential for us to move forward. Key to the idea of conservation is that we should make space for what we struggle with and, through doing so, we can see nature be more abundant and resilient.

Deep North is an ambitious work because Stanton ties all these threads together. We do not really understand nature, but we are really harming it, nature reveals who and what we are in a way that is telling and ugly, but by making room for nature to make us uncomfortable we are able to be better stewards. The efforts of Indigenous Australians continue to remind wider Australian society that time is longer than we are, and to leave some of our short-term impulses behind. The legacy of invasion and colonisation is not just writ on the landscape but also in our psychology, we cannot ever escape it without confronting that, which is exactly what Deep North forces us to do.

Matthew Dunne
Director, Tall Poppy Press
February 2022

 

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