susanne mclean: littoral zone

The Brisbane Powerhouse / Hervery Bay Regional Gallery / Brolga Theatre, Maryborough
8 - 31 March 2002 / 10 May - 3 June 2002 / 10 May - 17 June 2002

Like 'Clean and Green' or 'Sustainability', the slogan 'River Health' may set up false hope, because the environment, along with every other politicised issue, is the subject of 'spin'. Susanne Mclean's several manifestations of the installation Littoral Zone embody concepts about landscape degraded by salinity, river pollution and the results of over-engineered water flow. They nonetheless resist cynicism and seek to connect science with Mclean's sense of the numinous quality of water.

Mclean's work explores the immensely difficult problems besetting three watercourses she has scrutinized and grieved over: the Brisbane River, the Mary River and the Great Sandy Strait. Central to the first instalment of Littoral Zone, was the Brisbane River, following a residency at the Brisbane Powerhouse offered by then curator, Lisa Anderson. Mclean linked herself to scientists from the Cooperative Research Centre for Coastal Zone Estuary and Waterway Management and the Department of the Environment in Brisbane, to undertake the field research she needed to inform her work in the Riverside Gallery on the Brisbane River flood plain.

Collaborative fact-gathering and data interpretation led to the development of nine site-specific works in Littoral Zone, completed in February and March this year. In the floor piece Riverruns, Mclean set out such tools of science as statistics on water quality and Landsat images, framing the latter in a formal rectangle of river earth from New Farm arranged on compressed cow felt. Three suspended plastic bottles delivered slow dripping bottled water onto the high-key Landsat imagery of the Brisbane River's South East Queensland catchment systems. While Mclean's saline drip metaphor may have been an obvious one, the poise of this work was clear and sharp.

Water Memory-Fluid Thoughts invested optimism in ordinary people's awareness of a water crisis, or simply of water. Inviting random individuals to participate in making this work emphasised Mclean's willingness to herself interact with grass roots environment movements, including Land Care, and community monitoring schemes such as the Maroochy Catchment Association (which is supported by the Nambour City Council). In Water Memory, the inscriptions of many personal water stories flowed, like scores of tributaries, into an iridescent painting, which may not, in the end, have stood for water preservation, but rather human reverence for this symbol-charged element.

Integral to Water Memory were the cluster of bottles and jars-plastic or metal-lidded containers-used by the public to bring their water samples to Mclean. Hand written and typed texts on notepaper were pinned on the wall above the jars: the water stories about household tanks, favourite creeks, smelly chook water. Painting these water samples into a large work on canvas was an act of homage by Mclean to what she sees as the metaphysical quality of water and its symbolic emanation from the artesian wells of collective consciousness.

While a perceived 'community art' approach to Mclean's residency received some criticism, comments in favour defended her openness in reaching out for others' participation. For me Mclean's inclusive gesture was as beguiling as her gentle, translucent painting of thousands of cursive words, strengthened by a ground-stain of muddy brown pigment. Water Memory-Fluid Thoughts was the most embodied of the eight works in the show and the most affecting.

Water Memory was repainted in May this year at Hervey Bay Regional Gallery, the second venue for Littoral Zone, with stories gathered from Fraser Coast residents. Other works were reconfigured, including the two Earth Book installations of soil from Maryborough which had domestic roof guttering dividing the 'pages' stained by muddy rivulets-code for agricultural run-off into the chocolate brown Mary River.

Suspended at the Brisbane Powerhouse and in the foyer of Maryborough's Brolga Theatre was the feature piece of Mclean's littoral project, Water Web. Installed against glass walls to face the Brisbane and the Mary Rivers, the work looped and wove more than two hundred metres of polythene pipe. Again statistics and water samples informed Water Web but their translation into a still, vine-like mass of trapped liquid also had a metaphoric presence.

A kind of Buddhist acceptance of binary strategies-empiricism and intuition-has found expression in Littoral Zone. The artist bonds these 'contradictions' in work that has emerged from many years of incubation in regional Queensland. Littoral Zone at the Brisbane Powerhouse allowed Susanne Mclean to open out her environmental concerns in a space on the river well suited to her understanding of these most sullied and cherished elements, earth and water.