An inconvenient obsession

Ian North, Canberra Suite and Canberra Coda 1980–81
Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
4 – 27 March 2005

Reviewing this exhibition is a curious experience. I too lived in Canberra in the early 1980s and recognise some of the places photographed, or think I can. But that does not really matter. Particularities of place are not important in Canberra Suite or Canberra Coda—the landscapes could be almost anywhere in that city, outside its identifiable landmarks and monuments. What is significant, though, is what Ian North does with the landscape in these photographs.

Imagery in each series includes unremarkable suburban houses under construction, road works, a light industrial area, green zones between suburbs and land immediately outside Canberra. Viewers enter each landscape from unusual entry points. In Canberra No. 12, a metal safety guard on a roadside verge is a visual barrier to navigating the image. Similarly in Canberra No. 8, an easy visual roaming of a building site covered with mounds of earth and builders’ huts is confounded by a sign and telegraph pole in the centre! In addition, the central vertical poles are not parallel, so viewers’ eyes travel over the entire image without finding a natural resting point. In other photographs, a tree or a harsh stretch of road fill the central field of vision. These quirky pictorial devices convey a lack of framing, even though each composition is carefully framed, with the effect being of the real verging on the surreal. Each image is also devoid of human content: not a soul roams in these eerie spaces. No wonder such images invite speculation and evoke narratives well beyond the literal.

Canberra is as a small inland city, filled with plantings of indigenous and non-indigenous trees. Each photograph presents this easy mix of nature and culture. Landscape is a recurring motif in each image: it may be a sublime scene beckoning just beyond a stretch of houses, or one marked by human intervention as in Canberra No. 11 with a road running through it. Here a late afternoon shadow running across the road points to the scarring of the land, as do a series of slightly askew roadside posts. The horizon line defies rules of composition by sitting artlessly near the mid-ground in almost every image. This is an effective ploy, carefully chosen, as the artist commented, in order to produce ‘quasi-dumb compositions that look effortless and just float onto the paper’.1

Light is another key feature in these works. In some, it is the brilliant blue of sub-alpine skies, in others it is fading. The ever-changing choreography of the skies in each image provides another layer to the narrative: the hyper-real movement and clarity of the skies suggesting a level of banality beneath such ethereal high jinks.

Ian North has long been fascinated by beauty, and in recent years has written on the subject, but these photographs, produced well before such essays, present beauty in the vernacular. As the artist quipped, ‘These funny, odd corners, these vistas in and around Canberra are very beautiful. They grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to photograph them … This became an inconvenient obsession for the next few years’.2 The magic and mystery in these photographs is amply apparent. As Daniel Palmer commented in his accompanying catalogue essay, Canberra perhaps more than any other city, is ripe for North’s manifestly surrealist investigation of such emptiness. His images suggest a sense of ‘out of placeness’.3 Akin to surrealism, compulsive beauty is found in the unexpected! 

notes: 

1. Interview with artist, 13 May 2005.

2. Ibid. North’s essays on beauty include ‘Kant’s Bird, Cleopatra’s Nose, and Beauty-Truth-Goodness’, in Margot Osborne (ed.), The Return of Beauty, Jam Factory Festival Catalogue, Adelaide, 2000.

3. Daniel Palmer, ‘Ian North: Canberra Suite (with Coda)’, in Ian North: Canberra Suite and Canberra Coda 1980-81, Greenaway Art Gallery, 2005, p.7.