A Water or a Light

Water figures in Australian art and Australian history as a vital thread binding together many narratives and imageries. Art that concerns itself with some manifestation of water demonstrates what can be considered a new phase in Australian art about the land. David Keeling, Nicole Ellis, Ruby Davies, Peter James Smith, Patricia Picinnini, Judy Holding and Danielle Thompson are all Australian artists whose work is manifested by this notion of the land and of water.

But our native country is less an expanse of territory than a substance; it's a rock or a soil or an aridity or a water or a light. It's the place where our dreams materialise; it's through that place that our dreams take on their proper form&The stream doesn't have to be ours; the water doesn't have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring.
Gaston Bachelard
L'Eau et les reves, 1942, Paris

He woke to the sound of voices and footsteps but tried to go back, back to the dream that seemed to make sense, to be offering him some guidance and consolation. In the dream he walked on a cliff over the sea, a silver mirror with islands and swimmers; and someone said: "there's a way down" and he was uncertain but there was a path; and he ate a chocolate bar from his pocket and proceeded easily along the path, through the bushes, to the sand where his own people were sitting. That wasn't so hard and he opened his eyes trying to keep his heart in that place of light.
Stephanie Radok
Skimming, 1998, Adelaide

Water figures in Australian art and Australian history as a vital thread binding together many narratives and imagery. Aboriginal art is alive with water, rain, rainbows, dew, hail, freshwater, saltwater, borewater, waterholes and storms. Much Aboriginal art of the desert recounts journeys from waterhole to waterhole, and many stories are based on the creation of these soaks or rockholes. The paths to them are not necessarily spectacular but they are crucial to survival.

The idea of an inland sea was the Holy Grail of non-Aboriginal exploration of Australia. The dream of plenty, of fresh water, of a green heart in a dry red continent was persistent although death and privation accompanied the quest. Actually an inland sea can be found in the centre of Australia but not in a predictable way. Underground there is the Great Artesian Basin, and then there is Lake Eyre which has been full only twice in the 20th century. It is an endoric or centrally draining system, the largest in the world. When the rains fill the river networks of Cooper's Creek and the Diamantina/Warburton in the north-east, and the Macumba in the north, and run across country to flood the Lake, there is an enormous sense of miracle involved, borne out in the blooming of the desert flowers and the quickening of the fauna. The miracle lies also in the fact that the water doesn't fall from the sky but comes flowing over the land to run in the veins of her dry river and creek beds like blood in a body.

A sense of the earth as animate is strongly supported by Aboriginal accounts of Australia. This animation is partly metaphoric, seeing correspondences between the human body and the earth, and other organisms or substances; partly it is not metaphoric but based on the livingness of everything, stones even, their sense of presence and, indeed, destiny.

Many Northern Hemisphere categories are inverted by Australian nature, but the Australian or Southern categories are only inversions if they are compared with something else regarded as the norm. Regard them as infinitely subtle rather than as inconsistent, regard them as intricate exercises for the imagination and they can be seen to be variations on what is already known, another way of seeing and being rather than 'the other', thus providing immense reflective potential for thought and experience.

Art that concerns itself with some manifestation of water demonstrates what can be considered a new phase in Australian art about the land. After Mabo, after the final shredding of the myth of terra nullius, after the Aboriginal art that makes known the daily patterns of almost every region of Australia, this land can never be seen in the same way again. Aboriginal land, occupied land, land covered with stories, births and deaths, it is yet ready to receive more living and to deepen our understanding of what was and may still be. Our understanding of this history makes both bitter and sweet our current occupation. Each of us arguably comes from river people, or plains people, book people or boat people, people of the night, of the fish, of the mountains or of the sea. Many of us do not know what kind of people are ours or where we belong but perhaps we can, by listening to our intuitions and feelings, understand where we fit in and take responsibility for the effects on the world produced by our actions and ways of thinking.

Colonial history forms part of the agenda of David Keeling's paintings, which picture furniture and food, people and islands, horizons and the sea, topiary and trellises, gates and landscapes in Tasmania. In that island it is not easily possible to forget the history of imposition of European ways on Australia, and the foreignness of fences, dams and mines appearing on wilderness and bush. Perhaps this is because so much wilderness remains in Tasmania, perhaps because of a certain indelible wildness about the place, a sense that here the trappings of European civilisation are always only temporary presences. Ian Maclean has described Keeling's work as having "&the moral purpose of postcolonialism". The paintings conjoin nature and culture with the same careful brushwork, they show objects as intruders, clipped or non-native trees as polite visitors, and always behind it all the sea which, as a fluid presence or collective unconscious, is the place where everything leads to and from where everything emerges, whether crawling primordial from the water or in a ship with white sails flying over the waves. Illimitable distances and horizons provide a vehicle for longing, for expansive thought and for escape from a culture defined in picturesque gardens and turned wooden legs.

Tabulating underwater space forms a significant part of two recent installations by Nicole Ellis whose works analyse water as a great conduit for ideas and bodies, history and knowledge. She asks: "How does water carry the memories of those who lived on its shores and even on the water and below the waterline...?" While working at the Docklands studios in London in 1995 Ellis started to think about the ships that would have been moored in the fast-flowing Thames in 1777 to 1857, man of war ships converted to prisons, in which the convicts were kept before being sent out to Australia. Once in Australia ships were again used as prisons before deportation to Norfolk Island. In below the waterline, a site specific installation at the Customs House, Circular Quay, Ellis linked historical documents, names and myths, physical space and the complexion of thought. Tidal Vectors, a work made in collaboration with James McGrath, was a 3D digital installation at the Museum of Sydney describing the dynamic shape and motion of Sydney Harbour. New technologies provide new ways of mapping and seeing invisible forces and features. By investigating the underwater where ships take up space and currents play around landforms the work transforms history and information into patterns and almost musical or architectural forms. The past and the present are re-viewed in this way as an interlocking series of objects and subjects, names and stories, thoughts and feelings.

Judy Holding has been travelling to Northern Australia from Melbourne for twenty years, camping out and learning from the indigenous people, the Bininj in Western Arnhem Land. She has come to know something about the way they distinguish six seasons rather than two, the Wet and the Dry. They are Gunumeleng – the time of first storms, Gudjeuk – wet season proper, Banggerreng – the last rains, Yekke – the early dry season, Wurrgeng – the cold weather time, and Gurrung – hot weather. Holding's artwork invents graphic equivalents, pictograms, and ideograms for the knowledge that she gathers in the Top End. The pastels shine with a kind of life force, a luminosity suggesting the presence of ancestral power, the energy of the land, in forms which, like microbes, dust particles, pieces of story, insects or ideas wriggle across the surface of the paper to remember the place and its charged presences, both tangible and intangible.

Peter James Smith's paintings overlay handwritten scientific data onto painted images of distant views. They merge everyday material from the blackboard in a science lecture with realistic imagery of spectacular natural events in a considered conversation. The combination of these different ways of picturing the same phenomena/ this placement of science with its habits of empiricism, measuring, recording, and rule-making alongside such phenomena as clouds and sunsets with all their flamboyant exuberance sets up a dialogue of incommensurability. It draws attention to some communion with what we call nature which is yet, the paintings suggest, always viewed through a mind seeking patterns and rules, conclusions and verbal or diagrammatic solutions or explanations. The painting A note on the path of a starling overlays a sketch of the normally unmapped path of the bird over a sunset, and suggests that the random exuberance of nature will elude all attempts to tabulate it, though people will continue to attempt it.

The vertigo of the fake prevails in the work of Patricia Picinnini. The seasickness-like nausea which can be induced by the artificial is especially emphasised in Swell, an immersive video installation shown at Artspace in Sydney, which reproduces the rising and falling vision of the sea that is gained from being out in a boat. Like the earlier work Plasticology, in which a sea of computer-generated plants was shown on multiple videos, Swell challenges the viewer to be able to tell, or to consider significant, the difference between a fake world and a real one. Picinnini's interest in electronic generation of worlds, in genetic engineering and its conflation of real and manufactured life are seen in a nature that is a simulacrum. The child or calf that has been made by IVF is still a child or a calf, but the land or seascape made by a computer lacks the random slippages, by which we know the real world. No two grains of sand are the same, real pearls have flaws, the impurity of these features of life must be held on to firmly in the face of a manufactured world without decay or error, as perhaps these 'mistakes' are the very dynamics of life.

For about ten years Ruby Davies has been travelling from Sydney out to the Darling River near Wilcannia where she grew up. She takes hand-built wooden pinhole cameras with her and records on black and white film some parts of the river that she knows and loves from childhood. It is the place that she remembers and also a place that has changed. The impact of cotton-growing on the river is immense and its implications are complex, breathing life into the human populations of places such as Bourke while tragically setting back the health of the river and its flora and fauna. As well as issues such as ownership and regulation of the river, and related events like water auctions, Davies is interested in the history of occupation and exploration along the Darling. She has been investigating the journal of explorer Thomas Mitchell and in her exhibition Along the Darling of photographic and sound works at the Broken Hill Art Gallery wrote excerpts from Mitchell's journal on the gallery wall in Darling River mud. Mitchell's words describing: "&the buzz of population [which] gave to the banks, at this place, the cheerful character of a village in a populous country."(4 June, 1835), and "&I have more than once seen a river chief, on receiving a tomahawk, point to the stream, and signify that we were then at liberty to take water from it, so strongly were they possessed with the notion, that the water was their own."(10 August. 1835), reinforce the sense of presences in Davies' photographs of the river, its trees and water surfaces.

Movement, the blur, some gestalt from an undefined memory is a leitmotif in the photography of Danielle Thompson. The psychic charge in water, a fluid form suggesting the mutable individual self that can be poured into another vessel and take its shape, is referenced in the work. Some of the photographs contain white flashes of light that, like the waterfall of the Romantics, tears at memory or belief in suggesting something like the transcendence of matter. Thompson photographs the sea and moves the camera as she does so thus reinforcing a movement that is already there. But the exhilaration of looking at the sea and the meditative or dreamlike state that is entered when looking at its ceaseless surging is present in the work as a kind of hypnosis. A space for dream and remembering, water is seen to have the potential to put humans in contact with important parts of their past or what Herman Melville, when discussing the magnetic nature of water for human contemplation, called "the ungraspable phantom of life".

My own artwork, based in South Australia, attends to the unique spirit of this place as well as linking the experience of it to other places and other times. Large paintings on unprimed unstretched canvas, palimpsests of land and water, words and lacuna, lagoons and headlands, are installed adjacent to painted plaster books. Together the books and paintings layer language and land, distance and intimacy, dryness and water. The scale of the work, like a mural, absorbs the viewer's body while the detail on the surface, dry markings in a dry land, appear to move, to be shape-shifting, almost to breathe and expand as they are observed. On the books in reverse printing appear the titles of works of anthropology and philosophy as well as painted patterns. The counterpoint of the books and the paintings provides a ticklish mnemonic charge to the work, a resonant orientation device for a literate culture which often locates in the book its poetry and its knowledges.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.