Eyes on Australia

What do we see when we turn our eyes, or our lenses, to our nation? The question begs a plethora of clarifications, specifications, and spin-offs. Before we can take a shot at an answer, we might wonder how much of a nation – heterogenous and endlessly resistant to generalisation as such entities are – a photograph can encompass. So, too, we might ask how we change our subject through our act of looking, or how self-scrutiny, the representation of our national experience, differs in affect and effect from our scrutiny of others.

For ‘Eyes on Australia’part of ‘Eyes on Main Street’, an international photography festival in downtown Wilson, North Carolina – curator Lucy Stranger approaches the problem of photographing contemporary Australia through a consideration of the photographer’s socio-cultural position and identity. The founding premise – the constitutional claim, perhaps – of the exhibition is that Australia’s multifaceted geography, culture, and politics have historically been represented through the structuring and homogenising master-gaze of colonial masculinity. In a move toward more balanced, more insightful, and more attentive national self-examination, Stranger builds a showing of our statehood through lenses of femininity and cultural diversity.

The label ‘landscape photography’ doesn’t quite seem to capture any of the work in the show, though much of it is concerned with picturing geography, natural features of the nation, and the relationship of individuals and rural communities to the land. Representations of social groups, pairs of people, and lone wanderers within the landscape feel, invariably, intimate. In Tamara Dean’s Centre of the Universe (2009), for instance, we see the heads of two people – a couple bound up in each other, we assume, although they could be just mates – floating above the surface of an iridescent blue body of water. Two bodies within one larger, enveloping one: the image depicts, and generates for the viewer, senses of closeness, of privacy, and of the significance of an engagements to one another and to our environment. Slow ripples circle out from the pair, obscuring the bodies beneath the water, and throwing the reflections of trees into a distortion a little more tender and melancholy than the painterly impressionism that they call up.

Prue Stent and Honey Long’s Dust Flood (2018), too, shows the body in an almost shockingly vulnerable intimacy with the land. Here, with face and features obscured by a cloth that covers the whole person, the photograph’s subject curls their spindly limbs around a rock, shiny with the water that covers the whole ground.  The dusty pink of what we imagine to be a pan-Australian interior saturates the picture’s colouring, just as the water that carries it saturates the subject’s cloth covering. The emotion here is a little more ambivalent than in Dean’s work; the figure is intimate with the landscape, and yet resists completely softening into it. The rock they’re curled around is warm to the eye, sure, but seems as if it would be emphatically cold and wet to the touch.

Marcelle Bradbeer’s Murray Sunset National Park (2018), too, works through a monochrome palette – here, a darker, richer pink than in Stent and Long’s work. Without a figure in the landscape, the image brings a representation of a unique and specific part of Australia’s geography to the show. It cuts through the generalising impulse of projects that aim to say something about big categories like the ‘national.’ A lonely tire floats on the water towards the back of the picture space, the only punctuation of the photograph’s resplendent, earthy pink. Man is in the landscape here – if not in body, then in effect. Is the tire from a tire-swing, though, like we may expect to see in Dean’s Ebeneezer Rock Drop (2014), or is it refuse from a cast-off car, as in Bradbeer’s Luck No. 7 (Queenstown) (2017)? Here, satisfyingly, the photographs across the show interact to complexify, not to distil, an understanding of what we see when we look at Australia.

Other artists in the show turn their gaze more toward the distinctly social, interrogating human experiences in Australia as they are gendered, classed, or racialized. Jasmine Poole’s Wanwah Forbes, for instance, shows in tender technicolour the interior of a Chinese restaurant in rural New South Wales. Treading the fault line between sincerity and kitsch, the photograph explores cultural collision and collaboration in its telling of an oft-ignored part of Australian history. Elsewhere, Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’ Looking at you I (2017) resists the more common representation of Indigenous culture as revolving around a relationship to country. Dickens, instead, examines the mediation of identity through cultural symbols, covering her body in materials that evoke the visual vernacular of Australiana. Here, an embroidered head-covering gestures not only to Dickens’s imbrication in Australian geographical and cultural landscapes, but to her identity as charged by gender, and by motherhood.

Raphaela Rosella’s Tricia and Ty-Leta (2016), from the series ‘You’ll Know It When You Feel It’, also depicts motherhood, this time with an emphasis on the social situation of mothers in regional parts of the country, and on the affective valence of their relationships with their children. Illuminated with pseudo-religious reverence by the transfixing blue glow of a TV screen, against a wall with a few power chords plugged in and a bed that dips down at the edge, a mother breastfeeds her child. The moment’s softness is set firmly within the grounding of the social world within which it takes place. Hoda Afshar’s Portrait of Shamindan (2018), in contrast, takes a quiet, interpersonal moment out of spatial situation. Capturing the stories of refugees in between countries, situated outside of landscape and the fixed social configurations of a nation, the appearance of this work in ‘Eyes on Australia’ makes a firm case for asylum seeker experience as a salient part of the story of Australia.

Together, the eight female photographers in ‘Eyes on Australia’ reconfigure how we place ourselves in the land as a part of Australia’s grand narrative.

Eyes on Australia
27 April – 4 August 2019
Eyes on Main Street
Wilson, North Carolina


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