• Nookamka - Lake Bonney

    Nookamka - Lake Bonney 2007

    Nici Cumpston Barkindji

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    Notes

    Nici Cumpston is a descendant of the Barkindji people. This image – from her photographic series based on Nookamka (Lake Bonney) – expresses her concern and reverence for the Riverland region of South Australia where she grew up.

    Keenly aware of the environmental crisis facing this polluted and over-salinated network of water-ways, Cumpston’s hand-coloured photographs capture the majesty of the eucalypts that remain as well as the fragile beauty of the stumps devoid of branches.

    Cumpston has said of this landscape, ‘I can feel the presence of our ancestors while walking amongst the many scar trees that are scattered throughout the backwaters. The scars in the trees are where Aboriginal people have made coolamons – shields or canoes from the outer layers of bark. They attest to the presence of Aboriginal occupation of the land.’

  • Dead in the water

    Dead in the water (1999)

    Fiona HALL

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    Notes

    Dead in the water is from a series of works that refer to Fiona Hall’s interest in environmental degeneration, native species, systems of classification, museology, colonial history and botany. This work elaborates a consistent theme in Hall’s art: the uneasy relationship between culture and nature.

    The work comprises 13 individual elements constructed from PVC plumbing pipe, silver thread and glass beads. The display case has a dividing shelf between top and bottom – an implied waterline. Perforated pipe ends sit above the waterline, connected below to marine-like invertebrates and delicate coral forms that Hall has used for their literal indication of biological fragility and ecological instability. Each of the woven components emerges organically as Hall’s remarkable technical skill and virtuosity impress themselves upon her chosen materials.

  • Murray River punch

    Murray River punch 1980; 2008 {printed}

    Bonita ELY

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    Notes

    Bonita Ely is one of Australia’s most important feminist artists and Murray River Punch is one of her most significant performances. The work was first performed at Melbourne University’s George Paton Gallery in June 1980 as part of ‘Women at Work’, a festival of women’s performance art. In this work the artist set up a cooking demonstration in the university’s Student Union foyer at lunchtime and assumed the role of a cooking demonstrator who narrates the recipe for a ‘punch’ drink, the ingredients coming from pollutants in the Murray River.

    When Murray River Punch was exhibited in the exhibition HEAT at RMIT in 2008, Ely updated the recipe’s contents to include sulphuric acid, a toxic substance that is now found in the waterway.

    While ‘of its time’, the work continues to have an extraordinary resonance and power given escalating concerns within Australia and internationally about environmental degradation and climate change.

  • Southern Cross to bear and behold – Burning

    Southern Cross to bear and behold – Burning (2007)

    Jill ORR; Naomi HERZOG (photographer)

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    Notes

    Jill Orr has been a performance artist since 1976 and has consistently used her own body to explore ecological and social issues. She often works with photographers to document her performances and in this instance worked with Naomi Herzog who photographed her at Mitre Lake in Victoria’s arid Wimmera district.

    In the two photographs from Southern Cross – to bear and behold, Orr is shown walking across the salt encrusted surface of Mitre Lake, improbably holding a paper umbrella that has burst into flames. Orr’s metaphorical performance symbolises our difficult relationship with the landscape in which we live.

    Although Mitre Lake is a natural salt pan (unlike other areas where degradation has caused salination), the fragility of its appearance has a clear environmental message. As Orr observes of this startling image (which she reworked from an earlier performance), ‘I have reemployed it again given that the early environmental warnings of the late 70s and 80s have been largely ignored and global warming has reached global and political urgency. Mitre Lake is symbolic of this crisis. The new image has a different resonance … there is both apocalypse and renewal’.

  • Rare and unexpected sightings of the Embroidered Merops and the Spinifex Grasswren

    Rare and unexpected sightings of the Embroidered Merops and the Spinifex Grasswren 2003

    John WOLSELEY

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    Notes

    This drawing is from a series of works made in and following the summer of 2001–2002, when Wolseley spent about six months working in the Royal National Park outside Sydney following the dramatic bushfires which had swept through the area at Christmas in 2001.

    This multi-panelled work comprises six large sheets of paper that are marked with the random calligraphic drawing of burnt trees and foliage. These abstract charcoal marks are juxtaposed against delicate washes of watercolour and passages of Wolseley’s characteristic fine drawing, depicting various plant forms and the rare Regent Honeyeater.

    The image of the bird in the lower left panel is an appropriation of the first ever depiction of the Regent Honeyeater or Embroidered Merops, by the colonial artist, John Lewin, published in his 1808 book, Birds of New Holland with their Natural History and in subsequent titled edition Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History of 1813.

  • Of Great Western tears / Duet 2

    Of Great Western tears / Duet 2 2006

    Harry NANKIN

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    Notes
    Harry Nankin’s large-scale photogram was created by placing large sheets of light-sensitive photographic paper in a support frame in a rainforest at night. The paper was then exposed to a flash leaving a ‘trace’ of anything that was touching the paper, including delicate fern fronds and raindrops that highlight the fragility of the flora of the rainforest.

Artists often engage with environmental issues and ideas, from highlighting nature’s fragile beauty, to documenting or imagining the impact of natural and human forces on the environment and celebrating nature’s regenerative powers.

  • Biological fragility

    Fiona Hall’s art practice reflects an interest in natural history, particularly botany, and an engagement with social and environmental politics. Dead in the water 1999 is a confronting fusion of man-made objects with ‘natural’ organisms suspended within a glass display case. A dividing shelf within the case implies a waterline. Pipe ends sit above the waterline, connected below to marine-like creatures and delicate coral forms. They appear, as the title suggests, dead in the water, a symbol of biological fragility and ecological instability.

  • Troubled landscape

    Nici Cumpston’s hand-coloured photographs feature South Australia’s Riverland region. The area is rich in Aboriginal history and has cultural and personal significance for the artist who is a descendent of the Barkindji people and spent much of her childhood in the area.

    Cumpston is acutely aware of the environmental crisis facing the polluted and over-salinated water-ways. Despite the troubled history and health of the lake, the majestic skeletal forms of the trees and the serenity of the sky and water convey a sense of the enduring beauty and power of this landscape.

  • Toxic mix

    Murray River punch by Bonita Ely also addresses issues related to the health of one of our major waterways. Ely first performed Murray River punch in 1980 when she presented her cooking demonstration for how to make a ‘punch’ drink, the ingredients coming from pollutants in the Murray River.

    In a repeat performance in 2008, Ely updated the recipe to include sulphuric acid, a toxic substance that is now found in the waterway.

    The work’s relevance and power remain potent given escalating concerns about environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change. 

  • Fragile beauty

    Jill Orr, Harry Nankin and John Wolseley have all created works that highlight the fragility and beauty of the natural environment, using processes that connect their works directly to the natural environments they represent.   

    The two photographs from Southern Cross – to bear and behold 2007 document a performance by Jill Orr. The artist is shown walking across the pristine salt-encrusted surface of Mitre Lake in Victoria’s arid Wimmera district. She holds a paper umbrella that has burst into flames – a metaphor for our difficult relationship with the landscape.

    Harry Nankin’s large-scale photogram was created by placing large sheets of light-sensitive photographic paper in a support frame in a rainforest at night. The paper was then exposed to a flash leaving a ‘trace’ of anything that was touching the paper, including delicate fern fronds and raindrops that highlight the fragility of the flora of the rainforest.1

    John Wolseley shares Nankin’s concern for the natural world. This drawing is from a series of works he made in the aftermath of bushfires that swept through Sydney’s outskirts in 2001. It includes watercolour washes, field notations and drawings of plants and birds, including the rare Regent Honeyeater. These are juxtaposed with abstract charcoal marks made by the artist as he moved through the burnt landscape, dragging the paper behind him.   

Endnotes


  • 1 Isobel Crombie, Stormy Weather: Contemporary Landscape Photography, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011.