Review of Photography, Videography, Text Exhibition
Haunting | Vic McEwan
National Museum of Australia | 23 Feb – 30 Apr 2023
Vic McEwan was National Museum of Australia (NMA) 2015 artist-in-residence. He created this exhibition’s large-scale still photography and video works in collaboration with curator George Main.
McEwan is a contemporary artist with a deep interest in the ethics involved in making artistic work relating to the lives of other people. His rich, and most successful, practice has nourished broad cross-sector conversations about the role that arts can play within communities. He was the recipient of the Council for the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences2018 Australian Prize for Distinctive work for another project – which involved three years of creative research within hospital environments.
He has shared his project outcomes at such places and events as Tate Liverpool, the National Gallery of Lithuania and Australia’s Big Anxiety Festival (the biggest mental health and arts festival in the world). The Director of Australia’s National Institute for Experimental Arts, Jill Bennet, has declared McEwan’s outputs as ‘field defining work’ and ‘both intensely moving and inspirational’.
The aim of the project featured here was to “remove” objects from their cabinets and put them instead into “the active materiality of places connected to the stories of those objects”. During the cold of night, photos of museum objects, historic photographs and a time-worn map were projected across the Murrumbidgee River, onto drifting and swirling mist, fog, and campfire smoke.
Haunting comprises over 65 photographic works and 2 video works created during McEwan’s yearlong NMA residency. Touring the country since 2020, it explores the complex history of agriculture and land use in the Murray–Darling Basin. The tour has included the Blue Mountains and Burnie.
Key collection objects photographed and projected include prize-winning wheat samples collected at agricultural shows by Cootamundra district farmer James Hately and his son. There’s a stump jump plough used on a Canberra CSIRO research station projected onto Murrumbidgee River fog at Lambrigg.
A historic photo of William Farrer, Fred Wills & Nathan Cobb was also projected on fog – at both Lambrigg and Narrandera.
Another projected photo is of the Dunn family farmers near Wagga Wagga. The back row folk seem to have shafts of light searching the skies above. Another, of the Sutton family, is projected onto both fog and campfire smoke. There is poet/activist Mary Gilmore and her typewriter, and a stack of wheat bags awaiting rail transport at Temora.
Part of a letter from climate scientist Katrin Meissner expressing her concerns about climate change in 2014 is also projected – onto fog and smoke and also the riverbank. A video shares her concern that her children “won’t have the same quality of life that we had” for us to reflect on.
McEwan has said the exhibition offers a chance to reconsider the complex histories of museum objects. Reanimating then layering them back into the landscape using light, projection and natural elements, created the abstract images on display – looking as though they were painted with light into the landscapes.
This is not the first exhibition by McEwan of imagery using this approach. For Shadows and Consequences (Photo Access, 2020), he photographed animal specimens, also (mostly) from the NMA’s collection, and then projected his images onto diverse surfaces to create new imagery.
But this time we have images created in a landscape along a river we all know or, at least, have heard about. Some of us have camped or lived on its banks, many have been to country towns along the ’bidgee, even photographed the riverbank scenery. These haunting images challenge us to think again about the great river, and its place in both First Nations and European settlement history.
This review was fist published by The Canberra Times on page 10 of Panorama and online on 25/03/23 here. It is also available on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.