The Roots That Clutch

Photomedia Review
Lara Chamas, Caroline Garcia, Jess Miley, James Tylor, Derek Sargent

The Roots That Clutch
Photo Access | Until 12 December 2020

The Roots that Clutch is a quality group exhibition curated by Saskia Scott, a curator, artist and arts writer, currently at the ANU School of Art & Design Gallery. It presents works from five photo artists and explores the role of the artist as storyteller. It highlights how our values, beliefs, and sense of identity are shaped by the stories we tell.

An exhibition catalogue tells us that, drawing on history, these artists explore their own identities and how they understand the modern world. Their works challenge grand narratives, fill in gaps and silences, and reinsert intimacy and nuance into our understanding of both the past and the present.

Lara Chamas reveals her strong memory of a saying by a mother – ‘do you know how hard it is to mash a banana with a plastic fork?’ Her digital video with sound uses narrative and experience documentation to tell the story as viewers see various people finding out just how hard it is.

Whilst that at first might seem trite, the real-life backstory reveals so much more. During an interview with a torture and trauma councillor who worked on Nauru, Chamas learned many things, including that metal utensils were not permitted to refugees there seeking asylum. Basic human rights were taken away from them, even when feeding young children.

Lara Chamas, do you know how hard it is to mash a banana with a plastic fork?
(video still), 2017, digital video, sound, duration: 00:07:57

James Tylor exhibits a selection of his works highlighting the contemporary absence of Aboriginal culture within the Australian landscape. There was a much larger display of these works in his excellent solo exhibition From an untouched landscape at the East Space Gallery (until 29 November). In earlier work that I have seen, Tylor had superimposed black geometric shapes over his landscapes. Here the geometric shapes are holes removed from the prints ‘revealing’ black velvet voids. Once again, he is drawing attention to the erasure of past Aboriginal care for our environment, along with their artifacts and identity.

As well as his fine and thought-provoking imagery, Tylor is displaying black painted timber objects, such as a Wadnawirri Battle Axe and a Midla Spearthrower. Together, the images and objects present a bold graphic display.

James Tylor, (Deleted scenes) From an untouched landscape#4, 2013, Inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper with hole removed to a black velvet void, 50 x 50 cm.

Derek Sargent and Jess Miley are exhibiting ten strong prints from their The Grave Project. They have researched historic individuals who have had an impact on ‘queer and non-normative culture’, and then visited their burial sites and used photography, film and text to document and create an alternative historical archive.

Each print features Sargent and Miley displaying the name and image of a researched individual at their burial site. So, for example we see Vaslav Nijinsky at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. A brochure at the exhibition tells us a little more about each portrayed individual. Susan Sontag took refuge in books to escape absent parents. Gertrude Stein escaped the rigid ways of the medical patriarchy and penetrated the Paris art scene. This is a tantalising series of artworks.

Derek Sargent and Jess Miley, RIP Vaslav Nijinsky (Queer Expats of Paris Series),
2019, Giclée print, 50 x 50 cm.

A ‘culturally promiscuous, interdisciplinary artist’, Caroline Garcia contributes a mesmerising digital video, just over 10 minutes duration. Aficionados of Westernised mainstream cinematic musicals and portrayals of dance from other cultures will recognise various pieces of the sampled footage into which Garcia has edited herself. In doing so she has attempted to reclaim the imagery and so to rewrite history. It is most cleverly done and quite mesmerising.

Caroline Garcia, Imperial Reminiscence (video still), 2018, digital video, colour, sound, duration: 00:10:15.

All parts of this exhibition contribute successfully to its purpose of inviting us to interrogate our own beliefs and clarify what our own histories tell us. We all should use the various skills we have to document and share our personal stories with others, in ways that reveal them accurately.

This review was published in the Canberra Times here and also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.


Respectfully Intruding II

Photography Review
M16 Artspace | Until 22 November 2020

John Wiseman is an award-winning professional wildlife and nature photographer. The images in RESPECTFULLY INTRUDING II have been selected from many captured in various countries, including Ecuador, Kenya, Botswana, India, and Namibia, during over fifteen years of travel.

Wiseman says “I love photography. I can’t think of any other art form that provides such wonderful satisfaction. Searching for that special moment in time that gives us such a rich and enduring memory is a wonderful reward. A respectful intrusion.”

Despite running a successful financial planning business, Wiseman’s constant quest to be creative led him into photography. His interest grew from watching friends who worked as photographers. He started taking photos of family and friends fifteen years ago. As his eye and skill improved, he became serious about photographing landscapes, then wildlife.

An initial exhibition, RESPECTFULLY INTRUDING, was held at Brisbane’s Maud Gallery in 2014. Describing it in his wotwedid blog at that time, Doug Spowart wrote that it “presents an invitation to go on safari and peek over his shoulder while he observes and photographs …. Luckily for us his invitation is to the gallery and the trials and complexities of journeys to exotic places are made easy for us”. That remains the same here.

There is one delicious landscape – the Cloud Forest of El-Oro in the Ecuadorian Andes. This area is very important for the presence of various famous birds, such as the El Oro Parakeet. But mostly, the images are of elephants, big cats, rhinos, and zebra. Plus, hummingbirds, toucan, parakeets, flowers, and frogs.

Most of us have seen numerous images of wild animals – in TV documentaries, and in specialist magazines – but good ones in an exhibition are something else for we can take our time to explore the details.

This photographer clearly takes time exploring his subjects and seeking to capture something special. He told me he does not take lots of shots using a rapid-fire shutter approach, with a view to search through the results for good images. Rather, Wiseman thinks about what he wants to reveal in his images, seeks to use the available light and other elements, and endeavours to compose in a way that is appropriate for each subject.

The first image to attract my attention was Mother & Son, a portrait of a cow elephant with her calf. This large print would look stunning filling a small wall at the end of a walkway. Those walking towards it would never tire of seeing it.

Mother & Son © John Wiseman

To look at Zebras by Moonlight is to immediately feel calm and composed. It simply is an image of serenity.

Zebras by Moonlight © John Wiseman

Arrow Head & Cubs will surely make you smile. It features a mother and the heads of her cubs, almost looking like a three-headed animal.

Arrow Head & Cubs © John Wiseman

Difficult to photograph, and beautifully coloured, hummingbirds are captured hovering near to equally colourful plants.

Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird © John Wiseman

A print, Toucan in Rain, is displayed alongside one of another toucan that is dry. There is a clear sense of design in these photographs of birds and other smallish creatures.

Toucan in the Rain © John Wiseman

Exhibited prints of larger animals are appropriately large. When we move into the parts of the gallery displaying images of smaller creatures, the prints also become smaller.

A copy of Wiseman’s award-winning, limited-edition Ecuador book is also on display. Handle it carefully using the cotton glove provided.

Finally, before you leave, stand quietly before an image of TIM, one of the elephants with the biggest tusks in the world and probably the most famous, who died just a few days after Wiseman’s shots were taken.

This review is also available on the Canberra Critics circle blog here.


This is Suburbia

Photography Review

Davey Barber | This is Suburbia

Canberra Contemporary Art Space – East Space Gallery

and Belconnen Arts Centre – Window Gallery

Until 29 November 2020

Davey Barber has set out to explore the place that raised him, the Canberra suburbs, for his debut exhibition This Is Suburbia. Commissioned by Craft ACT for the 2020 DESIGN Canberra festival, these photos document something of Canberra’s suburban streets.

It is unusual to have one exhibition shown across two locations, as is the case here. At Belconnen there are six images of Belconnen suburbs. At the East Space Gallery, on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, there are a further ten prints from other suburbs.

Barber’s intention was to document characteristics that he believes make suburbs instantly recognisable, both to residents and to their visitors. He shows dwellings, shops, laneways, parks, and a couple of residents. To emphasise our ‘Bush Capital’, the photographs also cover our four very distinct seasons. They are candid and storytelling, but nobody has been asked to smile for his camera.

In an exhibition catalogue essay, a National Gallery of Australia Curator of Photography, Annie O’Hehir, says “It’s something special to have your city reflected back at you through the lens of a camera…..what the camera is capable of doing….shows us….what our usual distracted, glancing, preoccupied way of seeing does not…” This is spot on. It is why good photographers speak of seeing, rather than simply looking. Until we truly see, we do not get the best images.

I have lived in seven suburbs since arriving in Canberra: Reid (in a hostel), Ainslie (in a house, with my parents and siblings), Braddon (briefly in a backyard caravan), Hackett (my newly built first house), Bruce (briefly, in a townhouse), Melba (a second-hand house for a new relationship), and now Lawson (brand new townhouse in a complex). Viewing this exhibition, and thinking back over the years, I recalled various characteristics of each suburb. The long-established gardens of Reid. Things that became our landmarks as my brother and I regularly walked between Ainslie and Civic via Braddon. Laneways and shopping centres.

Two of Barber’s images are of specific businesses that I know – a suburban take-away a short walk from one of my homes, and a restaurant that I visited in the past. So, I was reminded of specific things and memories associated with them.

In addition to the shops already mentioned, we see street views of houses – hidden by closed shutters or large trees, small ghostly figures gathering for community sport on fog-shrouded parkland, a boat “parked” in a laneway, a resident mowing his grass, a backyard, the floodlit exterior of a supermarket alongside an empty carpark, a skateboarder passing through one of our ubiquitous tunnels, and a carwash with no clients on a foggy night.

5. Untitled 5 © Davey Barber
3. Untitled 3 © Davey Barber
9. Untitled 9 © Davey Barber
12. Untitled 2 © Davey Barber
13. Untitled 3 © Davey Barber
16. Untitled 6 © Davey Barber

If we look carefully, we not only see these things but also hear sounds and smell odours. Unfortunately, viewing the prints in the new Window Gallery at Belconnen was spoiled by reflections each different time of day that I visited. Barber himself is disappointed that it is not possible to get close and see the details in his imagery. I hope these problems can be overcome as the concept is good, providing a space where passing pedestrians can both see exhibits and be enticed to go inside and see more there.

Puzzlingly, two of the prints displayed at Belconnen are not in the catalogue, whilst two that are in the catalogue are not in the Window.

Also, in the East Gallery, there are the semi-finalists and finalists in the Sweet Suburbia: 2020 Photography Competition which sought responses to the ‘This is Suburbia’ theme. That is appropriate as Barber was one of the judges.

This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 16.11.20 and on its Website here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.


State of Change, & Found

Photography Review

David Flanagan | Found

Emilio Cresciani |State of Change
Photo Access | Until 7 November 2020

These exhibitions present the outcome of work undertaken by 2019 and 2020 PhotoAccess Dark Matter Residents, David Flanagan and Emilio Cresciani. These residencies provide a supported opportunity for artists to produce new photo-media work that incorporates darkroom-based or other alternative photographic processes.

Opening the exhibition, Virginia Rigney, Senior Visual Arts Curator at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, noted that the residents have access to one of a shrinking number of open access darkrooms left in Australia, drawing attention to the fact that what is made in those darkrooms allows us to see the materiality of bodies of work.

Flanagan was the 2019 Resident, but his work – Found – was delayed by restrictions on his movements during the pandemic. He is interested in the role of the object in contemporary photographic practice, where the majority of images are not seen as anything beyond pixels on a screen.

Various found – natural, recycled, and discarded – objects were carefully coated in Liquid Light. Images were then exposed onto those surfaces underneath an enlarger, giving new life to each item. This intricate technique liberates images from their usual 2D environment.

The surfaces Flanagan used include a trowel, an iron, a nautilus shell, and souvenir spoons. Rigney made the guests smile when she referred to an alternative Canberra museum called The Green Shed that yields up things allowing us to connect with the past in ways not possible at other museums. Now with images on them, the intriguing objects selected by Flanagan speak to us in new ways. Transformed into mementos, they assuredly will become keepsakes – especially the spoons now featuring the eyes of his wife and daughters.

Souvenir, 2020, liquid emulsion on souvenir spoons © David Flanagan
Bonsai, 2020, Silver emulsion on stone © David Flanagan

Flanagan comments, “There is an absurdity about the process which takes up to a week to prepare an object for printing, only to then to see it fail in the darkroom, which is both alluring and frustrating in equal parts. Repetition and experimentation have been the key to resolving issues with each of the materials I have chosen for this project. The element of unpredictability adds something magic to the process and a uniqueness to every object.”

Still life triptych, 2020, Silver emulsion on broken fishtank © David Flanagan

In State of Change, the 2020 Resident, Cresciani, explored the phenomenon of climate change through integrating the transformation of ice into water with photographic processes. Drawing links between these states of change, his show examines, literally, figuratively, and abstractly, human impact on Earth.

Cresciani explains, “Our ice caps are melting. As the ice melts new landscapes, new landforms are created. And scientists say that more light is absorbed onto the earth’s surface as part of this process, further accelerating global warming.”

His work documents a dialogue between massive chunks of ice and light sensitive papers in the darkroom, a reflection on climate change and all its implications. He has made photograms, recording on photographic paper what happened as his blocks of ice melted. As the viewers we can each interpret the results. In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Anne Ferran speaks of maps, islets in a dark sea, and clusters of rocky outcrops fringed by beaches. You might see something completely different.

Breaking of Ice #7, 2020, Duratran, 42 [h] x 30cm [w], Edition of 3 + AP © Emilio Cresciani

Regardless of what we each see, the images are spectacular, particularly those presented on Duraclear. The Duratrans in light boxes are also dramatic.

On Ice #1, 2020, gelatin silver photogram, 35 x 28cm © Emilio Cresciani

PhotoAccess Director Kirsten Wehner rightly says, “Emilio and David have produced two cutting edge exhibitions showcasing what the program aims to foster; a challenged perception of what contemporary darkroom photography can offer.”

This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 2.11.20 and on its Website here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.