Blue Mountains Cultural Centre
1 April – 7 May 2017
At the heart of Nicole Welch’s exhibition Wildēornes Land at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is the work Wildēornes Body, a work the artist initially created as a standalone exhibit in the Kandos Museum for Cementa17. In Wildēornes Body the artist lies on a mirror wrapped in a mourning shawl, filmed in time-lapse as a pose of endurance. The work, created during a residency at BigCi artist residency near the Wollemi National Park, is the most personal work in the exhibition, using the artist’s reflections on her experience of suffering from lupus, the autoimmune disease, to mirror breakdowns in the external landscape in mourning for losses affecting both inner and outer worlds.
While Welch says Wildēornes Body is the only work she has made and likely will ever make addressing these personal themes, its concerns permeate the whole of Wildēornes Land. Welch has placed a Victorian 1880s Chantilly lace mourning shawl at the centre of a series of lamentations which invite the viewer to gaze into the distance through this resonant filter. While these works were created in specific locations and address universal sentiments of loss, their careful compositions and nods to cinematic affect and landscape imagery are challenged by Wildēornes Body, in which the endurance, vulnerability and strength of the artist’s own body and the overwhelming presence of the landscape and sky are presented with an appealing rawness that has a particular impact in the video works not captured to the same degree in the carefully composed photographs.
This is not to say that the Wildēornes Land suite is not successful – they are accomplished and beautiful works of photography, often breathtakingly so. Bathurst-based Welch, whose photography, video and installation works are created on site, relishes the unpredictability of the elements, juxtaposing these effects with objects representative of European imperial and colonial traditions to formulate responses to the history, culture and ecology of a region. At the symbolic centre of Wildēornes Land is the mourning shawl, chosen for its perfectly constructed decorative European foliage motifs sitting in opposition to the wild environment whose destruction it mourns. The actual shawl haunts the exhibition like a spectre, suspended from the ceiling near the gallery entrance. Likewise, the landscapes in which the shawl takes on an anthropomorphic quality or dynamism are the most effective.
The first works in the series, Wildēornes Land #1 and #2 feature the Capertee Valley, the largest enclosed gorge in the southern hemisphere and a World Heritage site that is currently threatened by mining interests. In this diptych, the shawl is employed first as a striking triangle, its own shape and the valley’s inverted to form a translucent memory of a mountain before a violet sky. In the second image, the shawl is let go to dance away on the breeze; the landscape, free of this cloak of mourning, allowed to breathe in the last light of dusk.
By including the Old English word “Wildēornes”, meaning a land inhabited only by wild animals, in the title of her exhibition Welch foregrounds and questions a colonial vision of the Mountains as a foreboding terra nullius, threatening but otherwise empty. Wildēornes Land traverses European mythologies, colonial and contemporary interpretations and treatments of landscape – approaches which often work at cross purposes, resulting, for example, in a colonially-imposed erasure of the Indigenous relationship to country, and irreversible environmental degradation.
The wilderness largely remains at a distance in these representations, seen through fog, from a vantage point or scenic lookout, or in reflections upon mirrors and water. In this sense, it presents a literal and metaphorical foil; viewed from a distance, it is presumed to be a foreboding or impenetrable place, but hidebound by the immensity we are prevented from closer observation of the more intimate view of sites of environmental and ecological disruption, and Indigenous significance. There is a strange contradiction in these works in that Welch created them on site, experiencing the vagaries of the environment at closer proximity, while the viewer is kept from direct engagement with the landscape. There are many skins between the viewer and the wilderness – time, distance, fog, shadow, light, water, the camera lens, the glossy surfaces of the images themselves and, most ubiquitously, through the filigree detail of the shawl.
Welch has harnessed the shawl’s dynamic potential, activating it within the landscape, giving it a magical life of its own. The video work Chantilly Wildēornes – Swamp and the accompanying photographic Wollemi series, depict the shawl reflected in the surface of Ganguddy, a swamp formed as a result of the construction of the Kandos Weir in the 1920s. The shawl dances above the water, captivated Narcissus-like and kissing its own reflection. This is scarcely disrupted when the fishing line suspending it becomes momentarily, barely, visible as it catches the light. Although, of course, the viewer’s instinct is to find out how the trick is done, this is almost the least believable moment as Welch’s animating of the shawl throughout the show is so deft that it seems impossible that the sleight of hand could be revealed.
Large mirrored plinths (each backed with a photographic detail of cloudy sky) are placed opposite each of the three videos in the exhibition, reflecting the footage back on the viewer. These structures serve a function by dividing the gallery space between the surround-cinematic effect and distilled photographic images. But while these screened backings do add another experiential layer to the exhibition, Welch’s soundscape achieves this more successfully. Constructed of a collage of sounds from nature, recorded at the sites where Welch’s photography took place, the audio is comprised of three clear segments, differentiated as woodland, a creek and wetlands respectively. It is these audible signs of life that allow the viewer to empathise with the distant landscape, and to share a little of Welch’s experience.
Ultimately, for me, Wildēornes Body is the most powerful work in this exhibition. While the still and moving images in the exhibition are either conventional landscapes or circular tondos, both Western tropes of representing and containing the natural world from a fixed vantage point, Wildēornes Body puts Welch herself on the plinth as the earth, connecting body, landscape and sky to contemplate mortality and eternity. Lying prone on this flat-bed screen that is viewed from above, and filmed at an angle that causes the mirror to be shaped like a coffin, we observe the body of the artist wrapped in the shawl. Intermittently she disappears, replaced by the uninterrupted view of the canopy of trees and sky above. The smooth tracking of constellations in the reflected night sky replaced by silhouetted specks of earth and leaves on the mirror during the day, creating a black and white inversion as a poetic reminder of the photographic legacy in historical representations of nature. The accompanying two layers of soundtrack on headphones recording the sounds of the environment and the cries of a wolf adds to the psychological and mythological intensity of this haunting and multi-layered experience of the wilderness as body.