Rae Begley

Rae Begley’s suite of photographic works, exhibited at Woollahra Gallery at Redleaf as “On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing,” renders on paper the patient, attentive, and robustly material encounter between the photographer and the natural world around her. This encounter lays the world open for the viewer; landscapes gesture, silently, at the histories and mysteries contained in their own expansive planes.

We’re looking both down through history and up into a tentative mythology in Towers of the Goddess, 2018–22. Layers build upon each other as our eye moves towards the top of the image: starting in amongst loud, wet foliage in the foreground, a waterfall breaking through dark green vegetation, we move up through black rock, to lighter grey strata which seem impossibly neat in their placement along the rock face. This strip of lighter rock seems almost to have been painted on – either by the artist in post-production, or by a divine hand, intervening to make the earth more perfect than pure chance could achieve. Above this, a strip of darker rock again, as the mountain finishes amongst the glare of the clouds. The top edges of the rocks are blurred. Something has just moved. Perhaps it’s the cloud; perhaps it’s the photographer’s hand; perhaps it’s something else, rustling furtively away from us.

The title for Begley’s exhibition at Woollahra Gallery, On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing, is taken from a speech by Arundhati Roy, given at the Lensic Performing Arts Centre in September 2002. A short passage from the speech reads as follows: “Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I’m beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers for the world. Stories reveal themselves to us . . . They commission us. They insist on being told.” Here, Roy insists on the activity of the world – the existence of our most important stories outside of us, as a sort of framework for our human ways of being.

It’s certainly possible to read Begley’s photographs as taken in this spirit: as close, slow acts of looking and image-capture which depend on the eloquence of the landscape itself for their success. The titular work, On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing, 2019–22,  lets the rainbow stretching across the distant hills do the talking, while The Highest Wisdom, 2018–22 finds lines written into to face of its mountain, punctuated by snow. Begley’s images are scenes stumbled upon during physically demanding expeditions to remote regions of the world, and many are dated with spans of time, rather than with a single year, in a gesture to their long gestation periods as works of art. The artist’s commitment to slow processes of image creation in her photographic practice – particularly in the context of “content” culture, and its insistence that we have more stuff, quicker, more of the time – certainly affirms the “quiet day” (or days) as the day fit for looking, for properly seeing, and for making.

We may see precursors to Begley’s work in Rosemary Laing, in Simryn Gill, or even in practices outside of photography, like Lisa Sammut’s kinetic sculptures. Yet, Begley’s work is completely particular to the set of circumstances in which it comes about. Many of the works in the show were developed during an artist residency with La Wayaka Current in the Indigenous community of Coyo in the Atacama Desert, Chile – the driest non-polar desert in the world. The idea of the “field” is also explored in the soundscape which plays throughout the exhibition, made with composer Russell Webster using both field recordings and live instrumentation. 

While photography, historically, has been defined by its indexicality – its ability to point firmly to the world and say “that thing, there” –  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing delights in the mystery of a world that moves whenever we would try to gesture at it.

On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing
10 August – 4 September 2022
Woollahra Gallery at Redleaf, Sydney

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