Anne Ferran: Body of Water

Sutton Gallery, Melbourne
7 February – 9 March 2013

Anne Ferran’s latest exhibition at Sutton Gallery was comprised of two video works. Both record river ways that have been earmarked for urban development. Taking the title of the exhibition, Body of Water (2011) was projected in the gallery’s main room. From the viewpoint of a canal boat, the video records a journey through east London along the Bow Back Rivers, a network of small rivers and canals. The footage was taken in 2007 when the massive Olympic Park development was beginning in the area. The second work Swansong (Tchaikovsky remix) (2013), exhibited on two screens in the smaller room, documents the movements of a swan decoy as it floats on a small river in South Sydney. Located on the edge of the sprawling metropolis, close to an old coal mine, we can assume this idyll will soon be surrounded by suburban development. 

Firmly located in the artist’s experience, these new works mark a departure from Ferran’s usual photo-based practice that considers the historical experience of women in nineteenth century Australia. Furthermore Body of Water and its companion piece document a sense of place before it is lost, whereas earlier pieces, like Lost to Worlds (2008) and Soft Caps (1995), work with what remains of a lost history. 

Body of Water cuts frontal views of the rivers as they are traversed in real time with slowed down footage of views of the riverbanks. It is an unexpected perspective from which to experience London. We pass by the old canal walls and span the scaffolding of new developments towered over by cranes. New apartment blocks mix with the shells of abandoned factories, and occasionally we witness the spring-green reclamations by nature. The dark water slowly meanders through all of this. Located only a few steps away from the traffic laden car and rail bridges that punctuate the journey, the waterways bring a strange quietness.

Body of Water is a collaborative work; a digital soundtrack by Chris Abrahams, pianist for The Necks, augments the visual. Its low reverberations and slow tempo draw out the pace of the work, which is akin to walking. There are moments when the audio and imagery work together to be especially evocative, like when a high pitch trilling animates the ripples of water on the river’s surface. The metallic quality alludes to both past industries that used to operate here and the encroaching destruction and rebuilding that an event like the Olympics brings. 

Many of the riverbanks in Body of Water have now been razed and waterways filled in to accommodate the stadium and park developments that housed the 2012 Olympics. Amidst local protests about gentrification and the loss of community housing and marshlands,1 the Olympic Delivery Authority claims to have regenerated the city’s ‘perennial dumping ground’.2 

What Ferran’s work reveals is a beauty describing the wildness of this place before re-development. And also nostalgia for a previously industrial hub but one nestled in its abandonment. Many artists are attracted to these in-between spaces and not just for the cheap studio rent. I am thinking of Bill Henson’s disused car yards, Andrew Browne’s wastelands and Siri Hayes’s suburban creeks. In all these examples the landscape is a setting for a psychological drama or absurdist scenarios. 

In Body of Water and Swansong, however, the pared back aesthetic ensures there are plenty of documentary values. Both video works are clearly about a particular place and time. Speculating on how these locations may be linked, and considering Ferran’s earlier works, raises thoughts about the intertwined colonial histories of Australia and England and the part rivers played. Overlaid with more recent industrial uses and their feral status, the works are also about what these kinds of places do—and how in a rush towards revitilisation we forget something important and often magical.

 

Anne Ferran, Swansong (Tchaikovsky remix), 2013. Still from single channel high definition video, 4:10 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

Anne Ferran, Body of Water, 2011. Installation detail. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

Anne Ferran, Body of Water, 2011. Still from video, 15:56 minutes, stereo or 5.1 surround sound. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

notes: 

1. ‘Campaigners occupy Leyton Marshes to protest Olympic development’, The Hackney Citizen, 3 April 2012, accessed online. See http://hackneycitizen.co.uk/2012/04/03/campaigners-occupy-leyton-marshes-to-protest-olympic-development/

2. John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold, ‘Olympic Cities: Regeneration, City Rebranding and Changing Urban Agenda’, Geography Compass 2/1, 2008, p.311.