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Country of context
by Ray Arnold
My address to you today will take the form of a word/image collage of a journey. Over the next 20 to 30 minutes we will circle the state of Tasmania. I took a group of art students on this circuit recently but today I am driving a bigger bus. Some of you have already travelled this road or covered this terrain with me and it remains both a profound but at once silly enterprise over 900 kilometres. This will be the quickest trip I have ever done. Sometimes it can take a week and in its most prescribed form has taken me ten years. The curving geometry of tyre tracks and footprints intersects terms such as regionalism, the ‘other’ works on Peter Hills top one hundred, environmentalism and of course the print.
Love prints is the title of this paper and its noun/verb print connotation will unfold through this journey — ‘Love prints’ manifesting as captioned poster, embossed etching and layered screenprint — the ‘articulate’ black line as a thread as well as a road metaphorically sewing together issues, people and place. I heard someone dismissively refer to the computer images, shown on Friday, as tapestry but there is something of this weaving notion within the ‘Love prints’ concept.
I was driving along the Midland Highway in Tasmania last year and travelling north near Antill Ponds. On a steep grade of the road I caught up with a large semi-trailer. As I slowed down behind it and moved close to the rear of the truck I could see a triangle surrounded by arrow motifs painted on the tailgate. It was a diagram to express the comprehensive coverage of the state by a freight company but in the period of time that it took me to pass the truck I came to see this simple symbol as a sign of my own endeavours. Tasmania is roughly triangular in plan and this feature has been exploited by map makers, organisations and companies in their image making. The arrows circling the triangle on the truck could have represented my frequent trips around the island.
Henry Hellyer, a white explorer, climbed St Valentine’s peak early in the nineteenth century and Chris Binks, in Explorers in Western Tasmania, imagines what he saw: “From the sea beyond Table Cape to the north, mountains, valleys, ranges and vast tracts of forest stretched away to the horizon in every direction. The day was so clear that he could see the outline of Ben Lomond 165 km away, as well as the entrance to the Tamar River and the smoke of fires at the Mersey...To the south rose a great array of crags, with Cradle Mountain jutting up sharply ...The Eldon Range and Mt Murchison formed a solid blue mass which seemed to bar any hope of good land in that direction.”
Hellyer produced a drawing to confirm these impressions. It is panoramic in its 360 degree representation and sites the viewer at the centre, or mountain top, with the view extending from his/her feet to the horizon. This fish eye projection becomes another visual cue for our journey. We will traverse the far circular horizon/rim of Hellyer’s drawing and develop centripetal trajectories into the mountain shadows beneath his feet. One hundred trees, One hundred highways, One hundred stone breakers are titles of prints by Jo Flynn that were made in Tasmania. They are black line etchings that fill out or colonise Hellyer’s privileged view as well as anticipating our own collective experience.
Barbara Novak in a book called Nature and Culture in referring to the colonisation of the American west, wrote of ‘Geometry in search of an absolute’. She was writing about railway tracks converging to the far horizon but the phrase finds it correspondence in this speculative journey/inquiry and its circular path. A utopian search for truth could be an interpretation of my motives but realistically I am moving out of the print studio to search for traces of our impact on the natural world. This reflexive/experiential shift provides a background to my intention of layering the print production, commissioning process into a geographical, social and political context.
The journey begins in Hobart with the recollection of a work that I completed in 1987 titled Four ships–four issues. I used the screenprint/poster process to depict the missile cruiser USS Texas, the jarosite dumping EZ Anson, an Antarctic French supply ship and a Japanese long line trawler which were all at anchor in a fluorescent Derwent River — ink/sea. This piece locates both Hobart and my practice. It was for a Tasmanian Environment Centre exhibition. I am interested in the fact that, Hobart, being a maritime city, awaits the next vessel to enter the Derwent in the same way that signalmen manning the semaphore station on Mt Nelson awaited the sail or smoke sign on the horizon one hundred years ago. The US battleship with its Gulf War ensigns and cruise missiles, the Antarctic supply ship with its concrete and dynamite, the Russian fish factory ship, the Japanese car carrier and even the Indian container ship with its cargo of a live giraffe bring evidence of world issues to this port city. Hobart defines itself by its distance from everywhere else.
Hobart, the isolated port in the southern ocean, is also at the apex of the upside down equilateral triangle of my introduction. The accompanying animated arrows circled anticlockwise and indicate the direction of the journey ahead. Sense and Sensibility are female characters in a lithograph by Hobart artist Helen Wright. They stand in a landscape of hills, roads and roadsigns. Sense - good sense, hand-in-hand searching tentatively or waiting for guidance. Our project however is clearly defined and we must set off.
Near the first roundabout on the Broofker Highway, heading north out of Hobart, Clemets Timber used to display a huge axe, which was about twenty feet long from head to handle end and was jammed into a huge log that rested on old railway timber jinkers. Develop or perish — the conflict of jobs and conservation was clearly to be read into this icon. Was the axe symbolising a rapacious instinct to control and destroy? The technology of forest management has moved as far from the axe as the computer chip is from the radio valve. The impotent Clennets’ axe joins the big crayfish, the big merino and the ranks of other inflated symbols of place as roadside kitsch. Maybe that's why they eventually removed it.
I pass under a ‘Hydro’ power line and drive on through Bridgewater and Pontville and past signs such as ‘Drowsy Drivers Die’; Jericho and Blackman River appear as the road climbs into the midlands. Highway nomenclature interrupts my speculations about the figure in the landscape.
I think about the German nineteenth century painter Kaspar David Friedrich and in particular his painting The traveller above a sea of clouds. ‘It contains a universe: Nature and Man, worldly and spiritual in equal balance’ is one description of the work that I have read recently. A well dressed man stands on a high pinnacle with his back to the viewer looking into a misty, clouded valley. As I bypass the town of Tunbridge I can see the cloud building up on the blue Western Tiers to my left. I can also see the panorama of low wooded hills to the east that the Launceston artist Bea Maddock included in a painting about the migrations of aborigines through this area. I imagine oriental figures in a grassy landscape and a different balance between worldliness and spiritual dreaming. I also recall a Whistler drypoint of a man walking bent over into a stormy landscape. The dark cloud presses down. It reminds me of westerly cold fronts moving on to the midland acres. In an early Bea Maddock etching a figure is under stress from an equally dark hovering force. The pressure is such as to bend her figure into risk taking freefall.
The old cemetery at Ross includes the grave of an English ‘Redcoat’ soldier. I imagine it is the weathered headstone with the carved relief of a tree being felled by a divinely inspired axe. J D died as the metaphoric tree of life was felled. I have used a drawing of it in a print that was commissioned for an Australian Bicentennial portfolio. The title of the print is Fiction –Colonisation –Redcoats grave – Southern Forests. I moved from the particular to the general, the past to the present in a sequence of questioning association. I have a certificate from the Chinese Government in recognition of its inclusion in a gift of works to them from the Australian National Gallery. I find the drawing out of the axe/tree motif from its scrubby and neglected hill top site into the contemporary arena of art and environmental politics and its subsequent dispersal to international galleries a convenient reflection on the shifts of meaning implied by the title. I picked up a young English hitch-hiker on this highway several years ago. He had a florid complexion from over exposure to the summer sun and I imagined him to be JD. I detoured off the highway to show him the grave site.
The flat, generally drier, midlands around Ross allows the highway to straighten out and it is hard to keep up with the log trucks. They are, however, caught as permanently as photo-chemistry will allow in Kodachrome at the Perth Roadhouse. A photomontage of ‘prime-movers’ on the wall shows trucks of all persuasions — for example, log trucks with names like ‘Agro’ and ‘Big Bitch’, ‘Frosto’ ice cream vans, low loaders and refrigerated container trucks. The postcard mosaic features a record of the home/destination of the truck/driver and as such becomes a map in the broad sense. It is a schematic representation of social groupings and industry process. This panoply of fragments is echoed in the catalogue of posters that I have produced. As factual information they chart the range and depth of visual arts activity in Tasmania through the eighties and as archive/maps develop subtle shifts of personnel, ideas and events.
At Launceston the highway turns to the west and along the north coast. The Western Tiers are still on the left. The escarpment rises to peaks such as Drys Bluff and Mount Roland and falls to river gorges of the Forth and Mersey. Bob Brown, the Green movement’s ‘spiritual’ leader, lives in a small white house at the foot of Drys Bluff and the area around Mount Roland has been the home of more traditional fundamentalists. Names such as The Promised Land, Paradise and Beulah are redolent with Christian mythology and provide expansive captions to a back drop of a recently developed community interest in murals.
My thoughts are about the Walls of Jerusalem, a mountain enclave to the south on which I based a set of large etchings in 1990. Transcend the dripping rock beyond the fall was the title and they had as their initial impulse the desire to recall the absolute form and powerful romanticism of the vertical pillars of rock in that area and in particular a dolerite cliff called the West Wall. A more obscure influence on their construction was the work of Ruskin, the nineteenth century English artist/writer. He would spend summers walking the French Alps, recording the topography of the surrounding peaks and making direct pictorial statements about the geometry of landscape. The progressive states of Charles Meryon’s etchings were crucial to the seeding of this work and the whole project was a function of an Art in Public Building commission for the Launceston General Hospital.
The road sign tells me that Queenstown is 184 kilometres away and interrupts my thoughts about the nature/culture divide. I will get some petrol in Devonport, which is still twenty minutes further down the highway, and have a quick look at the regional gallery there. I was commissioned to make a screenprint poster for Fiona, the gallery’s director, to draw attention to its program. I engaged the State mapping authority to make a computer generated image of the north coast and its hinterland from an imaginary viewing point out to sea. The subsequent simulation of mountains and river terrain was then translated into a large woodcut. I wanted to develop the contrast in grain between the wood fibre and the computer tracings.
Amanda Lohrey develops an interesting gothic/green narrative in an article in ‘The Rest of the World is Watching’, edited by Cassandra Pybus and Richard Flannagan. In it the sensational and interventionist force of landscape, which Amanda describes as a gothic phenomenon, is transformed into a postmodern flux of cause and effect. As the Tioxide factory plume of steam comes into view near Sulphur Creek I come out of these philosophical dreamings of landscape to contemplate interventionist mankind. The powder white Tioxide mill contrasts with the dark silhouette of the APPM paper mill backlit by the easterly sun, further along the highway. I made a print several years ago using the visual metaphor of these black/white factories to explore the landscape of environmental politics.
As I turn inland and south onto the Murchison Highway the year could be 1987 and I am on my way into Savage River to be an artist in the community. The vegetation and the landscape are changing as the road climbs into the rough terrain of the interior. At that time a feeling of unease at the prospect of living and working in a small mining town gradually passed and I settled into the extraordinary environment of wilderness contrasted by an open cut iron ore mine. These extremes of landscape, vast uninhabited tracks of forested mountains clashing with the scale of the huge pit created a sublime equation. I worked with people from the community by running workshops and encouraged an atmosphere of self expression within the makeshift studio. A miner called Obie produced a marvellous series of obsessive etchings that portrayed an individual ‘at sea’ in an environment of huge physical and emotional forces. Audrey, a miner’s wife, produced paintings that reflected her attempt to transcend a debilitating slide into pain and illness.
Savage River is at the end of an undulating and windy road and the trip out is hard work. An hour of concentration. Down to third gear, brake, accelerate, down to second gear, pass under a power line, up the next hill, move over for a Sea Pak mine supply semi, under another power line then into the valley of the Whyte River and the derelict Cleveland Tin Mine, wave to Lynne on her way home to Luina, into the Waratah Rainforest, second gear into the Magnet Creek bend and finally into the Waratah straight. It is another hour and a half to Queenstown and I will pass the Que River mine site, several power lines, the highest point on the Murchison Highway, the Tullah Tea Rooms and the Murchison Goreg - that ‘terrible’ chasm that stopped Henry Hellyer in his tracks 170 years ago.
I was sitting by the highway on the saddle of Mt Black, painting Mt Murchison, several years ago when my concentration fell away at a simultaneous V8/wankerrrrrr..doppler. This trip however finds me travelling on, passing under a power line, and then through the main street of Rosebery. Working here as an artist in the school in 1990 I spent some time underground painting views of the mineworks. I had occasionally to evacuate the immediate area of my easel as the miners set charges in rock hung up in the ore chutes. I would return to work when the dust settled. This regime of drill, blast, dig, drill, blast, dig over a period of months and years is the undeniable rhythm of mining. The open cut copper mine at Queenstown called the ‘Iron Blow’ is testimony to the inexorable grind of metal into rock. I have been working on large etchings that literally imitate this displacement behaviour. With the assistance of acid and metal cutters I shape and excavate the surface of a copper metal plate and then go on to make print impressions of its relief. They are simultaneously maps, diagrams, plans and representations of mineral. ‘Justify the Line-Iron Blow Re-excavation’ is the collective title of the works and it ironically seeks to bring into question both the artifice of the piece and the motivations for mining.
Driving out of Queenstown I pass under several more power lines and the newly flooded King River Valley. I can see the cloud shrouded summit of Frenchman's Cap to south-east. Its white quartz is in startling contrast to the terracotta dolerite of the Western Tiers.
The Lyell Highway and the east/west orientated valleys that it travels through was also the surveyors and miners route between the settled areas of the old colony and the mineral rich west. I also call it the Pigenuit trail and it leads to Hobart. Mt Arrowsmith, Mt King William and Mt Olympus are some of the peaks depicted in the nineteenth century paintings of the Tasmanian artist Pigenuit that I drive past. He was a surveyor/painter recording impressions of the spreading colonial network. Mt Gell, Mt Byron and Mt Hugel continue the retinue of attribution to soldiers, statesmen and classical mythology. The Franklin River begins in the watershed bounded by some of the peaks and the controversy surrounding the construction of a dam on the river was a watershed in environmental politics. There is a Franklin River sign on the road where the Lyell Highway passes over it and there are three picnic tables, two toilets, a path into the forest and an interpretation panel that has been destroyed by a shotgun. A short distance along the road and at a favourite lookout of mine above the Surprise Valley there are, on this occasion, three men pissing into the view.
From the Franklin River itself, the entrance to Kutikina Cave is invisible. Once up the steep bank and into the trees it appears, a hearth, a crypt, a dark stage behind its proscenium of ferns. James McQueen’s words describe a scene the three men canst see despite their lofty position but in my mind they know it. A small neglected sign near their feet describes a geological divide. It could well signify a philosophical chasm. At this point the quartz changes back to dolerite and sandstone. The topography, the vegetation and the climate all reinforce this change. In an earlier age glaciers also carved the country in this vicinity and it was at this time that Kutikina or spirit cave was last occupied by aboriginal people. An etching panorama I made in the wake of the ‘dam’ controversy was titled Imaginary Landscape. Its visual cue was a high saddle on the Frenchman's Cap range above Lake Tahune where the quartz bucks and folds like waves at sea. The idea behind the work related to speculation about the terrain and its value as landscape in the period between the initial aboriginal occupation of 15/20,000 years ago and the present.
Further east the highway winds over sub-alpine meadows and occasionally dips into deep river cut valleys. Rows of big silver pipes or penstocks of the Hydro Electric Commission follow the inclines particularly at a place called Tarraleah. The prints of Milan Milojevic are about his father’s life and some of them deal with the period following his arrival in Australia as an immigrant in the fifties. He worked on these hydro schemes. A lithograph of a besuited Djoko standing on one of the penstocks is a strong symbol of cultural and geographical displacement.
The hydro presence is well and truly in evidence. The sky above the car is at times a mesh of black lines against the blue as the power-cables and the electricity pylons follow the road to the south-east. They diminish in perspective down the 'Valley' and in the direction of Hobart. When I can discern the bulk of the Wellington Range on the horizon the city is about an hour away. On some occasions, in late afternoon sunlight, the Telecom tower on its summit is clear and white against a darkening eastern sky.
As the journey nears its end I think about exhibitions, exhibition openings, posters to design and print, paintings, books, meetings, committees and the studio. Such occasions include the exhibition 'South of No North' where I joined with other artists and the writer Richard Flannagan to work on some propositions about the Tasmanian experience. Richard invited speakers to a regular discussion evening and took us into the Hobart sewers during a process of investigating the marginal view or the hidden aspect. Richard would bring to the meetings the ideas of writers such as Marquez and Carver and articles on penal conditions in early Tasmanian prisons. My pieces in the show were equivocal statements about destruction and renewal.
It is getting dark as I travel the last few miles of the Brooker Highway into Hobart. One winter night it was starting to snow at this point and the engine was malfunctioning. I just made it home. My artistic home for the last ten years has been the Chameleon Artists Co-operative. Situated in an old boot factory it became a focal point for visual arts discourse in Tasmania. Its on its last legs as I write but a new project called C.A.S.T. or Contemporary Art Services Tasmania is being established to carry on the Chameleon ‘mission’. My poster production was a function of working in the Chameleon studios. A poster to consolidate support against arts funding cuts was one of the last that I printed in the workshop. A large caption of CULTURE CUTS heralds the threatened government decision on arts funding. CULTURE CUTS, however also affirms the determining action of artistic practice within a community. CULTURE CUTS, TRUTH RULES and LOVE PRINTS.
In this journey we have moved around and away from the rim of Hellyer’s circular view. It has been a relative experience because one is always between things and as such the concept of a north or a centre becomes less important. In opening the Roger Kemp show at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery I made a small etching to give to the assembled audience. My intention was to link the strong symbolism of his works and the generosity of his nature to the network of artists, bureaucrats and interested people at the exhibition launch. The ink markings on the paper formed a random field out of which the fundamental geometry of the circle and square motifs emerged. In Kemp’s terms the square stood for the permanent and the enduring, and the circle stood for the dynamic of change and changeability. The title I gave to the work was Between the circle and the square - the road to Utopia.
© Ray Arnold, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.