Coming Round the Mountain: Excursive Sight

Exhibtion Review Coming Round the Mountain: Excursive Sight Plimsoll Gallery, Centre for the Arts University of Tasmania Hobart 17 January - 1 February 1998

Within a swathe of the usual affected, asyntactic adspeak, a recent Tourism Tasmania press promotion urges: "Discover the wilderness. It's not hard to find. 30 % of the world's most southern State is World Heritage listed. Take a hike..."

While it may not be hard to find areas that are World Heritage listed, finding "the wilderness" is a little more complicated. Some readers may remember a briefly awkward moment during the battles for the South West in the early 1980s, when the discovery of 20,000 year old Aboriginal artefacts in caves in the Franklin River Valley undermined green propaganda that the area was an unspoilt, pre-human Eden. The fact is that for all their Romantic splendour and wildness, and despite the very real dangers posed by rugged terrain and unpredictable weather, the trackless wastes of the Tasmanian bush are pretty well-trodden. As the advertisement says a little further on, "...turning a bend...is like turning a page in a history book."

For the artist this creates a curious knot of problems. At a formal, emotional and even at an eco-political level, the Tasmanian landscape can be hugely inspiring and relatively unproblematic. However, it becomes a little more complicated when you discover that your personal aesthetic experience of the view from the mountain top, hard-won after days of trekking through soaking upland mists, and deeply affecting in the most intimate way, has to be shared not only with your immediate companions but with a legion of earlier surveyors, sketchers, painters and photographers: Evans, Lycett, Frankland, Glover, Becker, Allport, Prout, Piguenit, Beattie et al. Welcome to the postmodern wilderness.

Excursive Sight is the latest in a line of exhibitions staged over the past decade - most notably Genius Loci (Centre for the Arts, 1989), South of No North (Dick Bett Gallery, 1991), To the Surface (Plimsoll Gallery, 1993) and Imagine Nature (Plimsoll Gallery, 1996) - which have presented local artists' investigations of the Tasmanian landscape, and through that landscape some notion of regional identity.

Where Excursive Sight differs from these earlier shows is in its concentrated particularity, in its attention to a specific, singular site. During 1997 staff and students of the Tasmanian School of Art at Hobart made three separate field trips to the summit of St Valentine's Peak in the State's North-West. Not only does this lookout present a spectacular overview of Tasmania's patchwork ecology (from forested and deforested foothills down to cleared and cultivated plains and across to the craggy ridges of the West Coast), it is also an historic site, marked by previous artistry. In February 1827 the mountain was climbed and named by Henry Hellyer, a surveyor for the Van Diemen's Land Company, who also produced a remarkable circular panorama of (in cartographers' terminology) "the compass of the Peak"; this image served as a focussing mandala-lens for the exhibition's artists (and for its writers - the catalogue and a folio of "second papers" contain a dozen separate and immensely stimulating essays).

The physical and intellectual intensity of this research effort produced evident shifts in perception and practice, from standing outside to walking inside, from presentation to interrogation. Excursive Sight was a sophisticated engagement not only with the landscape itself, but with the whole complex tradition of western landscape art.

At the immediately visible level of abstract form, the great majority of participants explored Hellyer's tondo; the gallery seemed perforated with circles, like a cartoon Swiss cheese.

But what slippery circles! Anah Creet's peephole vista was projected onto a hanging sheet of paper; the paper drifted in the currents of air conditioning and passers by, but the circle retained its pupil-integrity. Robyn Carney's grey-green monochrome photographs fanned geology into a semicircle. Margaret Woodward showed minimal soft medallions, embroidered with those potent Latin phrases "terra incognita", "terra nullius" and "tabula rasa". Shinri Kamiya's grandly painstaking rock drawing bubbled with pure geometry in one corner. Anne Morrison's vertical canvases were primarily painterly abstracts, yet their stains, blurs and meandering lines evoked a variety of landscape references: sheoak foliage, algae and lichen, running water, drifting clouds. Her microscope-view tondos were at once Henry Hellyer and Damien Hirst.

Michael Schlitz, too, turned the rectangle into something else - a wall installation which comined a home made coracle (a truck tyre covered with a bitumenised weave) and a handless clock (with the gloriously appropriate brand name "Synchronome") edged with white fur. This Rauschenbergian elegance was poignantly punctured by history; the sphincter-tightness of the circular raft made me recall that Hellyer was convicted for sodomy, and subsequently committted suicide.

But perhaps the most complex (and certainly the most ambitious) work was that by the project's co-ordinator, Raymond Arnold. Occupying the separate south end of the gallery, a tripod structure (evoking trig point, mine head, and flogging triangle) supported an open work drum (suggesting the architecture of the Panorama shows of Regency London, zoetropes and other optical toys, a carousel, even a Hill's Hoist). A spinning mirror ball scattered spots of light over every surface, including a wall of wallpaper frottage screenprints (recalling both childhood's rubbed pennies and colonial fern spattrie work). Chaotic yet harmonious, rich in blue-green inks and silver lights, Arnold's installation was Whistler's Peacock Room in eco-post-modernist mode.

Excursive Sight replaced the living room with the gallery, and the coin with the work of art, but the essence of the demonstration was the same. The real and the ideal are two sides (or rather two views) of the same obolus. By the end of my visit, I was seeing Hellyer's image in the buttons of the upholstery of the gallery's bench seats.

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