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Araluen Centre, Alice Springs, 3 April- 9 May 2004
24HR Art, Darwin, 1 - 29 May 2004
Alternating pairs of Indigenous eyes in a black background look out from three video monitors set on the floor of the gallery. They stare at a large video image of a ghostly white woman clothed all in white, performing a series of ritual religious actions, the Stations of the Cross. The white woman-a missionary, an anthropologist, a nurse, a mother, or all four, as many pioneer white women were-gazes ahead facing the gallery viewer (but ignoring the sets of eyes watching her intently from below) as she slowly performs her silent actions. Behind her is a large image of white washing blowing on a line stretched across the hills and scrubby bush of Alice Springs. She stares ahead into the future-at another large video image, set against the opposite wall.
This image shows a circular red claypan in Central Australia, which provides a natural amphitheatre for the fringing bush surrounding it. The camera pans slowly across the surface of the claypan. There is a young white woman dressed in shorts and a white shirt lying on her back with her knees bent, on the glistening red wet surface of the claypan-eyes open, enjoying the experience of being submerged in the warm red water. Around her, green budgerigars and butterflies swoop and hover. As the video continues, the surface of the claypan dries up, the water dries to red broken curls of clay, and the image of the young woman changes over time, so that her clothing is now covered with red dirt as though she has been pushed or hurt, or perhaps has rolled in the mud. She lies on her back with her eyes closed, legs outstretched, arms at her side, as though dead. Her curled red hair moves lightly in the wind, and is mirrored in the curls and plates of dried red clay.
What might be made of these images? Joy Hardman's installation allows a conflation of the past and present and considers the place of non-Aboriginal women in the landscape, among other issues-for example, the meaning of the unseen (invisible, unrecognised) Indigenous watchers, who were also the drovers, the cooks, the nannies for pioneer women. The white woman's image in both videos is acted by Hardman, who also greeted gallery visitors on the opening night dressed all in white, holding a prayer book and intoning blessings.
The male figure in the landscape has long been a popular theme of non-Indigenous Australian artists from Louis Buvelot, Eugene von Guerard, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale to contemporary artists. Women in the landscape are less frequently portrayed, and Indigenous people are very rarely seen as participants, but rather as the observed. Indigenous figures have been either portrayed as the noble savage, or as historical and anthropological curiosities with odd habits.
Women in early Australian art are generally depicted as pioneer woman keeping the hearth burning, for example, Drysdale's images of indomitable women who are the battlers, the 'salt of the earth'. White women are also shown as decorative, with parasols and elegant clothes at the beach, or sitting on a verandah looking out at the land. They are rarely shown actually in the landscape, part of it, acting upon it.
Hardman's image of the pioneer missionary, is of an woman hanging her white square bloomers and children 's nappies across the expanse of the unwelcoming bush, dominating the skyline, while she carries out a series of actions. In the nineteenth century, the missionary was viewed as bringing Christianity to those dark brethren who lived unhallowed lives (and therefore were destined not to be re-born as God's creatures). By repetitively performing the Stations of the Cross, the white figure depicted by Hardman ritually imposes her intention and life's meaning on the Central Australian landscape, re-enacting the missionary role. The Indigenous eyes watching her remind us that earlier generations may have perceived these actions as anthropological curiosities in a way similar to that in which their own ceremonies were noted by white anthropologists. What is it that they saw-a clumsy likeness to their ceremonial gestures? And does the woman realise that she is observed, even as she also watches in her attempt to convert?
Underlying all these images is the format of video/ TV which demands that we eternally look, stare, gaze, in a manner impossible face-to face. From the apparitions in this installation-the figure in the claypan as imagined/projected by the missionary figure, the ghostlike white woman acting out strange rituals, and the unseen eyes hiding in the bushes watching as this alien vision imposes herself on their world, it is possible to experience other (alien) worlds imposed on us through the medium of TV.
The images of the landscapes selected by Hardman in both videos invite exploration of aspects and uses of the Central Australian bush. The earlier image is of the historical unforgiving bush of mulga trees and bushes, set against harsh red stone hills. This bush, it appears, provides neither comfort nor succour to its white inhabitants. It is to be conquered and overcome, and used for utilitarian purposes as best it can. The missionary figure hangs her washing across it, but turns her back on it. In contrast, claypans were life-giving for both Aborigines and whites. Aboriginal families in the desert followed rain clouds and left their safer waters (rock holes, soakages) for the ephemeral water provided by rain falling on a claypan, which might last a week to several months, until dried by the desert heat and wind. Plants, frogs, insects and birds frantically bred up and flourished while the water existed. Hardman shows the claypan as life-giving, and while the symbolic figure appears to undergo death or hibernation, around her we see the regeneration of the bush and its life forms. There is a low sound of wind through the bush as we watch the older woman watching the younger one, with the Aboriginal eyes watching unseen by either.
The contemporary figure lies in the shallow water of the claypan. She is in the landscape in both a literal and figurative sense, immersed in it, almost drowning in it, but as the claypan dries out, the figure is shown stretched out, face up, as though dead. It might be inferred from this that the land has absorbed her into itself and somehow killed her. Or, looking at the flocks of budgerigars and the lone butterfly opening its wings on a dried curl of claypan, we might ask whether it is the natural regenerative quality of the landscape which is being depicted, rather than the alien spiritual regeneration imposed by the missionary figure on the archetypal harsh unforgiving desert?