This essay is intended as an amusement. Necessarily fragmented, brief and certainly partial.
On a Saturday in summer 2002, a 49-year old man was arrested on the beach of Clovelly, Sydney. Beachgoers were tense and depraved. Range rovers were abruptly pulled over on the street, jutting out carelessly onto the road. The pink and sandy tear-stained faces of the offspring of the aforementioned affluent, G-Wagon-driving locals were scrunched in despair. On any other Saturday morning these locals might have slept in until 8 or 9, walked down to the beach with a large cup of coffee and some tanning oil in hand and worried about little more than the amount of sun exposure on their shoulders and beach-front parking spaces. But on this Saturday an unnamed 49-year-old man emerged from the water with a spear in one hand and a bright Blue Groper, 1.2 metres in length, slouched in his net in the other. This was the day the Groper died.
‘Bluey’ was the name given to the dominant male Blue Groper that frequented the reef around Clovelly and the surrounding coastal suburbs. Such a friend was he, that then NSW premier Bob Carr went on to describe the man as a “mongrel” and a “murderer”.
"I have swum with him. I know the groper, he was a friend of mine."
Here is why I refer to almost all Australian landscapes as works of extraordinary fiction. I use the word ‘almost’ very tactically to, in some way, compensate for the gross generalisations I am about to make. I know that I am not the first individual to feel a great sense of near-comical irony when I think about how the academic discipline of art history has done its best to celebrate Nationalistic Impressionism found in Australian landscapes as the definitive moment in Australian art. Bush, harsh sunlight. Shrubs. The rawness of the land; all things very Australian – marks of Australian-ness. What is overlooked is the fact that this style of painting is reflective of a greater shadow in the White-Australian imagination: omission. Australian landscape’s murky and frankly embarrassing conception was from a time of great nationalistic sentiment. The style emerged when Australia was just a group of colonies on the cusp of federating. It isn’t all en plain air and sweeping gums. Somewhere in between the shaky, blue mountains in a Streeton and the polite, flat dusty scapes of a Roberts, there is a giant, gaping, cultural-shaped hole in the canvas. Weirdly enough, the art that is allegedly most characteristic of Australian identity shows a place devoid of a First Nations presence. Mechanisms of exclusion such as this are symptomatic of what professor Ian Mclean coined in his 1998 Hancock lecture as “the great silence of Australian art history”. And how loud the silence is once you notice it. Looking at these works is like looking at something horribly perverted, unnatural and freakish in appearance. Indigenous culture is as germane to the discussion of Australian identity as an edging rectangle of colour is to a Mondrian. It is for these reasons that I now actively consider any Australian landscapes that have more sense in repetition than innovation to be as absurd and incomprehensibly bizarre as, for example, a Gleeson. Doing this tends to disenfranchise the art style as whole though because the value imparted onto these works has been solely affiliated with context and identity, which Absurdism has absolutely no interest in. It is a humorous exercise, observing a Withers with the same ontological detachment as a work that is highly fictional in its subject matter and bears no resemblance to any time or place. It is humorous because that is exactly what Withers’ work (and almost all Australian landscapers of his age and fashion) have received great critical acclaim for: truth. Depicting the sublime nature as it is, when it was. This period and style of art battles to sustain prolonged interest in me now that it is devoid of its alleged contextual insights. The colonial and White-Australian imagination is nowhere more triumphantly displayed than in the art that we customarily, if inaccurately, refer to as the ‘Australian’ landscape.
The winds of change have been blowing ever since Albert Namatjira, and things have been shifting for a long period of time. The Australian art world is approaching a provincial phase of international recognition. Australian art, in all its brightness, cares less and less about the prodigies of Naturalism and Impressionism and more about global egalitarianism. It is a self-governing ecosystem of untethered opinions. The nationalistic landscape artists and their adherents (the critics, curators and art dealers who admire their works), instrumental in producing the bleak state of iconicised Australian art as we once knew it, regard this shift in appetite as seasonal fashion. It is somewhat insecure, as such young, quick luxuriances often are; however the unprecedented frequency of good artists and the superior quality of contemporary art is undeniable. I think the greatest way that these acclaimed colonial landscapes can offer value is by letting them punctuate a conversation about what the face of Australia really looks like, by using them as a surface to push away from. The quality of recent Australian art is exceptionally single. It deals in sensuality and electricity and is oppressive only in its unmitigated individuality, rather than its subject matter.
Over the course of the recent year, the mounting pressure of the pandemic began to mix with my occupational opportunities (or lack thereof) and I found myself in the same place I had spent the morning of my life; a small town in the shadow of an old mountain in the hinterland of the Northern Rivers in Australia, on unceded Bundjalung Country. This exodus is and has been one of great parody. It is a feral kind of romance. Some days I am spurred onwards by the familiar scents and carnal memories I did not know I harboured, and other days I could swear to you that I could feel my brain atrophying. I liked to think that the implications of living in what is essentially a large fertile bowl (the largest erosion caldera in the southern hemisphere) meant in an indirect kind of way, that the individuals inhabiting this orifice would have new and more intelligent ways of seeing and metabolising beauty. I still don’t know if I was right in thinking this. I do know that I have seen more horrible art here than anywhere else in the world. There is a surplus of things being made here that retain some of the aura of the violent and unimaginative days of nationalistic impressionism and it’s pseudo-honesty, and I can’t stand it. Everywhere I turn I see galleries and more galleries filled with cascading psychedelic panoramas of empty and quiet mountain ranges, save for a soaring eagle here and there. ‘Sublime Nature’ and all that. The most spiritually bruising part about it is the lack of imagination used to paint these things, not even the things themselves. In quality, the work lacks ingenuity. And in concept, it is deflating and dishonest. I am here, standing in this massive punched-in dent, the palm of the earth, surrounded by people who all very stubbornly continue to paint the same thing in the same style regardless of the Expressionist victory. There is no new rhetoric offered, no fresh point of view, no real sublimation. I walked past a space exhibiting something called ‘Wildscapes’ yesterday. A painterly concept that revolves around juxtaposing megafauna, dinosaurs and various other large creatures into landscapes of the local ranges. To me, it is a stark reminder of one of Australia’s favourite past-times; romanticising the wrong things. It reminds me that this is not the work of individual practice, but of national identity. We are creatures of great romance, although globally we aren’t branded as such. Alcoholism and sun cancer generally doesn’t walk hand-in-hand with the more whimsical notions of life. But there are instances when I see it very clearly. I saw it when we mourned the untimely death of a single fish with more conviction and single-mindedness than we cared to mourn the censorship of first nations peoples in the first two-thirds of our art history (generously speaking). How fastly will we hold onto things that are frankly quite culturally irrelevant in the name of nostalgia and sentiment? It is a crisis of identity that lives under the skin of patriotism. I cannot realistically blame the issue at hand on geographical handicap any longer.
What does moving forward look like?
The optimist in me has a great deal of faith in Australian art. If you were to ask me, (and you probably never would) I would say that our grievances began when we leaned too far into a single brand when we were asked to conjure up a national identity. It is useless, constricting and misleading even, to create one specific image of a very broad community. There is something garish and wonderful about the miscellany of Australian spirit, I see it especially in art. There is the ghost of something brighter than the White-Australian imagination, something that you won’t find in barren old landscapes. There is a tenacity, an ambition in the flooded and acidified works of Australians, no doubt the result of accretive ideation and constantly shifting elements.
In chemistry it is recognised that the most energetic reactions happen when a catalyst with a higher surface area is added to a solution. Meaning that the more divided the mass is, the more collisions occur, creating a more dynamic reaction. So if you cut up the catalyst into smaller pieces it would be better than adding it as a single lump of mass, which would only produce a slow burn with a much lower rate of reaction. If I were to apply this to my argument I would say that nature affirms what I am saying on a molecular level. The sheer variety of agents in Australia, (varying culture, gender and sexual identity etc) set the baseline for what is an extremely combustive and radiant ecology that is shown especially in art through spirit, image and meaning. There is an ever-ascending kind of art that knows this fact of our identity, and every now and then it gets tangled with a descending attitude that I see worn out in some of our art, particularly landscapes.
As particles in this great petri-dish of land in the pacific, we are eternally in some way approaching the singularity. We are intimately aware of the resounding thud; the slight, quick and permanent moment of no return. The point of contact, the irreversible nature of things. Of love, of hate, of past. The instant that cannot be inverted, the spear through the guts of the groper, the flush of life and blood. The truth is combustion, it is reaction, it is collision. Not stagnancy, and not uniformity. We only see the violence of change… Are we aware of how much violence goes on just to keep things the way they are?
When I let my imagination run wild I picture him gasping, gills fluttering, thrashing himself about on the beach the way any dying fish does. I imagine a middle-aged White Australian wailing on their knees and embracing the fish, failing to grab a good hold of it, having it slip out of their arms and crumbing itself in the grit of the sand.
"I have swum with him. I know the groper, he was a friend of mine."
This is cute, and I don’t feel like being cute today. In reality, we aren’t this precious. We stare into the face of heavily redacted artworks all the time and don’t mourn its missing parts with nearly the appropriate amount of ceremony. Bluey was skewered, and I don’t mind saying it. Australian art that I enjoy the most doesn’t mind saying it either. I know that when I see a George Tjungurrayi, I am able to directly see the texture of pleasure, the colour of ambition, the temperature of pain. I know a Whiteley can extend from something as social as war to something as private as sex and makes one an aspect of the other. I think it is time we took up arms and started marching towards the water’s edge with spear guns in hand, and vowed to not step foot back on land until we have made a kebab of another uninspired artwork that offers nothing new to the contemporary Australian imagination – and if it happens to be a landscape, let’s just say that I won’t be surprised. Are we committed to this? How much are we prepared to sacrifice? Are we willing to get our G-Wagons sandy in the act?
- Never underestimate the tolerance of our systems for things such as change.
- Rid ourselves of all uninspired art, especially ones that look to romanticise things that are redundant and culturally irrelevant.