Uncertain Territory – Artbank (2019)

Where culturally we may diverge, the unique shared land we inhabit is something we hold in common and the landscape is often used symbolically, to stand in as common ground.

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Catalogue Essay

Every landscape is interwoven with layers of narrative relaying not only stories of past usage, but stories about ourselves. When talking about landscape we circumscribe an interaction, a transmission of information and energy between person and place, a lived experience, not a static thing. In our everyday interactions with the environment, we draw on an internal map constructed of personal memory with its associated emotional residue, and appropriated external narratives – historical, cultural and political. This ongoing interchange gives meaning to place. It mentally and emotionally grounds us while reflecting back to us ideas about who we are and where we belong. Our relationship to the landscape is fundamental to our sense of identity, connecting us to our past and hopes for the future.

Discussing the premise for this show, Ian Millis half-jokingly told me that if you are an artist in Australia for long enough, at some point you will turn to the landscape. It does seem to be a source of ongoing pre-occupation, after all, our contemporary nation-hood is founded on violent colonisation and waves of immigration, so staking out some sense of shared identity presents significant challenges. Where culturally we may diverge, the unique shared land we inhabit is something we hold in common and the landscape is often used symbolically, to stand in as common ground. However it remains deeply divided by conflicting perspectives and desires and is often co-opted into delivering messages that suit the interests of those vested in cultural control, creating profit, or maintaining the status quo.

Since the landscape can be a mirror to us, we may subconsciously ignore some of the layers of meaning that run through it challenging a preferred sense of who we are. There is an attraction to the picturesque, yet when the landscape speaks of other stories, for instance, looming environmental disaster or the dispossession and suffering of the indigenous population, it is in our best interest not to turn away and try to frame a nicer view.

In Uncertain Territory, across diverse practices the landscape is invoked to engage the viewer with sites of environmental, political and cultural tension, asking us to address some culturally ingrained ways we interact with our environment. The artworks grouped together here, pull apart and reconfigure underlying landscape narratives, encouraging us to imagine new relationships to place.

With its backdrop frayed Australian flag and green and gold ‘Celebration of a Nation’ lettering, Raquel Ormella’s ‘Australia Rising’, recalls a strong sense of place and history. The words ‘Mutual Obligation’ appliqued on the piece are borrowed from a former liberal government’s contentious work for the dole scheme. By mirroring back this loaded phrase on the partly dissembled flag, it can be read inversely as an obligation to care for those under-privileged in our society. This sentiment is still relevant today, we like to think of Australia as the land of the ‘fair go’, yet it remains deeply divided by class politics.

If most of us want to live the suburban dream, Halinka Orszulok’s paintings have something of a nightmare of displacement about them. Painted from a photograph of a disused industrial yard at night, the title of her painting ‘Random Collaboration’, refers to the unwitting collaborators who have created this scene – the builders of the yard, dumpers of rubbish, graffiti artists and weeds pushing up through the gaps in the concrete. It suggest a reality where there is little of the world left untouched by humanity. A traditional binary of nature and culture underpins much of how we understand our relationship to the world, this requires re-thinking in the age of the Anthropocene.

On the nearby fringes of the richly diverse city of Sydney, established cultural narratives drove a tribal undercurrent of Nationalism, which exploded during the Cronulla riots. You didn’t need to travel far to experience bigotry then and that can still be the case now. Borrowing national landscape symbols – the bright colours of the beach, the green and gold wattle – Daniel Mudie-Cunningham uses the remaking of Cindi Lauper’s music video for ‘True Colours’ as an opportunity to ‘queer’ a landscape violently rejecting of ‘otherness’ in a powerful, symbolic re-claiming of place. Within the soothing tones of the song and the peaceful actions of the actors, there is a sense of restrained defiance.

Tina Havelock Stevens video performance ‘Giant Rock’ was the winner of the 2018 Blake Prize for religious and spiritual art. The site in California at which she drums has in turn been a sacred site for local indigenous people, the bunker-like home of an anti-establishment hermit mistakenly bombed by the government, and a hot-spot for believers in extra-terrestrial activity. Steven’s work reminds us that there is no one correct way to frame place, no historically fixed view-point. It removes the veil of ownership and reveals to us a reality where all of life is performative, a constant flowing exchange of energy between the individual and place.

Mumu Mike Williams’ powerful piece is made on canvas stitched together from reclaimed postbags, a symbol of Commonwealth ownership and indigenous dispossession that is brilliantly superseded by his painting of Pitjantjatjara stories and traditional lore. His words state;

“Australia’s Tjukurpa is held and maintained by our senior men and women. They are the ones who are keeping our Tjukurpa strong for all new generations of children coming up, and will continue to teach it, always. Australia, open your ears and remember this. Do not damage our cultural heritage. Theft or misuse of this Tjukurpa is a criminal offence. Penalties apply. Theft or misuse of this land is a criminal offence. Penalties apply. Our language, our cultural identity and our Tjukurpa is strong and enduring. Listen and learn okay?”

The Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation was born from an artwork made by Ian Millis for the inaugural Cementa Biennale held in Kandos, a once thriving country town thanks to its cement works, which is now closed. His poster for an imaginary, parallel Kandos included the opportunity to study at the ‘Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation’, a think tank for alternative, sustainable living practices. From this seed the KSCA became a reality by bringing together a group of artists, agriculturalists, scientists and designers to creatively rethink destructive and outdated ways of inhabiting and using the land.

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The uncomfortable truth is that our ownership over the places we inhabit is unstable, we can never fully control the narratives of place for they are built on shifting ground. All of these artworks remind us that when observing the landscape, we need awareness of the multiple narratives woven through it and occasionally challenge the habitual ways that we frame place. We are on a long evolutionary journey where only one thing is certain, we must continue to adapt and we must do so thoughtfully.