"We don't feel obligations to the future unless we have this contact with the past, and the contact with the past is not petty histories about who was the Mayor of Footscray, the contact with the past is these great mythic stories ... "
Latrobe University Professor of Sociology, John Carroll made this comment on Radio National's 'Religion Report' in relation to what he describes as the humanist wreck of Western culture-in this specific case, why he believes the Anzac myth is more edifying than ‘petty' social history. Over the past ten years it appears that there has been a growing appeal in the public realm to a sense of history once more about 'the great and the good' and universal myths, rather than the small but significant individual stories celebrated by social historians.
In the visual arts we have the rich traditions of social realism, genre subjects and the still life as alternatives to 'the great myths' of Western culture. To suggest that these traditions offer fewer opportunities to establish forms of 'vertical community' (a connection spanning generations rather than depending on temporal and spatial proximity) seems ludicrous. The rich cross-generational bonding that takes place in the telling and retelling of family and community stories has been well documented.
So while who was the Mayor of Footscray; or who won Miss Capricornia in 1964, may seem petty from the perspective of the ancient classics scholar for instance, for members of that community, these stories can become part of a mythology as compelling and 'connecting' as Homer's epics. For the past two years the photographer, Jo Grant has been documenting the modest details of rural and regional life in Australia, particularly social gatherings and agricultural shows.
This work has recently culminated in her exhibition, 'All Prize Winners Paraded' at the Art Factory Gallery in Brisbane. While both beautiful and poignant, her images also have an ambivalence neatly paralleling the general Australian attitude toward the 'heartland'. We can observe that our nation has a fetishlike regard for its own regional past (in the guise of outback legends), while steadfastly avoiding any recognition of current realities outside the capital cities and their satellite leisure zones.
Grant's own childhood and adolescence, spent in a tiny Victorian town, is the fuel for her documentation of inland communities. She has spoken of her work as a kind of reconciliation with her own past. Born in Lismore, Victoria (not to be confused with Lismore in northern New South Wales), Grant was exposed to the swiftly declining fortunes of regional Australia at a time when there was little political leverage to be gained by 'talking up' links with the bush.
The primary experience of regional Australia that she emphasises in her work is not, however, of a culture in decline. Instead she is at pains to point out the rituals of continuity that persist in rural life-the serving of tea and scones, the jammaking competitions, the Miss Showgirl pageants. Grant's work is not steeped in nostalgia or regret but her images do evoke what has been described as a 'sad kind of glory'.
What saves this work from sentimentality is that Grant does not shy away from the occasionally clumsy; the naive or the gauche. What makes the Australian relationship with its rural sector so complicated is that while the legend of the bush embodies a distinct visual code which safely 'others' it as picturesque, the aesthetic language of the regional town is often indistinguishable from that of suburbia, something that supposedly 'grown up', sophisticated Australia no longer wishes to recognise.
Grant studied photography at RMIT in the early 1990s and has featured since in a range of group shows including the Monash University Museum of Art exhibitions 'Hothouse: The Flower in Contemporary Art' (2003) and 'Into the Blue' (2002), and the Centre for Contemporary Photography's 2003 'Leica/ CCP Documentary Award'. More recently she participated in the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery's 'Less Ordinary Legends' show, the curatorial rationale of which was to make tangible connections between the history of that city and contemporary art practice. As previously mentioned, Grant has spoken of her work as a form of reconciliation. Reconciliation has become a word inextricably linked with Indigenous/ non-Indigenous relations in this country and yet to imagine that white Australia's only closeted skeleton is its treatment of Aboriginal people presupposes a far less conflicted national identity than actually exists.
Without wanting to detract from the urgency of Indigenous debate, Grant's work and its anxious revelation of a world of pikelets and floral displays (owing nothing to global fashion or reality makeovers) suggest that white Australians also need to reconcile themselves to their own pasts and the ruptures that appear in its highly mediated present. Grant shoots her work on medium-format equipment, exploiting the stability and quietude of the square frame, her colour palette is subtle and her work is completely lacking in the photojournalistic event. In many ways she has left the decisive moment behind, but there is also no hint of staging or artifice.
So while Grant's work is recognisably different from the 'old school' of photo-documentary work (where the 35mm frame stood as a symbol of authentic representation and supposed objectivity) it also is completely free of any hint of the 'second degree', which came to dominate Australian photographic practice in the '80s and '90s, with its conscious quotation of motifs or forms. Hers is beautiful work, completely aware of those 'tedious' aesthetic considerations of composition, colour and the texture of light (which once made up the fundamentals of a training in photography) but without a fetishisation of beauty as its own goal. In this way, her work is able to sit comfortably in a discussion of floral motifs in art, such as the 'Hothouse' exhibition, as well as a more critically incisive look at the history and identity of Toowoomba, Australia's largest regional centre, in Southern Queensland. It is almost impossible to imagine a time when towns and cities outside the capitals had a viable future, but for many in the 19th century. it was often the regional centres that offered the greatest opportunity, whether it be gold rush and pastoral hubs, mining, shipping or cane-growing towns. But while many Australians could trace their family's history through a regional centre at some point, rapid urbanisation and the enthusiastic embrace of a global identity has left many communities increasingly isolated, disenfranchised and fighting for a sense of identity. Jo Grant's work, while being seductive aesthetically. offers us the possibility of something much more complex and potentially satisfying than either the 'beautiful picture' or the 'universal myth'. It offers, on a modest scale, the possibility of an alternative genealogy of our society. Mapping sets of historically mobile values and practices in rural and regional Australia, and softly insisting that we confront our own deeply ambivalent relationship with them.
1. Milne, P. , 'Jo Grant' Into the Blue (Ed, Michael, L.), Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2002.
Jo Grant is a Brisbane-based artist.
Courtney Pedersen is an artist and writer based in Brisbane.