Writing

Exhibition essay by Alex Wisser for A Work for Clandulla State Gallery, Umbrella Studio contemporary art, Townsville, 27 January - 5 March 2017.

A Work for Clandulla State Gallery

In a now famous interview for Artforum in 1966, Tony Smith describes a journey along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. 

"It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn't know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art."

The anecdote has about it the elusive quality of a parable - the drive at night along a highway stretching outwards, not into some wilderness, but outside of its nature as highway.  The paved concourse "moving through the landscape" is bereft of its conventional repertoire of marks, lights, lines and barriers by which it regulates the traffic that will one day negotiate it. The sense of freedom is exhilarating, as though Smith has turned the lights off and coasts in silence through the darkened industrial landscape toward, as he described it, "something mapped out but not socially recognized."

You can understand how Smith would have concluded that that road would lead to "the end of art".  In a way it did, but not as it was assumed at the time, as the death of art, the death of painting.  It was the end of art in the sense that Smith had reached the limit of art's conventional paradigm, and peered out into a world for which there was no familiar landmark.  Art spilled through the frame and into the world but it did not, as we now know, spell the death of art.  Painting did not die, art did not die on that highway that night.  Minimalism, you might say, was born there, as art pressed through the picture plane and fell into the world, but it survived as art.

To extend the highway, to the other side of the world, you will eventually come to The Clandulla State Gallery in regional NSW. Formally established through the publication of a wordpress website, the gallery boasts over 1400 hectares of exhibition space, and is co-extensive with the clandulla state forest.  It is arguably the largest gallery in the world.  At the time, I had never read the interview by Smith, but my act, I understand now, was made possible by that moment on the Jersey Turnpike.  

And so it was at least intuitive that the affinity between Clandulla State Gallery and the work of Carla Liesch and Hayley Megan French would generate a connection and suggest a project.  Specifically it was a work made in much the same spirit of irreverence that founded the gallery. It began as a canvas wall that was stretched and installed in a gallery and then a white painting was painted onto it.  The idea of collapsing the difference between the painting and the wall is fairly implicit within the narratives of modernism and in itself was not as significant as the spontaneous decision by the artists to 'take the painting for a walk' after the exhibition was over.  This abrupt departure broke with the more restrained logic of the original work and struck a chord that resonated with the historical context in which it was situated.  Why shouldn’t art take a walk? And if it was going to walk about in the city, it seemed only natural that it would do well to go for a bushwalk as well.

Their collaboration takes place at that intersection of practice that Smith crosses in 1966 – between abstract painting and minimalism.  What is at first most interesting about their partnership is that two artists, each coming from the other side of a watershed art-historical conflict would collaborate so productively.  How can Hayley’s abstract painting concerns co-habit collaborative endeavor with Carla’s minimalist inflected conceptual practice?  Minimalism was perceived, and often by its own practitioner’s (Smith included), as the death of painting.  But as I stated above, nothing died on that highway that night, other than a limit to what art could be conceived of.  It should not surprise us that a later generation would salvage from the rubble of that conflict, the fragments of concern over which it was fought, innocent now of their opposition, to improvise and renew their relationship.  The line between these two movements, so absolute in its moment, is in retrospect arbitrarily drawn by circumstance.  

The fact that Clement Greenberg, who had forged the narrative of modern art that inspired Minimialism, felt compelled to deny its lineage as the successor to Abstract Expressionism is that circumstance.  For Greenberg, modernism was an essentialising movement – a series of reductions, discarding conventions that were not exclusive to the medium specific quality of each art form.  For painting he recognised this as the flatness of the picture plane.  Sculptural illusion, narrative, or poetic elements were successively eliminated until modern painting survived as an expression of its own flatness.  In other words, his was a movement inwards, that resulted in an art form that was self-coherent, a relational field immanent to the interior of the picture frame from which its meaning could be derived.  Minimalism threatened this view by challenging the limiting condition of the picture plane itself, as yet another convention to be transgressed and discarded.  This single move transformed Greenbergs centripetal narrative into its opposite, a centrifugal impulse.  In this view, Modern art is seen as a series of transgressions against the limiting conditions of established convention, pushing the artform against the conventional limits of its established identity – a movement that would eventually push painting through the picture plane, past its own support and outward into the world.  From the relational field immanent to the picture plane, the artwork would eventually come to admit its involvement in the relational field of its situation, especially its social and conventional situation. 

In this sense, A work for Clandulla State Gallery (and the gallery itself) can be seen as a direct descendant of the centrifugal movement of minimalism (and conceptualism following it).  Yet, the work reflects a truth about the gallery for which it has been made – that for all its outward going, it still contains a centripetal gesture.  By placing a gallery wall that is also a painting within a forest that has been called a gallery, the artists make evident the absurdity of any attempt to totalize either the interiority of the artwork or the exteriority of the world.  Clandulla State Gallery would be a pretty meaningless gesture without the word ‘Gallery’ and all of the attendant conventional context it both attempts to escape and at the same time brings with it.  ‘A Work for Clandulla State Gallery’ inserts the essential element of that attendant conventional context (a white wall) into ‘The World’, surpassing the desire of art to escape the white cube by staging the escape of the white cube.  By placing this signifier of interiority as an object into the ‘outside’ context of the forest, neither pole of the relationship is extinguished; they do not eclipse or cancel each other out.  Across their difference they begin to relate. 

The wall, in this context acts as a painting, standing in stark contradistinction to the overwhelming visual complexity of the world around it. The white rectilinear form assumes its status as a heightened object: its content (or void) is sustainably contained and immanent to the inside of the frame that circumscribes it.  At the same time, it acts as a gallery wall, providing a negative ground against which the world around it begins to relent in the fullness of its plenum.  From the fullness of the forest, a tree emerges as distinct, replete and unto itself, a branch of leaves, the grass, a stone, another tree.  Out of the cacophonous democracy of the forest, things step forward to present themselves individually.  The functioning of the white wall in the gallery to isolate the art object from the distraction of ‘irrelevant’ circumstantial context, becomes in the context of the forest a fragmented play, a moving speculation in which details emerge, become observable in the coalescence of an object that never quite succeeds in pulling itself free from the world around it.  The attention shifts and the object retreats, giving way to further observation, distraction, restless movement.  If the painting on the wall of a gallery is a window into another world, the white painting in the forest is a windowless wall that stops the gaze and refracts it onto the world around it.  Art’s power to focus human attention within a context of conventional constraint, isolating it object from the overwhelming plenum of the world renders it thinkable.  In the gallery this function is so absolute as to become sterile – but in the forest, thought and observation are always partial, tangential and compromised, never allowing the object to become wholly singular or unary, it reveals itself in the flux between becoming object and being world.

This reflection is possible 50 years after Smith's epiphany at the precipice. Not knowing the future, he speculated that it was possibly the moment that art dies, and that some brave new form of culture would be born from it.  Making art within that future, Hayley and Carla (and myself) have no such monumental pretension and represent a generation of artists that have developed practices still informed by the issues established by these earlier artists but without the heroic, grand narrative, and end-game pugilism that dominated Modernism.  The impulse is still outward, but with an awareness that when you take art into the world, you have to take art with you.  

Alex Wisser 2017


Excerpt: Introduction, Landscape Too, Hayley Megan French & Carla Liesch, MOP Projects, 2014, for the exhibition Landscape Too, A MOP Project hosted by AirSpace Projects, curated by Hayley Megan French & Carla Liesch, 4 - 19 April 2014.

Introduction

Landscape Too brings together artists and writers from Alice Springs, Sydney, Toowoomba and Townsville to consider the idea of landscape, as it pertains to an experience of being in Australia. Location in land, location and dislocation in the landscape of Australia is a continuing source of contention, urgency and discovery for contemporary artists. The idea of landscape is hence one that calls forth both doubt and wonder, particularly working in the unsettled intercultural ground of Australia. It prompts the question; what is it we are responding to when we consider landscape?

Landscape Too follows on from the exhibition Out of Site held at Articulate Project Space in 2013. The artists in Out of Site— Carla Liesch, Distanciation., ek.1, Emma Hicks, Emma Wise, Hayley Megan French and Richard Kean—were closely linked through collaboration, ARI committees and shared experiences of Australian landscape. The dialogue surrounding the conception and exhibition of the work became a significant aspect of the artists’ engagement with these ideas. It is out of this exhibition then that Landscape Too was conceived as a project with two outcomes, an exhibition and a collection of texts, offering an opportunity to record more of the ideas and conversations surrounding the project. The artists and writers in Landscape Too live and work in different parts of Australia, enriching this discussion through many different approaches and experiences. The submissions in this booklet serve to offer a contextual frame to the idea of landscape.

The idea of the frame has been an important element in our relationship with landscape. Without a sense of boundary, comprehensive space is often bewildering and threatening. However, once we place ourselves within a space, a landscape is framed by our own subjectivity. Rather than a gilded rectangle framing an image these texts seek to find cultural, emotional or embodied frames for our understanding of landscape.

The landscape and the frame both continue to exist here through a collection of essays, poems, conversations and speculative writing. The artists and writers in this project acknowledge the problems with landscape, heavily laden with historical definition and complex social and cultural relations. There is a tension in many of the works and texts, a questioning of our relationship to a particular experience of landscape and how this could be represented in an artwork or text.

The problem with landscape is thus that landscape represents to us, not only our relationship with place, but also the problematic nature of that relationship—a relationship that contains within it involvement and separation, agency and spectacle, self and other. It is in and through landscape, in its many forms, that our relationship with place is articulated and represented, and the problematic character of that relationship made evident. [1] 

The Australian landscape is also reflective of what Australian writer and researcher Ross Gibson refers to as the narrative construction of Australia2—and inherent in this, our relation to that narrative and our role in its continued construction. The very idea of Australia was recently on display in the National Library of Australia’s exhibition Mapping Our World; Terra Incognita to Australia

Our very existence was envisaged, and then refined over centuries to allow for new ideas and discoveries. [3]

We are reminded in the National Library’s exhibition that the idea of a great southern landmass—to balance those of the known world in the north—emerged from the human imagination long before the Europeans discovered Australia. The role of imagination in the narrative construction of Australia has always been integral and is reflected in the speculative blurring of the real and unreal that has characterised an Australian understanding of landscape.

The first text in this booklet, Sojourn in the Labyrinth by Richard Kean introduces imagery of mapping and time, “I step from the boat to the shore. The waves lap at my feet and there I see that the map is forever being redrawn, a line infinitely divisible.” Kean then reminds us that the act of mapping is an act of ownership over the land—a narrative that is written and rewritten over and over.

The potential to re-map and re-mythologise the land through the landscape tradition in Australian art is an idea taken up by Jonathan McBurnie in his conversation with Ron McBurnie. Discussing their different approaches to drawing the Australian landscape, this conversation highlights not only notions of colonial and post-colonial Australian art that trouble this field, but also questions how to continue working in light of this complex history. Jonathan McBurnie finishes with the provocative question—Is this simply a cultural cringe associated with self-imposed political correctness and willingness to avoid anything remotely colonial sounding? One method it seems artists and writers in this project use to address this discomfort—indeed Jonathan McBurnie uses in his work—is the blurring of the real and the unreal as a way of negotiating the necessity and impossibility of the idea of landscape.

This is evident in the text from ek.1 (Emma Hicks and Katie Williams) Make it real (one more time) which blurs the real with the unreal. The text begins with the real, drawing lines from their filming notes and outtakes, then weaving through quotes from scripts of Australian horror films—Picnic at Hanging Rock and Dead Calm. There is a slippage between a matrix of ideas as the words of their source material and an almost stream-of-consciousness record of their experience are intermingled, leaving it for the reader to make it real, again, through their imagination.

In the conversation with Kate Beckingham, Landscape as Elsewhere, the artist discusses her practice of manipulating images of landscape to place the viewer in a space where what is real, and what is not, is not easily defined. Moving away from the perceived limitation of the photographic frame—one which inherently separates the viewer from the image—Beckingham is becoming more interested in creating an overall experience for the viewer, drawn from her own embodied experience and memory. Working from her home in Sydney, Beckingham sees the natural landscape as being elsewhere from the space of the urban landscape. The natural landscape, then, already holds a sense of imagination and memory that a new constructed reality can be projected into.

There is a similar sentiment in the excerpt from Saskia Beudel’s book A Country in Mind: Memoir with Landscape. Continuum of landscapes speaks of an experience of driving through the heterogenous desert landscape of Walungurru in the Northern Territory, and the impossibility of recording the complexities of this environment in an image. Instead, Beudel documents this space through the memories it recalls for her. The landscape that is constructed for the reader then, is unbound by space and time.

There is a desire in many of these texts to translate or recreate an immersive experience of landscape for the reader. Alice Buscombe’s short poems seem to recall a single moment of being in a landscape—a written snapshot noting sounds and the slippage of her footing. Buscombe’s poems, interspersed throughout the booklet, have a calming rhythm that draw us back into landscape through the natural rhythms of the landscape itself and then our movement within it.

Gemma Messih also draws from an experience in-landscape in her excerpt from The distance between us —a poetic response to the Icelandic landscape during, and after, returning from a residency in 2012. Messih speaks as both the subject and space; the subject is not separated from its environment, it is consumed by it. The distance between is at once vast, and non-existent. There is a sense of the sublime in this slippage between the subject and nature, and we are left grasping to contemplate such forces beyond ourselves.

The idea of being in-landscape is also considered by Chris Williams in his essay Analogue Landscape and Digital Ecologies. Williams speaks of the ‘inhabiting effect’ of ecology, rather than the possible ‘distancing effect’ of landscape. For Williams, it is in the indelible relation of organisms and their environment that we can frame a more meaningful participation in landscape. From this perspective, Williams questions how the qualities of a given landscape, physical and metaphysical, might be heard; and further, how might a landscape then sound? There follows a beautiful interplay between the song of an image and the image of a song—a cyclical relationship which is explored through the sound work created by Williams for the video Sometimes there’s two, included in the exhibition.

Similarly to Williams, Ally Bisshop works both in and out of Australia, spending her time moving between Sydney and Berlin. As Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas has suggested, the place and meaning of landscape is often brought into salience through journey and return. [4]  Hence we often find the movement back to Australia, or back home, significant to our perspective on landscape. Bisshop’s A Conversation in Four Acts considers different perceptions of light—a recurring obsession in the experience and representation of landscape in Australia—and our reciprocal relationship to the rhythms of the sun.

The artists and writers in this project have been asked to respond to experiences of a landscape that we all continue to shape and move in. What ensues is a conversation between the works, the artists, and the texts, an engagement with different embodied experiences and imaginings of what landscape means in Australia today. The final text by Luke Strevens, Welcome to Australia, now in HD, considers the place of Australia and our place in it, in relation to the common and often more romanticised image and politic of Australia’s mythological landscape. Strevens offers examples of contemporary Australian cinema such as Snowtown, The Boys and Romper Stomper as more accurate representations of a landscape that a majority of Australians experience on a day-to-day basis. Landscape Too then, is less about the construction of an image or what lies within a frame and the colonial subtext of this gesture, and more of an exposition of why it is vital to continue engaging with these ideas. As Ross Gibson observes, the place of Australia—encompassing a nation, a dream, and a time— is one that we can imagine ourselves in relation to. [5]  The texts and works in Landscape Too, hence come from a desire to understand the place we inhabit both physically and imaginatively. 

We all carry about with us both horizontal and vertical perspectives on the spaces that mean something to us. In a sense, we are all navigators. [6]

 

Endnotes

 [1] Jeff Malpas, “Place and the Problem of Landscape,” in The Place of Landscape, ed. Jeff Malpas (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011).

[2] Ross Gibson, South of The West; Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).

[3] Martin Woods Susannah Helman, “Terra Incognita to Australia,” in Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia (Canberra, ACT: National Library of Australia, 2013).

[4] Malpas, “Place and the Problem of Landscape.”

[5] Gibson, South of The West; Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia.

[6] Peter Sutton, “We are all navigators,” in Mapping Our World:Terra Incognita to Australia (Canberra, ACT: National Library of Australia, 2013).

Carla Liesch is a Sydney-based artist undertaking a Masters of Fine Arts at Sydney College of the Arts. Hayley Megan French is a Sydney-based artist and PhD candidate at Sydney College of the Arts. Carla and Hayley have been collaborating since 2011.

 

Download the full booklet here, or contact for a hardcopy