anne ferran

lost to worlds
Stills Gallery, Sydney
30 June - 21 July 2001

Anne Ferran's latest body of work Lost to Worlds is a series of photographs, colour photocopies, videos and a booklet investigating the sites of two former factories in Tasmania which were used to incarcerate women convicts and their children in the nineteenth century. Ferran had photographed these sites as they remain today and printed them in large black and white format. One site, the Ross Female Factory, is now an open sheep paddock. Ferran has turned her lens toward the ground and photographed the gentle contours of the grassed landscape which blankets the rubbled past beneath. The other site is the Cascades Factory in South Hobart. All that remains here is an empty walled brick yard which is today surrounded by concrete roads giving it the appearance of an abandoned construction site.

Ferran's photographs reveal the way in which these landscapes are shaped from fragments of a convict past - one which is largely lost to the gendered chronicles of official Australian history. In her artist's statement, Ferran comments on 'how very little of either places there was left to see'. Yet it is from this absence of coherent structure, of a 'tangible' history, that Ferran creates a forceful evocation of the traces of these institutions and, in doing so, questions the process of historical enquiry to consider how we are to create records of an invisible past.

Lost to worlds follows on from the previous series Securing the Shadow (1995 with Anne Brennan) and Longer than Life (1999) that explored the ‘forgotten’ histories of women who were institutionalised at what are now heritage sites. While these earlier series drew from the personal artefacts of inmates, Lost to Worlds explores these places where they were once imprisoned. The camera is used as an archaeological tool, probing the scattered remains in the landscape. Yet Ferran emphasises that photographs, like history, are elusive and often conceal more that they can ever reveal. Throughout this series the same print or ones of similar imagery are repeated around the gallery space, each with a sometimes obvious and other times more subtle change in development or exposure time to alter the appearance of the place and image itself. The most extreme is a faint, under-exposed image which does not appear to have been 'fixed' correctly in the development process. Together with the interplay of the moving video images placed at the centre of the room (which are ground views of a barefooted figure walking through these sites), Ferran challenges the notion of the photograph as a stable document which provides historical certainty. Places always contain histories which are lost to us, while still leaving their varying marks.

Other than the contemporary photographs, Ferran also re-presents museum artefacts relating to these sites. Colour photocopies of small objects from Ross, with museum accessioning painstakingly written on their side, are lined up along the wall. Their tiny, fragile scale indicates, as Ferran states, 'the broken and fragmentary form in which (the past) comes down to us'. On the wall opposite are a sequence of prints rephotographed from John Watt Beattie's (an official Tasmanian Government photographer) Female house of correction (1880s). Details of these photographs have been blown up. The crevices and windows of the buildings are scanned with a close focus as if trying to penetrate the walls for signs of life. A tiny blurred figure with a horse and cart can just be made out in one – a man who was outside the jail when the original photograph was taken, but there is no sign of any of those kept inside.

To supplement these images, Ferran has also produced a brochure which recounts both her responses to these sites as well as the conditions of the women and children detained there. Her gentle contemplations drift into the cruel histories of mistreatment so that the two become entwined to affirm that 'everything that ever happened here still has a place'. Places, Ferran has determined, are layered with the traces of previous inhabitants. While the past is always lost to the present, it is the process of searching that reminds that without a sense of history, society exists in a state of amnesia.