The howling Tasman wind
Written by: Christine McFetridge
It was his pleasure to stand on the sand in foul weather, clutch his coat across his body, and look out past the clustered masts of ships at anchor, swaying en masse, impelled variously by the river’s rushing current, the surf, and the wind – the howling Tasman wind, that stripped the bark from the trees at the beachfront, and bent the scrub to crippled forms.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
We could imagine the character that Catton describes above, Thomas Balfour, might have looked upon something rather different had the weather been calmer. The outline of the New Zealand coast is scattered with fishing traps, the remnants of which stand now, a means by which the Maori people lived off the land. Stones were piled on top of each other to form a waxing circle about the shore, catching fish as the tide breathed in and out. Self-reliance was crucial to survival in the Antipodes and cultural identity continues to be informed by landscape. Though different historically and geographically, the isolation of Australia and New Zealand to the rest of the world accounts for the relationship its people and artists have to the natural environment.
Still, much of the way artists from Australia and New Zealand interpret landscape photography owes its influence to the traditions of American, and to a lesser extent European, practice. Artists such as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore have informed the way photographers working with landscape have developed a visual language that exclusively their own and responds to their surroundings and to a sense of belonging and connection to place. Further, the words of Adams relate without intention to the environment of the Southern Hemisphere: ‘we live in several landscapes at once, among them the landscape of hope, and that though we must usually focus on what is characteristic of the immediate troubled present, it is rash to say that other geographies are unimportant or even finally separate.’ Consider the water, dust and eucalypts in Australia to the rising and falling mountains in New Zealand. The landscape is immediately felt; its assuring physical presence a familiar character in the lives of those who inhabit it.
It is pertinent to make note of the tension between the colonial past and the present day. Increasingly, there is a recognition and social conscience surrounding the destructive force of the European settlers who took land from Indigenous peoples and aimed to control the natural world around them. Kate Golding’s research looks at the damaging impression Captain James Cook left at the time of his expeditions to Australia and New Zealand and how this is still felt by the original people of the land. Becky Nunes, too, considers the effects of colonisation on Maori tradition. The sacred and earthly elements of the natural environment, instinctive to Maori life, are contrasted with the seeming developments of progressing cities and towns. Anton Maurer’s work similarly charts this ‘growth’, heralding a call that we show appreciation for our surroundings and not underestimate their strength as we pour concrete over soil.
Indeed, the way people interact with the environment is an important theme throughout the work this exhibition. Mike Read’s practice specifically documents the way his subjects experience and react to their environment; the built landscape included here depicts the will of nature to persist despite human intervention. By comparison, the hard lines in Dan Sibley’s work are much more foreboding. It comprises abstract forms and layers that, while superficially beautiful, are disconcerting for the prophecy they foretell. It’s possible that this prophecy might look like a photograph taken by Talia Smith. Recording how space transforms over time, her work looks at areas made redundant by their human creators, left to be reclaimed by nature.
Following this notion, place can also be seen to be responsible for the shaping and triggering of memory. Anita Totha is reminded of the distance between New Zealand and New York City, where she was raised, and her work relates to both her own migration and its history. In contrast to this, Alice Blanch and Bella Li engage with photography as a means to record various places travelled; while away from home, there is comfort to be found in the natural world. The work of Chris Bowes documents this comfort found in a different way. He makes a record of those who must live off the land out of necessity, photographing makeshift homes, tents and shelters fashioned from fallen branches, and artifacts left behind. Jacob Raupach uses fiction as a device in his work to retell historical events and witness changes to the built and natural landscapes. Similarly, Naomi Riddle draws upon the intangible passing of time and the effect it has on people and the environment. Time and memory can never fully be grasped, they can only slip away.
Place is also representative of trauma. James Farley works with physical elements of the environment to consider the correlation between climate change and ecology and their effect on the way we understand our surroundings. Similarly, Katrin Koenning researches the effects of rising temperatures. Her body of work Lake Mountain (2012) records the devastating effect of the Black Saturday Bushfires in 2009, which killed 173 people and irrevocably changed the landscape. Trauma to the natural environment is a subject also present in the work of Tim J. Veling. After the Christchurch Earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, Veling began to document the substantial damage to and rebuilding of the city. These photographs remind us it is inconceivable to think we can control the living world we inhabit; rather we must adapt to the merciless surroundings.
In his essay, Shooting the Sunburnt Country, the Land of Sweeping Plains, the Rugged Mountain Ranges: Australian Landscape and Wilderness Photography, Rod Giblett asserts though the resulting influence of American landscape photography encourages a pictorialist approach, Antipodean artists should instead ‘shift from a nationalist mythology of landscape photography to a new national mythology of photography for environmental sustainability.’ As our protagonist, the fictional Thomas Balfour, fortifies himself against the howling Tasman wind, to marked changes in his immediate environment from England to the West Coast of New Zealand; artists working with landscape must acknowledge the considerable changes occurring to the natural world in order to preserve it. Making art has always been a way to ‘honour what is greater and more interesting than we are’, and the natural world will always be greater and more interesting than we are.
- Adams, Robert. Why People Photograph, Aperture (New York, 1996), pages 179-182.
- Giblett, Rod. Shooting the Sunburnt Country, the Land of Sweeping Plains, the Rugged Mountain Ranges: Australian Landscape and Wilderness Photography in ‘Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies’, Taylor & Francis (2007), page 337.