topographies

tracey benson, di ball, troy-anthony baylis, pat hoffie, john armstrong, the campfire group
Fire-Works Gallery, Brisbane

Two dimensional image production has developed into something which often resembles screen production more than classic studio-based practice, with artists' studios evolving as digital labs filled with equipment such as computers, scanners, digital cameras, video machines and printers. Hybrid creative practices and imagery have emerged from artistic experimentation with digital technologies, and these technologies have provided the means for artists to produce new and complex visual languages through the combination of diverse visual arts practices including photography, collage, printmaking, drawing, painting and video, within a virtual realm. it was while I was considering the radical impact of digital technologies on two-dimensional image production that I encountered an exhibition that showcased the work of five Brisbane-based artists and one collective that produce computer generated and manipulated two dimensional artworks.

Topographies, curated by Linda Carroli presented work by Tracey Benson, Di Ball, Troy-Anthony Baylis, Pat Hoffie, John Armstrong and the Campfire Group. Carroli insightfully located a commonality between these artists which contributed to the curatorial basis of the exhibition that they all engage in various ways with representing landscapes and show an interest in mapping geographic or cultural spaces, exploring relationships between place, symbolism and identity. Although she insists in her catalogue essay that this was a 'pleasant surprise', rather than the conscious premise behind the exhibition, it was the connecting thread running through the artists' work that gave the exhibition a continuity and resonance.

It can be argued that views of geography and representations of the landscape are often informed by culturally specific knowledges and expectations of what is considered a 'livable' or ideal environment. Pat Hoffie's The Subject of Landscape is Irretrievably Conceptual explores some relationships between cultural subjectivity, representations of landscape and cultural imperialism. The work is comprised of four panels using computer generated imagery, laser prints, knitting and mixed media. In the central panel, Hoffie overlays an early image of Anglo Settlement in Australia, Joseph Lycett's View of Sydney (1820), which depicts a clearing in bushland in which houses and buildings are constructed , with a Dutch engraving of potted plants being moved into the setting. This juxtaposition alludes to processes of European colonisation whereby the natural environment of an invaded place is effaced and recreated to resemble the landscapes that are familiar to colonisers. The grid construction of this panel reaffirms a connection with discourses of mapping, discovery, territorialism and 'progress', ideas that are entwined with European systems of colonialism. As a whole, the work appears to warn against the redesign of the natural environment, drawing attention to the role that ideas about landscape and narratives of place and home have on how we interact with the natural environment.

Hoofa by Troy-Anthony Baylis and Flotilla by the Campfire Group present computer manipulated landscapes that are occupied by symbols that imply that indigenous cultures, identities and spiritualities are entwined with the land. The central figure in hoofa is Kaboobie, a female persona developed by Baylis, who appears to be metamorphosing out of the ground and camel legs into a wild woman. She is part-human/part-animal, roaring fiercely and protectively into a desert landscape. In Flotilla , a group of stingrays follow a dingo across a desert landscape, connoting a collective journey. The landscape is marked with detailed patterning that implies the traces of other stories, journeys and entities. Both of these works evoke a sense of interconnection between the identities of the artists and histories of the land, articulating a sense of place that is cultural, corporeal and spiritual.

As the title of Di Ball 's work suggests, Pink Bits: a continuing journey [digifront i6: left armpit], it is part of an ongoing project whereby Ball digitally maps surfaces of her body with a hand held scanner or digital camera to produce large digital prints. A grided map of the artist's body narrates a history of the physical territories that have been explored, documented, sold and stolen. A form of frottage takes place when Ball uses a scanner to trace the outer limits of her body and collect digital data about her pink bits, affirming the significance of touch and sensory experience, as much as technology, in the production of these works. Ironically a sense of distance is created for the viewer when these scans are increased in scale because they emerge as pixilated images with richly textured surfaces that are distorted beyond immediate visual recognition. However, the juxtaposition of the scans with the map stimulates a realisation about what is being looked at, recreating an intimacy between the viewer and object/artist. Ball's gradual selling off of body parts may be a metaphor for the commodification of the female body, or the necessity for artists to 'sell themselves' these days.

The theme of commodification also appears in Tracey Benson's work as she presents an array of souvenirs and kitsch collector's items featuring strangely familiar symbols from the Australian landscape. Re: Site is part of an ongoing project for Benson entitled, Big Banana Time Inc, where she documents giant artificial objects such as pineapples, cows, apples, bananas and cassowaries that dominate aspects of Queensland's countryside with their hyper-real presence, then reworks them to produce her own memorabilia. This process recontextualises these icons as symbols of tourism, trade and commerce while challenging the imagined split between high art and popular culture. Benson refuses the conventional European aesthetics of landscape, revelling instead in the pastiche of those absurd tourist sites that are such powerful symbols of Australian culture and processes of economic and visual colonisation of the land.

John Armstrong's computer manipulated digital photographs, Toyscape 5 and Studioscape 1 draw on his skills as an installation artist by recreating a space within the pictorial frame that is cluttered with carefully arranged found objects. Computer effects have been applied to the photograph giving an impression that the viewer is looking through a prism at a strange room or store filled with toys, dolls, lamps and other discarded objects. These objects appear to be loaded with forgotten memories and untold stories, thus stimulating curiosity about their history and their significance to the artist. An eerie sense of movement is evoked by the graphic distortions that give the impression of time passing or an altered state of reality.

The artists in Topographies appear to be self-consciously exploring how discourses for conceptualising and representing landscapes and bodies are shaped by specific cultural and ideological knowledges of these terrains. The various geographies explored by the artists are not approached as objective zones, rather as symbolically charged localities that have powerful meanings, histories and memories for the artist and the viewer. Personal and cultural narratives are inscribed in these images and viewers were invited to decipher and tease out the various dialogues about place and subjectivity being played out in the work. Digital image technologies allowed the artists in Topographies to map different physical or cultural terrains and create visually and symbolically layered texts that evoke the complexity of the issues surrounding representational systems of place, history and subjectivity.