degraded agricultural landscapes

Sadly,  a lot  of Australia's agricultural landscapes are in the grip of a slow death. It's not just the clear felling of the woodlands  or the   loss of life, that is species (plants and animals) extinction either.  There is also drastic loss in life support systems.  

The plagues of rabbits (introduced to the continent with the first fleet) invaded the rangelands, eating all the vegetation and leaving the soils exposed to wind and rain. Overgrazing by cattle and sheep, particularly during periods of drought, exacerbated problems; in areas where rabbits never flourished, cattle seem to have been equally effective in denuding the country.

 Much of the one quarter of Australia that is not rangelands is being intensively farmed. There is salinity, in many places, and acidity in others, both of which are devastating this farm land.

intimate landscapes

This photo is made from an  ecological perspective on the landscapes that have been produced by the economic development of settler capitalism.    Today there is only scattered remnant vegetation left from the clearance  for agricultural production in the Fleurieu Peninsula. It's not  a pretty picture. 

The photo of an intimate landscape --dead  roadside vegetation--  is the opposite of a nostalgic picture of a cosy,  rural life  to a  harmonious settlement that has its roots in the yeoman tradition in the form of soldier settlements.  The state government,  as a  promoter of economic development,  in the early 20th century  was  also the architect of a desired cultural landscape and social class  that emphasised the virtues of small-scale family owned and operated yeoman farms. 

The ‘ pioneer legend’---which saw white settlement as a battle to win the land, in which humans were evenly pitted against nature---is  now a  form of myth making, given the emergence of agri-businesses and the family farm  becoming all but obsolete.   The pioneer idea, in pitting settlers against the land was not only fruitless, in leading to the ruin of the settlers, but self-defeating in ultimately ruining the land itself.

Sellicks Beach + empire

 The picture below is from a 2015  autumn  photoshoot at Sellicks Beach, a southern coastal beach in Adelaide: 

Photographing the coast is an example of how photography has appropriated the language of  painting---in this case the landscape, in which nature is seen for its own sake.  The  pictorial representation of the landscape in painting  emerges in the 17th century in Europe and reaches its peak in nineteenth century  with Romanticism. The  genre 'landscape' is a way of seeing and there are different views of the land--eg., those of the aboriginal people, white settlers, tourists etc. 

an aboriginal absence

The settler's clearing of the Australian landscape during the white settlement made this land the white man’s.  What is forgotten is the terrible violence meted out to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at – and after – white settlement. There is a refusal, eg., by the Australian War Memorial,   to  tell the story of the violence that raged across the Australian colonial frontier after British invasion and occupation in 1788. That the violence took the form of  a frontier war is often denied. 

The ‘clearing’ of the landscape by the first European settlers forced Indigenous people off their traditional lands and into small Christian missions and government reserves. 

What is noticeable about this landscape is the contemporary absence of Australian Aboriginal culture within the Australian landscape and the impact of European colonisation. You wouldn't know  the history from looking at the pasture land and the scrubland. 

the landscape as the ground of nationhood

The landscape had long been the neglected poor cousin in Australian photography. Landscape photography has remained stagnant since the 1950s, cycling through the same formats of the picturesque, the sublime, the pastoral and the aerial.

It's central historical function, established from painting, is that of being the site where issues of Australian identity were debated. These debates heated up in the 1970s with the political resurgence of the Left; feminism; the resurgence of Aboriginal activism; the impacts of globalization on regional identities; the beginnings of a shift in focus from Europe  and America to Asia; and the beginnings of the modern Green movement's campaigns to save the wilderness.   For instance we understand the significance of the Tasmanian wilderness through all the photographs of it by Olegas Truchanas and  Peter Dombrovskis. 

the picturesque aesthetic

The dominant landscape aesthetic in Australia has been  the picturesque. Traditionally,  in Australia,  this views the earth as raw material  of a novel landscape for asethetic appreciation  of English  colonialist. 

According to William Gilpin in Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Pictureque Travel; and On the Art of Sketching Landscapes the picturesque is situated between the beautiful and the sublime.  Its codes specify that the one centre of interest in the picture should be in the middle ground; the foreground occupies a subsidiary function that introduces the leading subject; a clear planar division to establish the illusion of depth; a variety of contrast rather than smoothness; and a point of view that allows the framing of a limited scene rather than an endless expanse.

If nature exists primarily for the pleasure of the viewer, then the picturesque in Australia was a way of according the  land an aesthetic value that is also imbricated with the  land's economic value. The colonising power adapted the picturesque with the profitable: the colonists  had in mind good pasture for sheep and  cattle and the suitable of the land  for occupation of a European power and its agriculture.

In the colonial picturesque in settler Australia the economic pressures of agruclture and aesthetic conventions are reconciled. It excluded any sign of the aboriginal population,  helped to perpetuate the fiction of terra nullius,  and helped to establish the divide between the barbarism of the Aborigines and the civilization of settler Australia.  

In Native to Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia Allaine Cerwonka says that the production  of the  picturesque landscape was an important means by which political and social identity was constructed in white colonial Australia. 

topographics and altered landscapes

I introduced the term 'altered landscapes' in an earlier post  when mentioning that the  landscape of the Fleuriu Peninsula has been extensively  cleared  so that it could  become productive  farming country.

Altered landscapes, in the art historical context, refers to the influential 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester New York  entitled New Topgraphics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape. It was curated by William Jenkins and included Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.  

In the catalogue Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as "a problem of style" "stylistic anonymity", an alleged absence of style with a strong claim for objectivity and emotional neutrality. He says: 

It must be made clear that “New Topographics” is not an attempt to validate one category of pictures to the exclusion of others. As individuals the photographers take great pains to prevent the slightest trace of judgment of opinion from entering their work . . . This viewpoint, which extends throughout the exhibition, is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic. The exhibition, as an entity separate from the photographers, will hopefully carry the same non-judgmental connotation as the pictures which comprise it. If “New Topographics has a central purpose it is simply to postulate, at least for the time being, what it means to make a documentary photograph.

At the time this collection of mostly black and white photographs by ten photographers (only Stephen Shore photographed in colour) was interpreted as a deadpan documentation of the contemporary banal urbanscape, and it was placed in opposition to the monumental photography of nature along the lines of Ansel Adams that elevated the natural,  the elemental and  the idealized.

It was deemed to be an aesthetic of the banal that was made by machines. Thus the old  modernist view of photography  as the anti-aesthetic medium par exellence, in virtue of its mechanical nature and casual  basis, returns.  Modernism's notion of a disinterested and self-sufficient art was premised  on positivism--on Wittgenstein's  logical positivism and langiuage philosophy.  

In spite  of the inclusion of  Bernd and Hilla Becher, then teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Germany), the  'deadpan documentation'  of the suburban sprawl of motels, parking lots, neon signs shops, industrial buildings,  and tract houses  was linked back to  the 19th century topographic work of Timothy O'Sullivan (old topographics?)  rather than  to Walker EvansJenkins mentioned Edward Ruscha's work, especially the numerous artist books (“26 Gasoline Stations” (1962), “Various Small Fires” (1964), “34 Parking Lots” (1967), etc.) that he self-published in the 1960s as one of the inspirations for the exhibition.  

What was actually offered, of course, was more of a  particular interpretation of the American western landscape than topographics per se. The Bechers understood  the latter in terms of multiple  photographs of the same objects that are displayed in grids. The images of structures with similar functions are  displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs based on function, regional idiosyncrasies, or the age of the structures.

Tthe title of Twentysix Gasoline Stations was selected in advance of the photographs and Ruscha followed a predetermined route in his car on Route 66 and systematically recorded just the gas stations in a deadpan way. The instruction, or rule governed performance, (record 26 gasoline stations on Route 6) can be understood as evading authorial or artistic agency and generating chance operations.  Ruscha's understanding of photography --the amateur snapshot's recoding of just facts  brings together authorial abnegration, indexicality and openenss to chance.  For all of Jenkin's curatorial gesture to Ed Ruscha and conceptual art, it was only Lewis Blatz and the Bechers themselves who worked in a conceptual grid like way.

It was an interpretation of the contemporary American urbanscape as a site for critical cultural inquiry and a rethinking of the landscape tradition; one that  expressed the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded and damaged by industrial development and the spread of cities. The  significance  of this mode of picture making is that it  offered a way for photographers to represent  the "landscape" without the  notions of the picturesque or the sublime. 

pictures and the 'white cube'

Brian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube”, which  was originally published as a series of three articles in Artforum in 1976, and then subsequently collected in a book of the same name, has a simple  but powerful argument about exhibitions spaces in art galleries  in a world where our experience is governed by pictures. Pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. 

O'Doherty argued that the familiar gallery space is not a neutral container, but a historical construct. Furthermore, it is an aesthetic object in and of itself. The ideal form of the white cube that modernism developed for the gallery space is inseparable from the artworks exhibited inside it. Indeed, the white cube not only conditions, but also overpowers the artworks themselves in its shift from placing content within a context to making the context itself the content. 

The white cube is conceived as a place free of context, where time and social space are thought to be excluded from the experience of artworks. It is only through the apparent neutrality of appearing outside of daily life and politics that the works within the white cube can appear to be self-contained—only by being freed from historical time can they attain their aura of timelessness. 

The white cube establishes a crucial dichotomy between that which is to be kept outside (the social and the political) and that which is inside (the staying value of art). The gallery space is saturated with ideology.  The white cube was constructed in order to give the artworks a timeless quality (and thus, lasting value) in both an economic and a political sense. It was a space for the immortality of a certain class's cultural values, as well as a staging ground for objects of sound economic investment for possible buyers. 

The task of critical art  becomes one of reflecting upon  and restaging this space. This is what happened in the 1970s. Firstly, there was  the postmodern critique of the art gallery system by  Douglas Crimp in his  On The Museum's Ruins,  a  collection of essays originally published in Parachute and October in the 1980s. In the lead essay   Crimp argued that the art gallery or museum is an enclosure of decaying and dead objects.

Secondly, photography  in the 1980s concerned itself with issues around representation, ideology, truth and reality. It was a part of both the questioning of documentary photography's value as a witness to history and  the analyses of the  impact of  photography  on  visual art. 

 Walter Benjamin in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction essay said that  the primary question was not whether photography was art, but whether the invention of photography  had transformed thevery nature of art.  Few, however,  had taken  seriously photography's power to transform  visual art--ie., painting.  


For modernists, it was painting that sets the agenda for post-war art, and for John Szarkowski at MOMA, that meant an art  stripped of its extraneous features  can be made from the elementary properties of its medium. That meant  to make art from, and about, art. Hence the modernist challenge to transform photography into painting.  

In his On The Museum's Ruins essay   however,  Crimp  used  the  photographs  of Robert Rauschenberg  to argue that photography began to conspire with painting in its own destruction. The notions of   originality, authenticity  and aura that are essential to the ordered discourse of the modernist art gallery are undermined  by the techniques of quotation, repetition, excerptation and confiscation of already existing images. 

Though the  presentation of visual art in the white cube continues to  exist---and it  is still the dominant mode of presentation-- different spaces have been  opened up. These  allow for  other kinds of  relationships between the art work, the space and the viewer; one  in which art and life are reconnected, and history is included. 

The backlash to postmodernism came in the 1990s  in the form of a reaction against theory ---a backlash to questions about language, the structure of signification, subjectivity and power. This backlash the influence of European philosophy (Jacques Derrida) and cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin --the  culture wars --  unseated the critic in the name of the beauty and freedom of art.  

The conservative's desire was to shoot down the idea that philosophy-- or more specifically the dreaded deconstruction of  the theorists---  can ever tell us anything about the visual arts.  Their rhetoric  is that the humanities have been taken over by the left   and  they that tear up the visual arts (and literature)  and reassemble it to say what they think it says.

In doing so they resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the image  (and the text) and the individual's experience of art.   Our emotional response to artworks---aesthetic experience---is what matters.

art history's blindness

I've started reading Jane Hylton's The Painted Coast: Views of the Fleurieu Peninsula in order to gain a sense of the visual history of this part of South Australia from the 1840s to the present. It's a catalogue of an exhibition of 200 images held at the Art Gallery of the South Australia in Adelaide  in the 1990s.

The strength of this text is that it  is an archive of our cultural memory of this region in a global world.  The art gallery is functioning both as a temple and as an educational institution in representing the region to itself and others. 

Artists in the text are reduced to painters and there is no exploration of the interrelationship between photography and painting or painting and film. Painting exists in its own universe, even though most of the images produced of the Fleurieu Peninsula in our image based culture would now be digital photographs.

The art historical curator's argument is that the movement of this local landscape  tradition comes from genius  painters influencing other painters to produce their masterpieces.The art gallery is a refuge of a hermetically sealed art,  and the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects throughout the modernist era was the "self-evident" quality of masterpieces.  

This erasure of photography is ironic given the demise of painting arguments about painting's exhaustion that were circulating through the art institution in the 1980s. Painting as a central mode of modernist practice was also radically displaced in the 1960s by what has come to be called conceptual art, and also by the increasing engagement with lens-based media, photography video, and ultimately digital technologies.One of the things that Conceptual Art in the 1960s attempted was the dismantling of the hierarchy of media according to which painting (sculpture trailing slightly behind) is assumed inherently superior to, most notably, photography.   

Even though Hylton was a curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia photography and film play no role  in this art history of the Fleurieu Peninsula. It's only the work of the  painters that matter,  and it is assumed that the other visual media had no influence on what and how they painted. Or if it did it is insignificant.

This is art history narrowly defined and behind it sits the institutional authority of the  art gallery.This holds that painting estsblishes the visual and intellectual  visual frame and that photography can be respectable only insofar as it repeats or rehearses the pictorial strategies of painting. 

This traditional art history of pictures reduces our visual culture to painting,  and it rejects the idea that in the late 20th centry painting has become one kind of image amongst many including prints, photography, film, video, and television or televisuality.  There is a sense that art history has to keep at bay the new media to defend its traditional terrain and  to protect its boundaries. It is defensive because there is no re-thinking of the traditional frame of art history that is being deployed by Hylton.

I appreciate that there was a return to expressionist painting in the 1980s but this post conceptual-period also witnessed the emergence of photographic works of large scale and in colour (eg., Jeff Wall, Andreas Gurskey, Thomas Ruff, Gregory Crewdson)  in the art institution. The shift is towards producing big pictures whether in photography or paint and it places the viewer in front of a single large, recognizable  picture that is intelligible at first glance. The big picture has visual authority.  

Hence there are  good grounds to talk in terms of the crisis of the art gallery and to  call into question  the powerful fiction that presents art as a coherent system and art history as its ideal order. Photography disrupted modernism's discourse on originality and the irreducibility --the aura ---of the unique object, forming a faultline along which the sensibility of postmodernism began to coalesce. 

However, the modernist fetsh of art has, to a large extent, transformed photography from a subversive element within modernism to yet another avante-garde strategy in the art institution.  

photography + abstraction

Some of my rock studies of the rockfaces of the granite  coastline west of Victor Harbor move towards abstraction have as their reference point the pictures taken by  Charles Bayliss of the Jenolan Caves in NSW in the 1880s. 

I know very little about  the avant garde and modernist abstraction in mid-20th century Adelaide in both photography and painting. It has been widely assumed that photography was about representation; no matter how off-register, its subject matter was shaped by our sense of objective reality.Yet abstraction has been intrinsic to photograph from  its  beginning with Henry Fox Talbot--eg., the direct capture of light without a camera (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy photograms), digital sampling found images, radical cropping, and various deliberate destablizations of photographic reference.

However, Helen Ennis in  the 'Introduction' to her Photography and Australia says that: 

The one constant in photographic practice in Australia is so striking it warrants identification at the start--the orientation towards realism. Those using photogrpahy in Australia have long been preoccupied with  the physical, material aspects of life rather than its metaphysical or spiritual dimension. Consequently, there is a weightiness to the great majority of Australian photographs---overwhelming they are of 'things', including actions and events, which have a concrete reality and verifiable independent existence. ...For most of the twentieth centry, inward looking-looking approaches, whether symbolist, surrealist, or abstract, never really took hold.

It is strange that Ennis equates abstraction with inward looking, spiritual, metaphsyical,  rather than objective form, light, tone, colour given the hegemony of modernist in the art insitution.   

My art history understanding is that  the modernist abstraction movement in painting  emeged in Sydney with Ralph Balson and Grace Cowley etc in the 1930s. Sydney was metropolitan, Adelaide was provincal whilst Melbourne rejected abstraction for figurative painting e.g., John Brack.

Bernard Smith  in his Australian Painting (I have the 2nd Edition)  does say that  the contemporary art movement in Adelaide in the 1950s included a strand of abstract expressionism due to the arrival of migrant artists from central Europe, such as  Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz and Ludwig Dutkiewicz, who lived and worked in Adelaide for the rest of their lives.  

But there are no images of their work in Smith's seminal text.  His argument is that good art does not arrive from the European messengers setting foot in the country, but from the provincal visual tradition being transformed by the innovations from overseas. 

It [the finest art] has arisen not as the immediate point of impact of the novel metropolitan style upon the slower moving provinvcal style, but latter, when the innovation  has found a creative point of accommodation with the sluggish provincal tradition which, though out of  date by the standards of its metropolitan sources, has put down its roots in the environment of the country. (p.334)

The inference is that nothing much happened in Adelaide that was of interest to the modern art movement in Australia. Sydney became metropolitan--it drew its creative energies and dynamism from within itself---whilst  Adelaide remained a cultural  province with its sluggish and conservative visual arts. Adelaide, as a cultural backwater, looked to Sydney for innovation and new styles.

So we have a black hole in art history of the art institution --we don't really know what kind of abstraction took  place in the visual arts --painting, printing  and photography---in the 1950s and 1960s in Adelaide. This other history has to be excauvated.