Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Ground, the Sky, and the Island

This video reworks photographs, super 8 film, sound and anecdotal text from a series of bush and outback locations across Australia during the 1990s. It takes the form of extracts from an imagined first person journal, layered over extruded experiments with composition and movement constructing a synthetic shifting landscape. Moving through discrete but related sections, the abstracted view shifts vertically through 90 degrees between the closeness of the local, the ground, and the claustrophobia of the distant colonizing horizon. As it travels east from the South Australian desert, through bush, tablelands and rocky range, the video becomes a subjective essayistic meditation, in absentia, on being in the landscape, the problem of attempting to reproduce these landscapes and the uncertainty of their representation. At its inconclusion we arrive on K'gari (Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland) where we reach the edge of the known world, a space being made in an open future.

The Ground, the Sky, and the Island was made for Figuring Landscapes



impression(s) d'australie....

very impressive.

first: some of the many overlays i got:
dali's "impression de la haute mongolie", godard's coffe cup view, robert smitson's palenque hotel lecture, ( or the jetty, ie. the salt lake) chris marker, some of rouch's africa films... and more not yet identified: the very fine morning views, the fall in he forrest. some calvino, maybe.
and ponge's prose or perec's faintly.

most interesting: the very apparent shift of view(point), the gathering of footage, the actual way of seing: yours from before. might it be the actual media that makes the difference. the 8/16 mm to tape to digital...( to your more recent video)
a slowness and intesity.

it all could reside in the time overlay.
footage from one period, text from another, the piecing together later.

anyway: a pleasure to watch, to listen to & to reflect upon.

Steven Ball said...

Thank you Sam, a very generous response and interesting connections, particularly Smithson, Calvino and Marker, which are unintended (or unconscious) references, but I can understand why you mention them.

Your observation about the shift of viewpoint, it is partly to do with the originating media and the way I worked with it originally, but a good deal of the manipulation is also recent. All moving image was super 8 transferred to video, everything else is still image, scanned from slide or print - the early horizontally bisected images, for example, are all still images which juxtapose sky and ground from different shots but also shift between in-focus and blurred versions of the same image section, trying to achieve a kind of spatial/perceptual - rather than motion oriented - animation. Most of the manipulation has been in the 'digital domain'. As material it is a lot more 'worked over' than most of my more recent, more 'direct' work, and that manifests itself as a kind of layering I guess.

In revisiting old material I am working through the problem of landscape, reflecting on the Western/European relationship with land that is now acknowledged to have been 'stolen', as it were from its original inhabitants, and the inadequacy of the still resonating historical imported Western conception of landscape as spectacle in which one is in awe, rendered as picturesque.

Aboriginal Australians worship a 'god' that is in the ground, the landscape is what is underfoot, one is located; the European god is an invisible, ineffable sky god and the European view of the landscape is dominated by the horizon. The contemporary Australian landscape is torn by these two viewpoints, that of the ground and that of the sky, a constantly shifting viewpoint.

Philip Sanderson said...

The sections where the horizon "blurs" from one image to another are very effective in a way which both suggests a fluidity of landscape and a mirage(d) perception, questioning the authenticity of the visual reproduction.

Less sure though about this......

Aboriginal Australians worship a 'god' that is in the ground, the landscape is what is underfoot, one is located; the European god is an invisible, ineffable sky god and the European view of the landscape is dominated by the horizon. The contemporary Australian landscape is torn by these two viewpoints, that of the ground and that of the sky, a constantly shifting viewpoint.

On has to ask though do Aboriginal Australians (itself a western construct , indigenous Australians is possibly better if still not ideal ) worship a God that is in the land? Is it not rather that the movement across the land locates or inscribes an identity narrative onto the ground whereby the ancestors and the soil/landscape become indivisible. Lives written out on a landscape both past and present becomes at once physical but also abstracted through representation in paintings and artworks that map this history through a constant redrawing of the dreamtime?

In this sense the indigenous Australians’ scaped land shares something with the Alfred Watkins straight track or Ley Line and the notion of a ritualized passage across the landscape as an act of inscription that marks out the land as sacred site. The movement or journey from sacred node to node becomes in Christianity the pilgrimage. In Catholicism one also has the Stations of the Cross and so on. So this separation you propose between Gods seems far less robust

Steven Ball said...

Yes well of course I'm using shorthand for the sake of brevity and you're right that this is part of the problem of using western constructs where there are no direct equivalents (hence my use of 'god' rather than God). It would be equally possible to say Whitefella Dreaming is in the sky, as this is an imaginative construct to suggest the dominant direction of the gaze. Ideas such as 'worship', 'sacred', 'ritual', 'religion' are also western projections and notions of Sacred Sites are at best an approximation of the cultural belief system relationship with the land. There is no western equivalent for Dreamtime or the concept of circular time, nor the moeity relationship that exists not just between humans but between humans and both animal and non-animal entities. So perhaps I shouldn't have used a (loaded) religious metaphor.

Interesting that you bring Alfred Watkins into the frame as it was precisely as a photographer and therefore predisposed to staring at the horizon, and as a result spotting landmarks in the distance, a habit of course inherited by photography from landscape painting. Interesting to note that it took Watkins from gazing into the distance to considering the ground beneath his feet.

Philip Sanderson said...

Surely with Watkins it’s less about horizon than the ground that leads up to the horizon - the straight track etc. Similarly is landscape painting (a rather big genre to make comments about) all about horizon as you seem to be suggesting?

Steven Ball said...

That would be fair enough if I were actually saying that it is "all about", but I'm not, I'm suggesting a tendency, a predisposition, and the degree to which I approach it in the video.

If I recall correctly from the Old Straight Track, Watkins 'discovered' ley lines as a direct result of taking landscape photos and finding that sites aligned along tracks which he later verified by tracing the lines on a map.

The pastoral romantic landscape painting tradition was very influential on both the early settlers figuring of the Australian landscape and the technical development of photography (Euclidean perspective's influence on development of lens technology along paradigms of representational verisimilitude). These ideas of the landscape were largely imposed on the imagining of colonial Australia at the same time as Aboriginal communities were being destroyed, along with their particular imagining of the land, the ground.

So there is a historical and political convergence of technology, conventions of representation and colonialism. There are strands of this that reverberate through to contemporary ideas of landscape, technology and cultural politics.

So of course I'm not making comments about an entire genre but speculating around its relationship in specific contexts and circumstances.

Philip Sanderson said...

Well OK your are qualifying then

'and the European view of the landscape is dominated by the horizon.'

Which sounds a lot like saying is all about....

Philip Sanderson said...

This is interesting and seems to connect with the video....
This small selection of Australian landscape painting, beginning with the period of European settlement, highlights different ways of depicting land and organising pictorial space. Of course for a long time before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people were interpreting aspects of their land through song, art, dance and ceremony.

It is interesting to note changes in regards to creating the illusion of depth in landscape painting. In the past a horizon line was used to create a sense of vast space. The resulting effect was that it positioned the viewer at a distance from the landscape. Later, as indigenous and contemporary art influenced artists and as we have come to know the landscape better, the use of a horizon has diminished or totally disappeared.

Eugene von Guerard and Thomas Clark both arrived in Australia in the early 1850s yet they depict land in quite different ways. Von Guerard (1811-1901) painted 'Tower Hill' as an idyllic landscape where the Aboriginal group, shown in the foreground, appear to live in a latter-day paradise. Between the contrast of the detailed foreground and the distant horizon one senses the artist's desire to explore this unknown land.

'Muntham' by Thomas Clark (1814-1883), painted approximately five years later than 'Tower Hill' shows measured paddocks, denuded hills, grazing animals and farm-workers - no sense of the unknown here! Our eyes tend to settle in the valleys where the homestead nestles. Unlike von Guerard, Clark is not interested in exploration or botanical correctness but rather in belonging and ownership.

In von Guerard's later painting of 1884, 'Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54', the genesis of a city is captured. By showing cleared land and a horizon of disappearing wilderness, von Guerard may also be questioning the price of progress.

Fredrick McCubbin (1855-1917) painted 'A Bush Burial' in 1890 when the colony was experiencing the worst drought and depression in its history and this possibly influenced the choice of subject. McCubbin creates an engulfing, claustrophobic landscape by barely suggesting any horizon and compressing midground and background. In contrast, the bush folk are portrayed as heroic figures.

There is no sense of the heroic in Clarice Beckett's work. Instead, Beckett (1887-1935) pays homage to the everyday scenes and small events that we all experience. Misty suburban landscapes are painted with a transient beauty that suggests the impermanence of existence. Beckett often painted plein air - completing her work outside rather than in the studio. Between the heroics of McCubbin and the cherished everyday events seen in Beckett's work, we could speculate on how World War 1 may have had an effect on the choice of subject matter deemed worthy enough to paint.

Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) grew up on the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs and knew the Central Australian desert intimately. A characteristic common to most of Namatjira's landscapes is the sense of energy within the land. Though his paintings conform to European traditions of landscape painting in that they contain foreground, midground, background and distant horizon, the forms pulsate through the patterning of shadows across the painting, making the land itself appear to breathe.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), like McCubbin, was interested in depicting narratives in the landscape. In 'Kelly at the Mines' the horizon appears disjointed and forms are not anchored in space. Instead they seem to float and the landscape becomes the locale for surreal dramas: a dreamed place. The Ned Kelly series was painted during World War 11 when Nolan was himself hiding out from army authorities after deserting.

In 'Yellow Landscape', Fred Williams (1927-82) also disturbs the organisation of pictorial space by evaporating the horizon line in what appears to be searing heat, allowing the tree forms to float in heat and space. Through thoughtful distillation of forms accompanied by gestural brush strokes, Williams transforms half-cleared, unremarkable scrub into a kind of calligraphic meditation on observation.

In 'Eagle Landscape' by William Robinson (b. 1936) the horizon line is totally abandoned and the viewer is made to feel that they are surrounded by the landscape as one simultaneously sees above, below, through and over. As the title suggests, this painting may well be an imagined bird's view as it swoops over hilltops. Robinson often depicts the land close to his home and this gives his paintings a sense of familiarity and sensitivity to the connections between land and living things.

'Leaving a Mountain' by Bea Maddock (b. 1934) has very little sense of depth as one mountain dominates the horizon. Instead we are made aware of how the landscape was observed: slowly, bit by bit. The artist might be suggesting that intimate knowledge of the land can only be gained through slow observation. Her work often has a feeling of being wrought from earth as she uses ochres from her native Tasmania mixed with encaustic (pigment mixed with molten wax).

Kathleen Petyarre (b. circa 1940) was born on Utopia Station, north-east of Alice Springs. Common themes in Petyarre's paintings are the Dreaming stories she inherited from her mother and father. There is a feeling of immense space in Petyarre's paintings though there is no hint of a horizon line and the subject matter may be as minute as the trail a lizard leaves across sand. The viewer is made to feel that they are surrounded by and submerged in the landscape.

Deborah Vaughan
archive.amol.org.au/discovernet/tales/landscape.asp -
Google Cache

Steven Ball said...

interesting chronology which suggests that I'm at about Fred Williams!

Anonymous said...

Yep more work to do

Steven Ball said...

always is

Steven Ball said...

Oh well, subjective personal impressions can hardly be expected to stand as totalizing art theories - I think those days at least are behind us!

Philip Sanderson said...

Nothing personal.

Steven Ball said...

I'm home now and with my notes and books have been able to locate some of the references that played a part in making the video, in terms of thinking through ways of imagining the Australian landscape through revisiting my image and text archive from the days when I was a relatively recent European arrivee. By way of expanding and clarify above points from source rather than from a faulty memory.

In 'The Lie of the Land' Paul Carter writes "The Aranda, Strehlow insisted, were exclusively Earth-worshippers; the post-homeric Greeks and the migratory culture of the west have been exclusively Sky-worshippers." Strehlow was an anthropologist who studied the central Australian Aranda people. He was adopted by the Aranda as one of their own and as a result afforded a closer connection to Aranda culture than most non-Aboriginal people would.

Something to bear in mind here is that Strehlow was the son of a pastor based on the Hermannsburg Mission. This is to remind us that many Aboriginal Australians' first contact with Europeans was as missionaries and the construction of concepts of land, landscape and the ground centered on religious beliefs, those of the Aranda and those of the missionaries. The result of the meeting of these cultures played itself out in the way the gave relates to the land and the metaphors with belief systems. Strehlow, according to Carter, thought that "...the traditional habit of looking at everything from above limited the vision of the artist and frustrated his endeavours to express himself with freedom and clarity", clarity that could only be achieved when the Aranda "...stopped staring at the ground... and are looking at the landscape itself." Carter writes "As a preliminary to colonizing the landscape with a European way of seeing, they [the Aranda traditional artists' images] must be turned into their antithesis: 'frozen' forms incapable of generating a creative current... But once characterised in this way, the role of the colonists becomes obvious: like Columbus protecting the Taino from an enemy of his own invention, the white painters pose as saviours. They would like the Aranda to share the experience of their patron saint, the apostle Paul, who on the road to Damascus felt the scales fall from his eyes and who, seeing, saw that formerly he had seen nothing at all. The new way of seeing jerks the head upwards through ninety degrees, the horizon comes into view, and seeing is divorced from the dance; as if, miraculously, the water at one's feet had been transformed into a pair of shining railway lines or a white waterpipe receding into the standing mirage."

OK that's a lengthy quote and there's a lot more too from Carter, but it indicates just how entangled religion and landscape were in Australian art.

I also was very interested in this way of characterizing the gaze, the movement, both literal and metaphorical, of the head from gazing at the ground to the horizon. My early images, revisited here for this video, betrayed a naive way of framing the landscape, in the 'European' style, pointing the camera at the horizon, getting the horizon line as straight and central as possible. In the video I start by questioning and ultimately confusing and disrupting this formally. I was, even out there in the 40 degree plus heat of the South Australian desert, as many photographers are, as Vilem Flusser puts it, lead by the camera, my photographs were photographs, conventional landscape images, not images of a landscape. But images are more than simply representations.

Deborah Vaughan writes, cited above, of Albert Namatjira "A characteristic common to most of Namatjira's landscapes is the sense of energy within the land. Though his paintings conform to European traditions of landscape painting in that they contain foreground, midground, background and distant horizon, the forms pulsate through the patterning of shadows across the painting, making the land itself appear to breathe." Namatjira was an Aranda painter at the Hermannsburg Mission. Carter's analysis of his paintings, however, differs wildly to Vaughan's rather passive apolitical representational reading. Carter points out that many of the painters at Hermannsburg were influenced by colourful representations of the holy land found in Bibles. But Namatjira was "... not supinely assimilating his surroundings to a Western visualization of them. On the contrary, by representing them as the Land of Promise, he was painting it in the only way that Lutherans and the white community could conceptualize it and make sense of it, allegorically, as a prefiguring of somewhere else... he mimicked the European way of seeing the ground in terms of representational images... to regard (images) as merely representations or signifiers... it mimicked the iconography of Bible illustrations, not in order to assimilate the Aranda landscape to Christian conventions, but perhaps to mock our self-absortion.... [also and less negatively] by participating in its allegorical language, he was able to assimilate a European system of mimesis to his own traditions of seeing and drawing... he could preserve an indigenous conviction that the landscape was the creative original and abiding presence that leant these representations their meaning."


So this is not so much to do with my video directly, more to illustrate how landscape images in the context of Australian culture cannot be placed in any kind of easy chronological lineage of representation, more likely they will have embedded within them an uneasy relationship with cultural representation. Carter goes on to suggest that Namatjira is tantamount to being, in the first half of the 20th century, one of the first post-modernist artists.

Unknown said...

Would be interested to see what you think of this article on Figuring Landscapes by David Berridge... who I think you spoke to when he was researching it.

Anonymous said...

yep remember seeing that sign two day into driving across the nullaboor!!
pete spence

Steven Ball said...

that one was just out of Coober Pedy if I remember