Exhibition Review, Reviews

Between Hope and Despair – Natasha Fijn, Eating Wild Weeds – Alex Flannery, Archive Apparitions – Elisa deCourcy

Photography Exhibition Review

At Photo Access | 21 April – 21 May 2022

In this suite of exhibitions, three artists explore the possibilities of cross-cultural and/or intergenerational communication through the photographic medium.

Dr Natasha Fijn is an ethnographic researcher and observational filmmaker. In combination with text, observational films and photo essays form an integral part of her creative research output.

In the aftermath of the 2020 Plumwood Mountain bushfires, Fijn shows her observations of temperate Australian forest recovering alongside her grandfather Jan Reinder Fijn’s record of the liberation of Nazi-occupied Maastricht in 1945. Each set of images in Between Hope and Despair documents a place immediately following a time of crisis. So, we see burnt trees and a destroyed shed at Plumwood, and a destroyed bridge at Maastricht.

Natasha Fijn, Burnt trees with water meadow beyond, Plumwood Mountain, 2020
Natasha Fijn, Destroyed Shed, Plumwood Mountain, 2020
Jan Reinder Fijn, A sad picture the destroyed St Servatias Bridge, 1944

Both Fijns have employed the art of critical, participant observation in the documentation of their respective landscapes. The two documented times are separated by seventy-five years, but are connected by an intergenerational sense of urgency, through attention to their environments. The juxtapositions effectively reveal that both the old and recent events were indeed crises.

An Australian of Irish descent, Alex Flannery’s aim is to create photos that are both documents of the moment and also of things meaningful to him. Ouyang Yu is a contemporary Chinese-Australian poet and prose-writer. Operating in two languages and closely, caustically interrogating Australia’s cultural identity and diversity, Yu’s work is seen as matching a strident political voice with a tightly tuned lyrical self.

Eating Wild Weeds is a collaboration between Flannery and Yu. Together, they consider the complexities of cross-cultural understanding. Flannery’s images paired with Yu’s poetry investigate seeing, knowing and experiencing life in another country, engaging questions of visitation, migration, communication and being part of a multi-national family.

Flannery shows us interesting everyday scenes that he saw in the Chinese cities of Xiangyang and Wuhan during 2019.

Alex Flannery, Laddermen and Mao, 2019
Alex Flannery, sun and man in the street, 2019
Alex Flannery, river and jumping board, 2019

Yu’s displayed poetry needs to be read and considered. To illustrate, I share the concluding words of his I Love Sleep – “I love sleep … correct me if I am wrong … for in sleep I am equal to anyone … Without a fight.”

Dr Elisa deCourcy is currently an Australian Research Council fellow, working on a project about the first fifteen years of photographic practice in the Australian colonies. For Archive Apparitions, she collaborated with historic processes photographer, Craig Tuffin, who is among one of a dozen artists working with the historic daguerreotype process internationally, and with James Tylor.

In this work, deCourcy reactivates the daguerreotype process, as practised in the 1840s, to tell new stories of migration, environmentalism, family, and photography’s role as a container of memory. The work continues conversations around colonisation, race, femininity, work and mobility, and photographic custodianship that began in the mid-nineteenth-century photography studio.

Cased daguerreotypes are among the oldest extant photographic images in (Australian) gallery, library and museum collections. These tiny, pocket-sized photographs in cases look quite foreign to us today. Their mirror-like surfaces make their subjects appear ethereal and otherworldly, but they are often sharp images often rich in detail.

Elisa deCourcy and Craig Tuffin, Konrad, 2021 – detail

In the mid-nineteenth century, both settler-colonists and First Nations people brought objects to the photography studio: books, letters from loved ones, cloaks, shields, heirlooms and even other photographs to narrate their personal biographies and relationships to family, kin and Country outside the frame.

The visual narratives constructed in this contemporary series gesture to engagements with the past. However, instead of objects, here are portraits of currently living people, who have various personal and professional relationships with historic colonial Australian photography, narrated through historic portrait devices. How appropriate that one of the subjects is Helen Ennis, who specialises in Australian photographic history.

Elisa deCourcy and Craig Tuffin, Helen, 2021, sixth-plate, cased, daguerreotype

This review was published (albeit without the final sentence) in print version of The Canberra Times of 2/5/22 and online (also without the final sentence) here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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