Murray Fredericks

Murray Fredericks immerses himself in the arid landscape of Lake Eyre for weeks at a time. A composer of space, he transports large-scale mirrors into the saltpan to create photographs that shift perspective and depth. The effect? Tricks of the eye as his compositions blur between representation and formalist abstraction to evoke the euphoria of space.

When you began photographing you were travelling through places like Iran and Pakistan. What was it about those landscapes that appealed to you?
The first thing was that I enjoyed the time and the space. I started becoming fascinated with little motifs like whisps of sand going through the wind. For some reason they were sticking in my head, and recalling them was giving me sensations and enjoyment.

As a self-taught artist, what was a turning point for you?
I went back to university when I was thirty three. Studying the history of photography was the biggest flip in my career. I realised what I had been doing was avant-garde 100 years before. I thought why am I doing this? I came across artists who had already been down the same path. I stopped there.

Who have been major influences on your work?
The biggest influence conceptually is Bernd and Hilla Becher, their obsession with seriality and what that does and how that frames a series. I was looking at gas tanks and thinking ‘why is this riveting me?’. Aesthetically, early on it was the American large-format and even street photography, like Stephen Shore and Richard Misrach. I came across Misrach’s salt lake work when I was already doing Lake Eyre. I think if I had found that beforehand I probably wouldn’t have gone. It wouldn’t have been as genuine.

You have an ongoing relationship with Lake Eyre.
After the first visit I thought I don’t know if something is here; second visit I think I got it, and it became a running joke with the farmers who let me cross their properties. This trip was the twenty third trip to Lake Eyre, and I honestly think I’m done. I want to make one more trip.

What is it about Lake Eyre?
The uniformity, the flatness, it’s all about a sensation that gets created when I step onto the lake that never goes away.

In your regimented process is there room for error?
The process is about tricking myself. I have to be regimented. It is the mundane tasks that flip the mind over into the creative state, and also when I go out there after a couple of days when I’m physically exhausted. The typical trip is about three weeks. I also go through this weird thing where I genuinely think that what I am doing has failed, almost to the point that this is bullshit and I have to go home. I’ve learnt to stay the course no matter what and shoot it through.

Sounds like the Marina Abramović Method.
It does happen, it might be partly chemical; there is a point where you forget what you are doing and the brain flips into a full dream state and that is incredibly fertile ground for me.

Your geometric compositions share a link with formalism.
The geometry goes back to the Bechers, and Donald Judd in minimalism. One of the criticisms of that minimalism is that it’s detached and cold. I look at this as minimalist work but overlaying it with emotion and re-overlaying with a political message.

What role does perspective play in your work?
What I am looking at is anything in the landscape that is used to quantify the viewer’s experience. Out there it is about setting up where perspective and scale are denied. That is where I am trying to find abstraction. I never use a super wide lens. I flatten things out quite a bit.

Distilling the already featureless land into blocks of colour, you almost lose the line of the horizon.
And that is what I am playing with. It is a giant puddle; when you go towards where the puddle ends you can see more salt, as you move away the line gets thinner and thinner and then it’s gone. So I try and put the mirror right on that point where it comes and goes and that changes with the light, so as the sun goes down you get a mirage effect. How little information can I get into the shot?

How do you draw light into the glass?
We get set up so that the second the sun drops we start shooting until almost dark and the stars start appearing, and then we’d set up for the morning. The assistant and I would drag all the mirrors 180 degrees into another formation for the morning. Everything is in soft light so you don’t get any of the thickness of the glass.

What has been your experience of playing with space?
One of the beautiful things of working with space is that people read their own story into the space. When Salt was released and was put on high rotation in the US; I’d wake up in the morning and there’d be 100 emails from evangelical Christians to new age hippies – they’d all be like ‘you’ve captured God, I understand what you are doing’. We’d created enough room for people to project their own stuff into it.

Would you describe your work as endurance photography?
Greenland felt like endurance. Lake Eyre has never felt like endurance. I love it. What keeps me going out there is the photography. I have four kids and in my career I have three types of specialities, life for the last ten to fifteen years has just felt insane. I get out there, set up my tent and get a book out.

Is it hard to shift yourself from Australia’s human histories with the landscape?
All the Indigenous history, I think about that nonstop. My fascination is with the frontier wars and the mythology of the bush created by Europeans being in a foreign land. But for me the landscape has always been a place of freedom and release.

Apart from the mirrors there’s no human presence here.
There is a human presence in all of them. There is very much an emotional presence for me, which probably has an evolutionary element to it. Topophilia translates to ‘love of place’, about how humans from an evolutionary perspective constructed place out of emptiness for safety reasons. So we have evolved with that. When you disrupt that, when you don’t provide any reference points for people they will keep looking because we want to know where we are all the time.

Lake Eyre is a bit of a blank canvas …
It is a container, and with the Becher-esque rules I put myself very firmly within that; and it’s about getting to know every inch of that container.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

Murray Fredericks: Array
12 November 19 December 2019
ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

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