Wild Art at the World's End

During the 1970s and 1980s conservation battles were fought over the meaning of wild places such as Tasmania - previously regarded as Australias deep south - a pioneering place where the normal rules hardly seemed to apply. Grant looks at some of conservation battles both lost and saved during this time, and at one of the key agents for change, a wilderness photographer, the late Peter Dombrovskis. As a result of Dombrovskis important work, the Tasmanian arts community and two government bodies have come together to try and ensure that this arts/environment symbiosis continues. Some other key artists discussed in this article are Julie Gough, David Martin, Tim Pugh, Anthony Curtis and Kim Kerze.

How shall we perceive Tasmania? Dorothea McKellar's "wide brown land" has never really worked for the island state. Both the colour and the width are wrong for a start. Yet a simple change of hue and size descriptors does little to remedy matters. Tasmania is no more a "narrow, green land" than Ireland or Sri Lanka, islands of comparable size.

Without being expansive, Tasmania somehow manages to exude a sense of space – a diminutive vastness distilled out of its indented and rumpled physiognomy. Its degree of space – and distinctiveness of place – invites a variety of diverging perceptions. To its indigenous inhabitants, here for perhaps 40,000 years before European 'discovery', it has been home – a simple word for a series of rich and complex connections few of us can even begin to imagine.

To the first Europeans it was, in Bruni D'Entrecasteaux's words, "the world's end". The English found that notion well suited to their vast enterprise of exiling their surplus people. Where better to have people out of sight and mind than an island of rugged mountains; impenetrable forests; roaring rivers; windswept coasts and large tracts of apparently unsettled land – all at the other end of the earth?

To a later generation of pragmatists – engineers, hydrologists, foresters and miners – this terra incognita appeared as a vast untapped source of hydro power or timber or minerals. Back then Tasmania was Australia's deep south – a pioneering place where the normal rules hardly seemed to apply. There were those who even spoke of the Hydro-Electric Commission as the de-facto government.

Changing the perception that wild Tasmania was simply a resource awaiting exploitation has been a long, difficult and ongoing process. During the 1970s and 1980s conservation battles were fought over the meaning of these wild places. One fight was lost, and Lake Pedder was drowned beneath a hydro-electric scheme in 1972. Another was won, when the Franklin River was saved from inundation through Commonwealth intervention in 1983.

A key agent of change during those years was an artist: wilderness photographer, the late Peter Dombrovskis. Although his best-selling posters and calendars showed scenes most urban dwellers would never visit in person, they communicated an idea and an ideal of wilderness that worked more powerfully on the imagination than any number of arguments could have.

Dombrovskis' photograph of Rock Island Bend on the Franklin River was published in full-colour, full-page newspaper advertisements in the lead up to the 1983 federal election. The caption – aimed at the Fraser government – read "Would you vote for a party that would destroy this?" The campaign and the image on which it was based helped oust the Fraser government, and halt the damming of the Franklin River.
That the arts can have a critical impact on our perception of place has gradually become more widely recognised. In recent years the Tasmanian arts community and two government bodies have come together to try and ensure that this arts/environment symbiosis continues. The result of their cooperation is the appropriately named Dombrovskis Wilderness Residencies.

These residencies allow artists of any medium to apply to Arts Tasmania for the funds to have time and space in some of Tasmania's more remote areas. As is often the case with innovation, practice preceded policy. An informal system of artist residencies in national parks had begun in the early 1990s. The natural beauty of parks had always acted as a draw-card for artists, and the occasional off-season availability of Parks & Wildlife Service (PWS) accommodation meant a trade-off was possible.

PWS staff and Arts Tasmania, the state government's art-funding body, soon recognised the potential for a fully-fledged scheme that could benefit all parties, and the program was born. Now in its 5th year of operation, it has already had a successful retrospective exhibition – opened by the Premier of Tasmania, Jim Bacon – in Hobart's Carnegie Gallery.

Along with its successes, the coming together of land managers and artists made necessary by this program has also generated some interesting creative and philosophical tensions. How national park staff perceive 'their' place is often different from how a visiting artist may see it. To the one it may be largely a workplace with management processes and protocols that are often different from the normal workplace. To the other it is hopefully a source of inspiration and creativity. Of course these perceptions will cross over. Rangers will be inspired by their surroundings just as artists will become caught up in the mundanity of trying to produce work.

Still overall the two worlds have not always found instant common ground. For instance simple legal restrictions (such as prohibitions against the removal of natural materials or the presence of pets) can cause difficulties. Of course these tensions can become creative tensions – as differing views sharpen up an individual's understanding of what has become his or her unquestioned practice. "What's wrong with tying this artwork to a tree?" OR "What do you normally do with the waste toxic resins you use in your work?"

Apart from such issues of practice, there are some more fundamental gaps between the two worlds. One is the Nature/Culture cleft. This might manifest itself via the objection to 'wild art' that is put thus: "Surely the natural world should speak for itself." Art is artificial, this argument maintains. It can never adequately communicate a tithe of what an unmediated experience of nature can. As convincing as it sounds, the argument snags on the issue of human perception. No-one can view nature except through culture. We see nature through our perceptions of it. The very names or words we give to objects and processes in the natural world are cultural constructs. Nature and culture are not the opposites we sometimes imagine them to be.

This immediately opens the door for art – which after all is an attempt at some level to mediate between culture and nature. Thus Dombrovskis' wilderness photographs and Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending are cut from the same cloth – they are both mediating the artist's experience of the natural world.

If this concession seems to inch us towards a rapprochement, there is at least one more Jordan to cross, and it flows through the valley of the Science/Art dichotomy. For good and legitimate reasons most national park services are strongly scientific in orientation. The management of land, including the care of its natural and cultural heritage, depends on accurate scientific knowledge. Knowing the full life cycle of, say, the platypus, is absolutely essential to ensuring its survival and conservation.
Still, in hosting the Dombrovskis Wilderness Residencies, Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service is recognising that there has to be another side to the conservation story. We need to be aware of not only the science but also the art of place. These are different ways of seeing, but they can be complementary rather than conflicting. The arts in all their forms can help to give a more complete picture of the places that inspire us.

Yet even when the whole enterprise is put in place, there are no guaranteed results. Although the tryst between artist and place is an ancient one, it is neither well understood nor predestined to succeed. Special places can remain mute, and artists uninspired in the face of much-anticipated encounters. Is there a way around such an impasse?

E.H. Burgmann, social radical and Anglican Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn in the 1940s, leads us in a potentially useful direction in his written reflections on his bush upbringing. He likens a forest at dawn to a baby stirring out of sleep.

Presently the babe is fully awake and all the dwellers of the bush loose their tongues. Bellbirds, whipbirds, and all sorts of birds enjoy their songs, and as they make high festival the lyrebird can mimic them all. Nature must be taken as a whole. It speaks through its birds, it lives in its animals; man can only join in on Nature's own terms. He can sit and listen and let his fancy run free. He will grow more reverent as his sensitiveness to the presence grows. He will feel privileged to have been admitted into the audience of Nature's moods. Birds and animals may even come to feel that he to some extent belongs to their exclusive world.

It is foolish for man to think of Nature as below him. If he lives in the bush long enough he will find that reverence is the only worthy attitude. But the bush will take its own time to do the work. It will not speak to a man in a hurry. Its message is worth waiting for. Only the soul that is stilled in its presence can hear the music of its song. (E.H. Burgmann, The Education of an Australian, Angus & Robertson, 1944)

Thus the work of the artist may be a hard labour. We should never so romanticise the arts that we imagine works dropping from the sky fully formed and ready for display. But neither should we imagine that such works could be mined from the cosmos through sheer perspiration. If Bishop Burgmann is right, it may take a great deal of patience; a willingness to listen; a capacity to be still. Such openness is a kind of spiritual labour.

The places these artists visit demand much of them. Some have found that there is more at stake in this stilling of the soul than the generation of mere amusements. The best of their work represents the beginnings of a great struggle. It is a labour that wills to find a place for humans in relation to the natural world; and to see what of lasting significance can be attached to human existence.

It involves effort because wild places can overwhelm us by their seeming indifference to our existence. Every day that the cosmos confronts us with our insignificance; every morning that finds us trapped between earth and sky is a reminder of life's paradox. We are of the earth, yet we are spirit; mortal yet longing for immortality; impossibly small yet aching for significance. Through art - among other things - we seek to explore this spiritual paradox. We look to somehow say "yes" to the cosmos, to make our life significant.

Early in the Christian era saints withdrew to the desert wilderness to hear more clearly the voice of God. These hermits - the word derives from the Greek word for 'desert' - often preserved a clearer view of what life was truly about than their sophisticated urban peers. In saying "no" they found their "yes". We would do well to hear what answers some of these artists bring back from the wilderness.

The work of Julie Gough seems to ask us to turn our perceptions of wild places around. She would have us consider an appropriate re-peopling of the Tasmanian landscape. From her Aboriginal perspective, Tasmania has never been terra incognita or terra nullius. Neither has it ever been 'pristine wilderness'. There are stories in the landscape that are older than generations of trees. Work such as The Whispering Sands (Ebb Tide) challenges us to return people to the landscape's story.

David Martin's work is also about seeing. We are invited to really see the patterns; the intricacies, the beauty of what is around us every day. He engages a fascination with environment/landscape that he has had since childhood. He says, "My photographs, rather than being reflections of what may have been before the camera ... try to engage a lightness of 'being-there' that encapsulates or expands my experience/existence within this spatial realm." His 2001 residency, in Mt William National Park's splendid coastal isolation, will allow him to observe and encapsulate the uninterrupted interplay of sea and sky. It is a wildness of a very different type to that experienced in 1999 by Welsh environmental artist, Tim Pugh.

Finding himself transplanted from North Wales to the rugged wildness of Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park in the central highlands of Tasmania, Tim Pugh had expected to find Tasmania ablaze with autumn colours, so at first he was bemused by its sombre landscape. He missed the colours of home, not realising that the only native deciduous tree – Tasmania's fagus – could only be found at high altitude, and after considerable exertion. That was early in his stay at Lake St Clair. Once his eye was in however, he became "continually inspired handling the different textures, colours and forms of dolerite pebbles, driftwood and forest floor debris."

Before long he was producing an extraordinary range of environmental sculptures around the shores and forests of the lake, utilising locally found materials. His artworks, mostly sculptures and patterns, were of an ephemeral nature, utilising materials that readily decay, blow or wash away. Tim sees that as part of the art – dealing with concepts of time and erosion. "They are all very ephemeral. That's the magic of them... they just fall down and nature reclaims them," (though each work is first photographed).

The photographs have also allowed Tim to make his work accessible to people who couldn't – or didn't – find them in the bush. So a display was set up in the Lake St Clair Visitor Centre, to the delight of both visitors and staff. (As Tim had become a de facto member of the staff, displaying his work helped them to understand something of what he was doing for all those hours in the bush!)

It also helped with their potential concern that 'art' and 'wilderness' wouldn't mix. More than one staff member mentally leafed through the regulations to work out whether such work could or should be done in a World Heritage Area national park. (The short answer was that the District Ranger gave a letter of permission to the artist. This was short of a formal 'permit to remove materials', because Tim's work was all in situ, and he didn't actually remove materials.)

Tim's on-ground work gave further evidence that subtle and careful environmental art can enhance visitor understanding of the environment. Comments from the public were invariably positive, and his juxtaposition of the natural bushland and human-made objects often sharpened peoples' perceptions of both. While in residence Tim also took time out to talk about his work, both informally at Lake St Clair, and more formally at local schools and at Tasmania's Centre for the Arts. The residency attracted national attention when he was interviewed on ABC Radio National's arts show. His work has also been displayed solo in a small Hobart gallery, as well as in a collective show called Solitude: Artworks from the Dombrovskis Wilderness Residencies: 1997-1999.

The constant presence of the sea can be regarded by Tasmanians both as a barrier to travel and a way of contemplating notions of timelessness and infinite space. Anthony Curtis has looked both long and hard at these notions of time and space in his photographic series of the ocean horizon which he has made from the same position of Clifton Beach south of Hobart on an almost daily basis: "I see the pinhole camera as an accumulator of time, the long exposure required to achieve a satisfactory image visually melds the constant action of the landscape into a homogenous mass of colour and form." The painterly quality which results allows the viewer to see them as distillations of time rather than as views of a fleeting moment.

Kim Kerze's experience of wilderness was on Maria Island which she represents as a place of ghosts and exiles. Her series of figures against the horizon are solitary and portentous, hosts for things from other worlds, often birds or other animals, or the world of the troubled imagination; companion creatures acting uneasily as messengers from the past (or the future?). The works reference Breughel and Blake, and allude to the myths of Daedalus and the lapwing traditionally the symbol of exile. Behind the figures is the sea and on the horizon the low contours of another island are visible.