April 19: What does that ∞ symbol on your lens barrel actually mean?
Allow me this space to remember two occasions of being at Lake Eyre (as it was then, though now it is recognised by its more poetic indigenous name Kati Thanda).
It is a huge salt lake 9,500 km2 (3,668 sq mi) in area and fills from water draining from the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, about a third of the continent. When dry it is a flat expanse of dazzling salt crust, and when filled it attracts millions of birds as it fills with shrimp and fish. I have been lucky enough to see it in both conditions when I visited it with my photography students. It is a remarkable place to camp; a natural astronomical observatory in effect, especially when the lake is full. At around midday the Lake appears to merge with the sky, as if one were surrounded by the heavens!
It is shallow even when full; a group of students were stranded in our dinghy a kilometre from the shore when the outboard clogged with the microscopic shrimp that thickens the water like soup. Eventually, after much shouting, they realised they could easily wade back!
Murray Fredericks (*1970, Sydney) first camped alone at Lake Eyre on the salt, in the middle of the dry lake for many weeks in 2003 and has been visiting the Lake since, equipped with a bike, tent and his camera. This evening Fredericks opens Vanity at Arc One Gallery, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Australia 3000, and the show continues until 27 May.
No stranger in the Australian photography scene, Fredericks is both commercial professional and artist, and now filmmaker, who attracted enthusiastic attention with his Salt series when the Australian national broadcaster the ABC commissioned his first feature documentary on the project with the artist’s personal narrative on his artistic practice at Lake Eyre. Fredericks was cinematographer and co-director, and the film garnered numbers of awards.
Fredericks’ show is one of 30 curated exhibitions and events in ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE across Melbourne and regional Victoria, from Shepparton and Geelong to the Yarra Valley under the aegis of CLIMARTE, founded by CEO Guy Abrahams, who with his mother Christine Abrahams (†1994) ran an eponymous gallery which was amongst the few commercial spaces for photography in the 1980s and 90s.
CLIMARTE is an independent not-forprofit organisation with the aim of promoting the arts as a catalyst to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change. Fredericks’ exhibition Vanity is a prime example of this sentiment; the use of a mirror planted into the mud of the lake, angled away from the camera, refers to an invisible human presence and our homocentric view of the world.
But it also provides a keyhole into an experience of the 360º of horizon that is so powerfully present at Kati Thanda, and some sense of scale that is impossible to gauge in his ‘all-over’ images. Even his panoramic images which record the entire breadth of Milky Way in a full rotation of the skyline cannot convey the sense of vastness experienced on the ground.
I can remember lying on the sand amongst the saltbush and gibber stones under only my sleeping bag and waking from semi-sleep to stare wide-eyed as a meteorite seemed to erupt from the horizon and accelerate up to the zenith before bursting into fragments that continued the trajectory. How do you represent that in a photograph?
This new series, Mirror 21 for instance, does not attempt that probably impossible feat. This pane of reflective glass, necessarily no larger that could be carried for many kilometres on a bicycle clearly stands in shallow water. Against an almost imperceptible skyline and because of its slight backward lean it seems to invert the natural gradation of the sky. It opens an uncanny void, which becomes stranger the longer you look at it; there, our perception flickers between direct and reflected views, and there is the infinite that one experiences at Kati Thanda. The little particulars of mirror planted in the quicksand silt melt into immeasurable vastness.
People speak of experiencing this in a Mark Rothko, but surely it is even more powerful to understand that an unmediated photographic representation of real infinitude can present such a minimalist, pure understanding.
It’s a technique of minimalism, to choose a shape or a line and work with it, and repeat it again and again. For me I’ve chosen the horizon line.
I do not write this lightly; these images have only evolved through Fredericks’ ongoing visits, through days spent utterly alone in a true wilderness such as can now rarely be found on the face of this heavily populated earth. They derive from a genuine pilgrimage, and like the scallop shells that pilgrims of old carried, these photographs are authentic proof, brought back from an arduous journey, that Nature exists and will exist without us, but as Fredericks says:
Most landscape art is about place, and place is very much tied up with identity and memory, it’s the human quality of somewhere, only a human can make somewhere a place.
Only that, and our species, is what we stand to lose if we do not heed warnings about what we are doing to the planet.