site engagement

contemporary territory 2001
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northem Territory, Darwin
17 November 2001 - 28 January 2002

In a break with tradition, Daena Murray, curator of the biennial Contemporary Territory exhibitions, has eschewed the usual survey show for a more in depth exploration of the work of two artists. This bold move has resulted in one of the most interesting and satisfying Contemporary Territory's since they began in 1994. Both Kim Mahood and Bronwyn Wright have engaged in sustained investigations and complex interactions with particular landscape sites in the Territory over many years. The work of these two artists is part of a long tradition of engagement with particular environments outside the gallery where the artwork usually results in some form of documentation. For this exhibition the curator commissioned digital video documentation of these engagements which became the centerpiece of the exhibition. Both artists have been involved in unique and at times eccentric projects and whilst the almost cinematically constructed documentations were very different in approach, they both displayed an intimate and loving relationship with the respective sites of obsession. Bronwyn Wright's long-term obsession is an area she calls 'the swamp' on the outskirts of Darwin. it is a tidal mudflat dominated by claypans, ridges and mangroves that the artist has visited almost daily over the last eleven years. During the first seven years she photographed the birds, plants and patterns in the rocks. Then she became drawn to the abandoned cars and tyres that littered the site, which is also regularly visited by young men and car hoons who spin out in old cars, stolen cars, 4WDs and motorbikes. Over time this aspect of the site, its energy and dynamism, became the defining focus for the artist as she became an active participant, engaging in anonymous, guerrilla-like interactions, making installations with the tyres and painting with spray cans on the cars, documenting everything.


Kim Mahood's site is less defined and less concentrated on the present. lt is a remote area of Central Australia in the Tanami desert where she grew up on a station called Mongrel Downs. The effects of this country on the artist's psyche, her interactions with its traditional owners, and her complex relationship to the place have been documented by her both visually and as literature in her memoir Craft for a Dry Lake. Mahood has spent much time journeying to and through this country on various art and writing trips. lt has been what Daena Murray called her 'centre of gravity' for some years. Mahood's video in Site Engagement was a beautifully constructed, non-linear narrative that moved at the pace of a dream. it involved a complex layering and interweaving of images of country, maps, people, on-site installations, performances and text. In it we saw images of children with model boats running through the rain-soaked country, superimposed on the dry lake of the present; an installation of small standing stones bleeding into the bodies of Aboriginal women who live in that country; and other things. This video could be experienced as a form of concentrated journal where image and narrative were distilled and past and present operated on the same plane. The pace was unhurried and mesmerising, one image slowly superimposed on the next. The images were interlaced with passages of text read by the artist from her memoir and this bound the experience together into a coherent, circular whole. This literary and considered style was very different from the rough and ready pace of Wright's video which at times bore more relation to a bush-bashing car rally. The swamp is very much a place of energy for Wright and her passion was clearly conveyed with enthusiasm and immediacy. Wright's style was more conversational and you felt as though you were with her in the car as it hurtled over lumps and bumps on the way to the site. She was sharing something special with you. Wright has an amazing amount of documentation from the swamp. In other exhibitions she has concentrated on her work with the abandoned cars. In this video she decided on perhaps the most seminal event in her interaction in the swamp; one that precipitated her from being an observer into becoming an active participant. She had been interested in the marks made by the car hoons as they did donuts and burnouts on the yellow clay flat, creating a huge circle in the clay. Wright collected all the abandoned tyres from the site and laid them out around the huge circle, wheels within wheels. When she returned the next day all the tyres had been stood up on their sides by someone else. In the video we saw her documenting this phenomenon at night, trying to line up the tyre circle with the rising moon, the whole scene lit by the headlights of her car. The video documentation in the exhibition was supplemented with a small selection of other seminal works by each artist. In fact the exhibition was physically dominated by two of these works.


One was the monumental ground sheet that accompanied Mahood on most of her journeys. lt served as a vast diary containing physical traces of her experience of travelling through the country. The imprint of her swag juxtaposed with the tracing of a boat; an ochre imprint of the artist's body; excerpts from her diary; charcoal from the fires that warmed her, all created a different more tangible form of journal. Bronwyn Wright's monumental piece was titled The Fair Musterer, a direct reference to the famous painting of her artist grandmother, Hilda Rix Nichols, by the same name. This work was made up of a series of large-scale photographic references to that painting where Wright aped the stance of the model in the painting in the environment of the swamp. This work was less successful as the imperial pose adopted by Wright to reference this connection seemed out of place in the context of 'the swamp' and lacked the necessary sense of irony to pull it off completely. Also accompanying this show was a collection of works which presented a brief history of some of the more significant 'site engagements' that have taken place in the Northern Territory since the 1970s. These works helped to contextualise the work of Mahood and Wright and point to the fact that the landscape of the Northern Territory will always attract artists who want work in the environment outside the gallery and who revel in its intensity, its complexity and its beauty.