January 19: Historiograph

#19Today I visited the Ballarat Art Gallery to see Echoes.

The exhibition presents photographic series and sequences by the Lumina Collective formed in 2017 by eight Australian women photographers who are all well-known; Donna Bailey, Chloe Bartram, Jessie Boylan, Aletheia Casey, Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario, Lyndal Irons, Morganna Magee and Sarah Rhodes. The show is current until March 10, with a floor talk to be held by some of the members on Saturday, 9 February at 2pm.

Shows of contemporary photography at Ballarat Art Gallery are not frequent, as AGB curator Julie McLaren admits;

“We haven’t exhibited a lot of photography in the past, and we felt it wasn’t fair to exclude artists working across a lot of media”

By ‘a lot of media’ I suppose she means that they have to admit the popularity and ubiquity of our medium.

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Lumina collective at Ballarat Art Gallery (via Instagram)

One of the eight, Donna Bailey has a mural-scale 2003 portrait in the exhibition, and when interviewed about the show was asked about its relevance to the culture of the ‘selfie’, to which she responded;

“As a professional artistic photographer I don’t give the selfie any thought at all. I don’t regard selfies as having any connection to art whatsoever, they are random, casual outputs made usually on the spur of the moment.”

It’s hard not to agree with her about the throwaway quality of the genre, however the question, put by Ballarat Times journalist Carol Saffer in relation to the shared content and ethos of this collective, is perceptive. While no doubt she seeks to make connections to the photographic activity of a significant number of her readers with mobile phones who make such images in their social media, with her, might we also consider the selfie as a populist version of the more considered efforts of these experienced photographers?

Bailey’s bristling response acts as a useful provocation in contrast with insights in the same article from other members of the group. For West Australian Chloe Bartram who is showing  The Encyclopaedia of Sex Practice: Ages Sixteen to Twenty-four (and some after)  photography enables her reconsideration of what it is to be female, and to depict the reality of rebellion and feminist awakenings against societal expectations. The capacity of the medium to record memory and moment makes it a means of telling stories and of stimulating debate; 

“Art for me is about self-expression and selfie culture has allowed that to become more accessible….The selfie is a form of self-portraiture, encapsulating our representation in that moment.” 

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Chloe Bartram (2018) from The Encyclopaedia of Sex Practice: Ages Sixteen to Twenty-four (and some after)
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Chloe Bartram (2018) from The Encyclopaedia of Sex Practice: Ages Sixteen to Twenty-four (and some after)

2469822_150327114358_sam_6542Last year Bartram, who has been exhibiting since 2010, participated in The Family Of No Man: Re-visioning the world through non-male eyes held July 2-8 during the Rencontre d’Arles that brought together responses by 494 female and inter-gender artists to an open, world-wide call, in a revisitation of Edward Steichen’s original The Family of Man about which I have been posting here of late. The Arles show organisers’ stated aim was to generate an “all-inclusive debate on gender equality, photography and its historiography”, and that is a conversation that resounds throughout Echoes. Bartram follows her self-examination through an ironic reaction to a 1932 text on female sexuality by a Dr Norman Haire.

A concern with the personal narrative is shared by these artists, and they have in common Bartram’s candour in sharing what is otherwise secret or internal. The differences in approach however are striking. The common selfie deserves the deprecatory term cliché, itself the word the French use for a snapshot, and all look the same, being  concerned with glamour, surface appearance, the good impression, while Echoes are deeply considered photographic reflections on acts, and I use that term in deference to the diverse performative or constructivist procedures undertaken by these women.

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Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario (2018) from Farewell Angelina 

Most affecting, and most deeply and painfully explored, is Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario‘s Farewell Angelina (2018) which works through her attempts to resolve the recent (2015) and awful, violent death of her younger sister. In this case text is an essential adjunct; the result is an exquisite but harrowing photobook produced during D’Addario’s MFA candidature at Sydney College of the Arts in the University of Sydney. While no-one should suffer such a loss, this is a series which touches on that potential aspect of the selfie that others may come to treasure; its service as a memento—in memoriam—unintentional, since their message is ‘notice me’, not ‘remember me’. And such was the case with the poignantly innocent, affectionate family snapshots that D’Addario reworks here.

The words accompanying the images are themselves photographic, full of visual cues, as when she relates the moment at which she was unable to accept whose was the body in the coffin, its face smoothed by the mortician’s cosmetic; only when she noticed the familiar crooked little finger on each of the two elegant, dancer’s hands did the corpse become her sister. The same agonising connection is made between the snapshots and landscape imagery into which they are inlayed, or the wide-screen video projection of a dark, swelling sea that accompanies her series.

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Jessie Boylan (2017) The Umbra, (Expedition Pass) digital inkjet print.

It is not possible to give detail on every one of these eight artists’ displays in the exhibition, so I will finish with Jessie Boylan since hers was work with which I connected in particular. She lives in my town, Castlemaine, and teaches photography at La Trobe University in Bendigo, where I once did, so it is hard to look past the personal response that I have to her digital reworking of negatives of the bush here; damaged, remnant, coppiced, a phantom of its richness and diversity before the white invasion that was the Gold Rush.

How to photograph this landscape is always a frustrating puzzle, but Boylan’s maltreatment of her negatives, which includes torching, tearing and buckling, succeeds in echoing that desecration, and furthermore imbues her imagery with a sense of immersion, as does her video piece displayed in a rondo, and made, I assume, with a GoPro strapped to her chest. It records the view underwater of her hands and arms—again a ‘selfie’—as they cleave the surface of Expedition Pass Reservoir, trailing bubbles as she traverses the jet-black icy depths of this dam constructed for the mining in 1868. Ironically Expedition Pass Reservoir lies below the gap named thus by Major Mitchell when he led his expedition through the hills in 1836, his steps soon to be followed by the settlers to displace the Dja Dja Wurrung from their homelands of 40,000 years.

While we may scorn the presumptuous vanity of the selfie as it is commonly practised, let us not dismiss it. For each of these women its use is to reveal a secret, internal life—and so may Echoes resonate with at least to some who, on witnessing these eminently accessible images, might reassess the power of their phone cameras to communicate experience and to touch others.

While you are at the Gallery, worth your attention is Numina, which in a happy alliteration and like Lumina is a female collective; the Numina sisters are a family of artists, nieces of the renowned Kathleen and Gloria Petyarre, taught to paint by them across the Central Desert region of the Northern Territory. Both groups are a demonstration of the indomitable power of a group of women in their support of each other. Having spent a good two hours in Ballarat Art Gallery with my daughters, I rejoined my partner who had been meeting with her own collective, the AFTS, downstairs in the café.

 

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