February 8: Irony

Date #8Can photographic prints convey irony? It depends on where you hang them.

I returned in a hired bus last Wednesday from three days of protests at the intransigence—nay, recalcitrance— of the right-wing Australian government (we perversely call them ‘Liberals’ here) against their inaction over carbon emissions and perverse denial of galloping anthropogenic climate change.

It was, of course, an exercise in frustration well known to my generation who swelled the crowd, and which you can identity if I quote the Rolling Stones from 1968;

‘And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse”
You can’t always get what you want’

While I was there I took time, not having seen it before, to visit the marbled halls of Parliament House. It has a Deco-revival quality and just barely avoids the kitsch of Melbourne’s Crown Casino.

PH foyer
James McArdle (2020) Parliament House foyer

What is most striking however is the quality of the construction, rare marbles and timbers, and architectural appointments; like the delicate marquetry depicting native Australian plants. The jurors of the Australian Institute of Architects’ ‘Enduring Architecture Award’ awarding it in 2013 to Parliament House praised the…

… extraordinary spatial and material control. With exquisite craft, attention to detail and material selection, every design decision resonates with symbolism and meaning, creating a calm yet rich and layered set of spaces. Combined with thoughtful selection and integration of art, the building not only withstands the tests of time but also continues to live larger.”

Our MPs and Senators work in a sumptuous environment, one that it is a privilege to visit as a humble citizen. One does not begrudge them that of course; their politicking is an exercise of the ultimate power we grant them and they commit large portions of their lives doing it.

What is distressing however is to see them behave badly and fight dirty to serve the interests of rich mining lobbyists, to ignore or even ridicule the wishes and fears of the majority, and to lie and obfuscate over the most vital issue we will ever face; the destruction of the planet though our own greed, a threat only they, with other governments, can globally address. It’s behaviour that is an insult to the honours and expense bestowed by their constituents, the taxpayers, upon them.

While we waited as protesters’ tents were erected in front of (and at a safe distance from) the artificial hill in which Parliament House hunkers down, we watched workers on ride-on mowers traverse the steeply sloping ‘roof’, to graze a checkerboard of swathes in the startlingly vivid lawns, while a cloud of thick, acrid smoke billowed from behind the dry brown hills of the suburbs, spreading into the Canberra atmosphere on its way across the east coast, to merge with the smog from countless other fires, and out over the Pacific, to encircle the globe just as we protesters encircled the building on Tuesday.

James McArdle (2020) Part of the encirclement of Parliament House on the forecourt showing smoky skies.

It was a crowd of 5,000 and slow to proceed so I experimented with some Daniel Crooks effects using the panorama setting on my phone camera, holding it still as the crowd scrolled by…the background is rendered as a repeated strip, changing halfway across as I dodged an umbrella in indigenous colours of red, yellow and black. It provides a sample of those who came…most of them from outside Canberra.

James McArdle (2020) Marchers. Phone camera panorama.

No images made outside during the protests and march can convey the ‘burning issue’; they are one-sided, and like us protesters, they preach to the converted. What can photography do within such large contentions?

Inside the building in Queen’s Terrace Cafe, which overlooks the forecourt, I enjoyed a tea.  I didn’t photograph the place, so will rely on the Parliamentary Twitter account to provide a pic from last Christmas.

Queen’s Terrace Café. Photograph, @Aust_Parliament

Ignore the gingerbread house and there, on the rear wall over the head of a hardworking public servant you see this photograph.

Screen Shot 2020-02-09 at 2.26.31 pm
Anne Zahalka (2013/14) Gardner, Flagpole Lawn, Parliament House. Inkjet print. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra

It is one of several made by Anne Zahalka who was commissioned in 2013 to produce 10 “photographic works” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of (the ‘New’) Parliament House for which she received $30,000.

While outside 5,000 marched, inside, a hidden 5,000 work during the parliamentary sittings to make things luxuriously comfortable for the politicians. It was this staff which was Zahalka’s subject for ten photograph. At $3,000 each minus expenses for this internationally exhibited photographer of some 30 years of successful and consistent practice, that’s a steal, though there were objections in the Senate.

Until February 2nd, Zahalka was exhibiting amongst 200 International artists at NGV’s The Ian Potter Centre in the world-touring Civilization: The Way We Live Now. The majority of prints in that show were deliberately of a monumental scale. Zahalka carried that off with crisp aplomb, while others struggled, producing mushy, grainy prints. As the title of her website ‘zahalkaworld’ hints, it has been her practice to adopt a wide view of her subjects, using enlargement, including IMax cinema, to provide a rich sweep of significant visual information.

Anne Zahalka (2013/14) Gardner, Forecourt, Parliament House. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra
Anne Zahalka (2013/14) Mechanical Fitter, Plant Room, Parliament House. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra
Anne Zahalka (2013/14) Library Officers, Parliamentary Library, Parliament House. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra
Anne Zahalka (2013/14) Art Services Officer, Furniture Store, Parliament House. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra

The framed prints, of a more human scale, continue the strategy of her Resemblance series in which individuals’ occupations are recorded but without naming them and who, as here, are given only the titles of their jobs; Gardener, Forecourt who vacuums up the coins tossed in the water feature; Mechanical Fitter, Plant Room who like a Superman drapes behind him the flag that flies atop the Hill as an instance of the heroic within the ordinary which pervades this imagery. Library Officers, Parliamentary Library gather the material for ministerial rants from a wealth of data that apparently ignorant politicians cannot digest; Art Services Officer, Furniture Store, is given a place in the rock-hewn bowels that someone deems an apt place to store art.

First exhibited at Parliament House from 5 June to 10 August 2014, the prints now reside in Queen’s Terrace Café, and presumably elsewhere in the massive building. The irony of these images resides not within them—they are finely crafted documents, architectural in their symmetrical compositions—but in their physical placement on walls around the general public who eat and drink amongst some of the subjects of the pictures, and occasionally, at the elbow of politicians. Most effective for me are Cleaner and Australian Federal Police Officer, Prime Minister’s Office; and Cleaners, Cabinet Room

Anne Zahalka (2013) Cleaner and Australian Federal Police Officer Prime-Minister’s Office. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra

The placement of figures and symbols in Cleaner and Australian Federal Police Officer Prime-Minister’s Office—the cleaner’s head in proximity to the Queen’s in Sir William Dargie’s golden portrait with which the yellow plastic of her vacuum cleaner overlaps, the police office sequestered behind glass and defended by the flag—are sardonic enough, though still double-edged.

It is when you find above your table an image of cheerful cleaners—voters like you—that Zahalka’s mordant intent is most apparent. Within this monumental built form that echoes that of the Egyptian pyramids, these pictures, if they were to survive, might be taken for Ushabti by future archaeologists. But no, significantly, it is the artist’s inspiration, and not the politicians’ (pharaohs, if you like), to choose the subject matter…there rests the irony.

Anne Zahalka (2013) Cleaners, Cabinet Room. Inkjet print, 80 cm × 160 cm. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra

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