Post-Colonial Dreaming

Mapping the Comfort Zone: The Dream and the Real works by Irene Briant, Jenny Clapson, Jo Crawford, Christine James. Catherine K, Nien Schwartz, Lucinda Clutterbuck & Sarah Watt. Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre 4 July - 16 August 1997

This is an exhibition in which correct thought is to some extent spelled out for us: excerpts from Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters are posted on the long gallery wall alongside Christine James' long, horizontal Lake George studies, themselves didactic landscapes.
Titles are instructional, too, as well as instructive: Converting the Wilderness, Corridors of Settlement, New Landscape for Old... though there is plenty of leavening irony and humour from Irene Briant, whose titles those are.

Mapping the Comfort Zone is curator Vivonne Thwaites' title for the show, and she has invited six artists to take part in a project germinated in her brain by the suburbs of Perth some time ago. I recall from my single visit to Perth the bizarre impression of flimsy overlay one receives, the dense suburban sprawl giving way suddenly and unnervingly at its outskirts to timeless desert.

The artists are all working with new concepts of land and dreaming, informed by ecological and post-colonial awareness. Two are animators, Lucinda Clutterbuck and Sarah Watt, currently in Melbourne, two live in Canberra (Christine James and Nien Schwarz) where Tasmanian Irene Briant has just spent a year's residency, and Catherine K studied in Canberra. Jo Crawford lives in Adelaide.

Nien Schwarz and Christine James engage directly with 'the land' in the process of their artmaking: Schwarz worked as a geological assistant in British Columbia and in the Pilbara and James has been making a series of studies of Lake George, near Canberra. Schwarz's work in this show, a 'Poem' in three parts entitled Migrations, packages sections of a Mining and Mineral Operations map, earth and mineral samples in cellophane packets. James' oil and silverpoint on linen paintings, long, narrow horizontal lakescapes in browns and greens show the ancient, mysterious Lake George in muddy browns and greens, overlaid with a screenprint of sections of a composite map of the Lake George basin, the whole spread over by a polluting dark stain.

In the Artlink issue devoted to Culture and Agriculture (Vol. 15#1), Pat Hoffie writes that, in this global moment, "(t)he systematic alteration of existing relationships between people and place continues," as well as relationships between all peoples, indigenous and invaders, nomadic and refugees and exiles. "It is not as though our relationship to... 'the land' has been lost. That would imply that there could be a turning back. A return to some mythic, lost connection to the soil. But the truth is tougher than that. In a post-colonised planet, nostalgia is out of the question." (p.11)
What seems to be emerging in shows like this one is a new, or redeveloping sense of landscape as art form - among white artists, that is. There is a self- consciousness about all the works in Mapping the Comfort Zone that is healthy rather than crippling. Reference is repeatedly made to the depredations of the colonisers, the word 'divide' and 'dividing' recurring in the work of several of the artists, in Catherine K's newsprint tapestry maps called Landmarks, for instance. Old maps appear here and there in the show, denoting the colonial way of seeing this exotic new country; these artists are conscious of the responsibility of acknowledging the obscuring, both wilful and unconscious, of important truths that happened when this land was seen through an inappropriate overlay, a process not confined to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In Geoff Levitus' essay, Living with the Land, in the aforementioned Artlink, the claim is made that, in white landscape art in Australia, 'the landscape is always being used for something else... it is always a vehicle, never an end in itself.' (p.21) He mentions the moves towards a new art of landscape, imbued with historical awareness and engaged with the issues of despoliation of land and indigenous culture, being made by regional artists, and the artists in this exhibition share a certain regional awareness of marginality and of how ephemeral overlays of urban 'civilisation' on this land can be. In Mapping the Comfort Zone, the landscape continues to be used for something else, but that is as it must be. An uninflectedly romantic artistic engagement with 'the land', for white Australian artists, is hardly an option.

Perhaps the most witty work in this show, at once ironic and poignant, is Irene Briant's. Her choice of fine wire mesh as material is central to the success of her pieces. Both solid and fragile, three-dimensional yet hollow, it is employed to indicate the attempts of white settlers to make 'home' of this new country, both conceptually and physically. She has made a three dimensional kangaroo, George Raper's Eastern Grey Kangaroo 1789, from mesh, reproducing the characteristic eighteenth-century inaccuracies arising from inappropriate habits both of perception and artmaking; she paints map grids onto the mesh grid, makes a mesh evening purse containing rose petals, fashions three-dimensional garden implements such as spade and scythe from mesh and gives the pieces titles such as Converting the Wilderness, or Impressing the Beholder with Wonder and Astonishment, capturing the ingenuousness of the small settler as well as the arrogance of colonial lawmakers.

The most utopian, though again in no blinkered fashion, of the artists is Jenny Clapson, who lives, paints and farms on Kangaroo Island. Her oils make deliberate statements about the inherent belonging of humans in the Web of Life (the title of our matriculation biology text; Clutterbuck's and Watt's animation series, collage-cells of which are in this show, is also called The Web). In Our New Camera, seabird and wallaby in motion occupy the foreground of the painting, with bush scrub taking up almost all of the remainder, a small gap at the top of the painting nearly filled by sea and sky except for the almost incidental heads and shoulders of two people snapping shots of each other. In all Clapson's work, humans, animals and flora appear in a unified scheme of earth-colours, a mix of blue, green and ochre, and humans also share a chunky kind of generic bio-form with Clapson's flora. For this artist, the comfort of her zone is indisputable. Humans are few, and in any case inhere and subsist in the global life-chain, whatever their pretensions to transcendence.
I haven't dwelt in detail on some of the contributing artists (for instance, Jo Crawford's Precarious Berth, remarkably close in theme and materials to Irene Briant's work: a mesh hammock bearing a raised impression of a human body, covered in rose petals and banksia leaves, the work's emphasis again underscored by a pointed title), nor mentioned a video by Glenys Rowe and David Caesar about personal space. I preferred the relative withholding of their message of the wall and installation pieces.

The artists in Comfort Zone are fortunate to have in Stephanie Radok's catalogue essay a finely-nuanced counterpoint to their work, elucidating and expanding their themes with feeling and flair. 'How long does it take,' she asks, 'for a landscape and climate to become part of peoples' lives, how does the quality of light enter the psyche, how do characteristics of a place reveal themselves in human perceptions and ideas?'

Mapping the Comfort Zone coheres in a satisfying way, and reveals a maturing, diversifying and loosening of inhibitions in the work of a growing number of white Australian artists engaging with the fraught issues of 'the land' and 'home'.