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The idea of environmental sustainability has never been more contested in Australia than in the present economic climate. While Gunns pulp mill proposal in Tasmania’s scenic Tamar Valley is dividing opinion within and outside that state, similar contested situations will no doubt face other parts of the country over the next twelve months. Simply put, to what extent do jobs count, at the moment, over maintaining cultural and spiritual connections with the land for the well-being of future generations? The conundrum is huge.
With this at the back of my mind, I traveled to Noosa Regional Gallery to see the first manifestation of ‘Habitus-Habitat’, an exhibition and associated program forming part of the ‘great! walks: art and environment’ project of the Queensland Government’s Environmental Protection Agency. I had read about it in Update, a publication of Museums and Gallery Services Queensland who instigated and is touring the exhibition.1 It sounded enlightened; a sort of public art project that closed the gap between art and tourism, amateur and professional art practitioners, and centre and periphery. In short it was conceptually savvy and socially aware.
Beth Jackson, curator of ‘Habitus-Habitat’, selected eight principal commissioned artists to guide workshops and masterclasses in the chosen regional areas. They are practitioners who work across a range of media and so the show at Tewantin included video (with one large-scale projection), photography, assemblage, painting, artist’s books and collage. Craig Walsh, Elizabeth Woods, Fiona Foley, Jill Chism, Brian Robinson, Shane Fitzgerald, Glen Skein and Marian Drew are represented. They were intentionally linked with areas for which they have particular affinity and with art institutions of the area. Therefore, Craig Walsh was supported by Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Jill Chism by Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville and Fiona Foley by Hervey Bay Regional Gallery.
Exhibits were arranged at Noosa Regional Gallery according to the natural heritage sites chosen; namely Fraser Island, the Gold Coast Hinterland, the Wet Tropics, Mackay Highlands and the Whitsundays. Although the show is comparatively modest in scale, the entire project is ambitious in its reach and scope. Community workshops with the artists listed above threw up exciting work by local artists and some of these in turn have their work exhibited in ‘Habitus-Habitat’. I am thinking especially of Ruth Parry (Mackay) with her Woompoo pigeon (2005) a witty paper sculpture perched on the wall above a blank-page book, Marion Gaemers (Whitsundays) with her woven Bush fruits (2005-2007), Ben Trupperbaumer (Cairns) with his panels of recycled timber figured with heads, and Barbara Hart (Fraser Island) with her D’vine Creations (2007) which traverse the wall as twine drawings. There is also the intriguingly-named BONEMAP (Rebecca Youdell, and Russell Milledge).
BONEMAP’s large-scale projection, Blencoe (2005-2006) couches within it the tensions wrought by human activity in the landscape. The wall label indicates that Blencoe (of Blencoe Falls fame) is in the Wet Tropics of Northern Queensland. However, it is not rich vegetation that is the context within which the film’s dancer/protagonist (Rebecca Youdell) sashays and jumps, but one of red soil and large anthills with abandoned car wrecks. While the sound track is up-beat and the young dancing woman revels in her apparent freedom (wearing red silk slip, doc martin boots and cowboy straw hat) I could not help thinking that her joy was at the expense of the well-being of the land she was occupying. I kept thinking as I watched this film that while nature is our joy we can also easily take it for granted as a place to discard unwanted detritus and also ‘over-tread’ it.
In this vein, I was not surprised to come across the two large-scale giclée colour photographs by Fiona Foley, based on Fraser Island’s sandy foreshore. Titled Signpost 1 and 11 (2005), the second one clearly demonstrates that Anglos’ leisure can be at odds with Indigenous peoples’ traditional ‘light tread’ and respect of place. Foley has assembled, from what looks like sunbather’s gear (T-shirts, bathers and shorts, etcetera), two words, ‘White Trash’, on the sand’s white canvas. Other paper-based works in this exhibition are also thought provoking. For instance, Jill Chism’s Marking time (2005), a mixed media digital print, commanded the central wall at the Gallery. It belongs to the category Wet Tropics Great Walk – South. As with many of the works in this show, it gives the sense of a journey. Not just of an individual on a trekking holiday but of personal discovery through exploration of a particular terrain and of realising that each location has a history of prior occupation. Hence, in her collagist format, Chism brings together a diary entry from Pack Trail campsite, an early documentary portrait of an Aboriginal elder, fragments of local flora collected on-site, and an underlying geomorphic profile of the Wallaman Falls area with the Herbert River winding through.
Alongside the large commanding works in the exhibition, Jackson ensured that the small, discreet statements were accorded a presence, hence lithographs by Anne Lord from Townsville have their rightful place here. One of the highlights for me was a recently made video diptych (2008) by Marian Drew. Although she was, I believe, over-represented in ‘Habitus-Habitat’ with her characteristic ‘painting with light’ pathway images (2006) in cibachrome, it was her response to a waterfall at Girringun National Park, that suggested fresh avenues in her oeuvre. For rather than using a torch or tracking the effects of some other artificial light-source at night on the landscape, these small moving images with a soft accompanying sound-scape are superbly evocative of the fact that nature herself needs no interruption or imposition to move us profoundly. Called Wallaman singing, it is this work that, for me, most successfully achieves the blending of art in, from and of the environment. The only omission I could see in this important show is that of the participation of Gympie-born Leah-King Smith, with her composer partner Duncan King-Smith, who have so skillfully created work based on the spiritual ambience of nature from both an Aboriginal and Western perspective.
1. There is an excellent accompanying publication: Habitus – Habitat: Art and Environment in the Great Walks of Queensland published by Queensland Government Environment Protection Agency www.epa.qld.gov.au ISBN 0-646-45997-X. It is available from Museum and Gallery Services Queensland www.magsq.com.au
‘Habitus – Habitat’ is being toured to Grafton Regional Gallery, 4 February – 15 March 2009; Gladstone Regional Gallery & Museum, 27 March – 9 May 2009; The Centre for Arts & Culture – Beaudesert (Scenic Rim), 3 June – 10 July 2009; Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, 17 July – 23 August 2009; Gympie Regional Gallery, 2 September – 11 October 2009; Artspace Mackay, 5 February – 4 April 2010; Umbrella Studio and School of New Media Gallery, James Cook University, Townsville 23 April – 30 May 2010; Bundaberg Arts Centre, 14 July – 22 August 2010; Tamworth Regional Gallery, 4 September – 24 October 2010; Logan Art Gallery and Yugambeh Museum Language and Heritage Research Centre, Beenleigh, 16 November 2010 – 8 January 2011.