Travels in Tasmania — Part 2 of 3

John Glover (England b. 1767 – Australia d. 1849) Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point 1831–33, 1834, oil on canvas. Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 200. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

John Glover (England b. 1767 – Australia d. 1849) Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point 1831–33, 1834, oil on canvas. Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 200. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), established in 1843, lives in a handsome sandstone building just uphill from the Hobart harbor, which at the moment has in port one of the few research ships that sails regularly to the Antarctic. The large orange Aurora Australis is an icebreaker that many Australian artists have journeyed on to the southern polar regions.
The TMAG, much of which is closed for an extensive expansion funded, nonetheless has up a terrific survey of Tasmanian landscape work titled Regarding Landscape. It starts with an elevated view of The Derwent River and Hobart Town painted in 1831, proceeds through the major 20th-century artists, including Lloyd Rees, Edith Holmes, and Arthur Boyd and into contemporary images. The adjacent gallery holds works specifically about water in Tasmania, which is capped with videos made by David Stephenson and Martin Walch from their 2012 Derwent River project (see previous post).

It’s interesting to look first at the paintings, sit with the videos and then to go back to the paintings. The first run-through of the landscape oils, which start with mostly unpopulated scenery and then become much more strident and symbol-laden over time, is just that: a run-through. You spend the stereotypical 17 seconds in front of each painting and its label before moving on to the next. The videos, as I mentioned in the last post, recalibrate your rate of cognition into a much slower mode.

The second time you visit the paintings, therefore — with your mental pulse now kicked down a gear or two — the scenes appear to be sharper, the colors inhabiting a wider spectrum, the details more numerous. It’s not an effect I could have predicted, but it is exactly the effect that Stephenson and Walch are seeking to create with viewers: to slow them down beyond simply the experience of the moment. And this also makes it a fine time to walk across the street to the Carnegie Gallery upstairs at the Maritime Museum, where the always peripatetic Stephen Eastaugh has a retrospective of his Antarctic paintings titled An Awfully Beautiful Place.

Eastaugh has been to the Antarctic nine times and is one of the few artists to have spent the winter on the continent. He’s more than familiar with the innards of the Aurora Australis, and his work uses materials easily transported, such as small squares of burlap and skeins of yarn. The results can be profound, the knitting of yarn and the sewing of thread throughout his canvases small and large a reminder of the almost quirky presence of humans in the severe strangeness of the Antarctic landscape. Most artists concentrate on portraying the Antarctic as a “white continent” seen during the six-month day. Eastaugh has managed dark views of the Antarctic as a “Big Beautiful Dead Place” (the title of a large, profoundly disturbing panorama of rafting sea ice under a black sky shot through with dark blue yarn).
Art that you see in places such as Tasmania can often remind us that abstraction, high technology, and elaborate systems of symbols can be used by artists to create more than just objects of high value in an international art market; they can also be put into service as links to our place in the world by altering our senses. Speaking of which, Hobart is also home to the world-renowned Museum of New and Old Art, which is devoted to exploring the twin themes of sex and death, and which just opened up its newest exhibition, “Theatre of the World.” Definitely disturbing — see the next post.

Stephen Eastaugh, Big Beautiful Dead Place / Rafting Sea Ice, 2009, acrylic, cotton, wool, linen.  All rights reserved.

Stephen Eastaugh, Big Beautiful Dead Place / Rafting Sea Ice, 2009, acrylic, cotton, wool, linen. All rights reserved.

Travels in Tasmania — Part 1 of 3

David Stephenson, Lake King William a Derwent River hydro electric development, Tasmania, 1982, three gelatin-silver photographs. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

David Stephenson, Lake King William a Derwent River hydro electric development, Tasmania, 1982, three gelatin-silver photographs. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I’m in central Tasmania attending a conference about “Imaging Nature,” which is being held at an arts-and-craft resort high in the mountains. The Tarraleah Lodge and resort was originally the village for workers constructing one of the larger hydroelectric projects in the state, and my room faces out into a eucalyptus forest that is bordered by two enormous pipes dropping water down from the King William reservoir to a power plant at the bottom of the deep gorge on the other side of the building.
The first hydroelectric projects in the southern hemisphere were built in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia that holds the grandest mountain scenery and deepest lakes in the country. The central plateau of Tasmania was covered repeatedly by glaciers during the ice ages, tongues of ice that descended to carve out deep valleys now filled with water. In order to industrialize the state of Tasmania, the government undertook a massive expansion of the early hydroelectric scheme in the 1950s and 60s.

The result is a land of contradictions. Tasmania is known worldwide for heritage wilderness parks that are among the most remote and impenetrable on the planet, parks that about some of the most severely altered landscapes imaginable. It’s ground that’s been over-grazed, over-logged, and plumbed to channel every significant lake and river through tunnels and pipes. It’s also very beautiful in its own way — pastoral lands uninterrupted by the coal- and gas-fired powerplants that would otherwise be needed to provide power on the island.

This is terrain that photographers David Stephenson and Martin Walch have long been exploring in a series of poetic video meditations and still images about Tasmania’s most historically important river, the Derwent, a project that will culminate in an exhibition and book in 2015 or so. They volunteered to take me up the entire course of the Derwent, which flows from the deepest lake in the country to the state capital, the port of Hobart, while on our way to speak at the conference.

The waters of the Derwent are controlled by seven dams that impound water for the power plants. Enough hydroelectricity is generated during wet years that Tasmania sells power to the mainland via a cable that heads north under the Bass Strait. During droughts, Tasmania buys back power via the same cable, not a cheap proposition. David and Martin have started their project by repeatedly shooting from geo-tagged sites both along the shoreline of King William Lake, and out on its waters from a specially outfitted canoe.

The lake is often shrouded in fog in the early mornings, and their slow quiet drifts through the drowned forests of the reservoir are ethereal. Slow ripples spreading out from the canoe make you feel as if you are continually falling into the water, while the stark tree trunks rotate around each other in a seemingly impossible dance. It takes a minute or so before you can slow your mind to match the pace of the videos, but once you do, you are entranced.

The actual experience of being at the lake provokes a similar perceptual shift. The bulldozed and drowned shores are at first terminally ugly, but after an hour of walking exposed cobble and mud while the waters are low, and picking carefully through the constant lithic scatter that indicates many millennia of Aboriginal occupation — plus the odd rusted tractor parts, beer bottles tossed overboard by fishermen, and random plastic bits — you begin to appreciate the scene.

It’s winter solstice in Australia this June 20th, and there’s snow on the rocky peaks of the King William Range. Multiple streams meander into the reservoir, which at this time of year is slowly rising, and the shoreline is forested with gum trees marked with a dark plimsoll line from the high-water months. The capacity of the land to provide beauty even when so deeply modified is surprising–as is the ability of the human mind to construct such beauty around the edges of the ugly. Imaging nature is a collaborative effort between humans and their environments, a process impossible to ignore while standing on the dry bed of a reservoir.

Martin Walch and David Stephenson, Lake King William 25 November 2011. Images from panoramic video presented as four channel sketch. Shot at dawn on Lake King William using four 5Dm2s. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

Martin Walch and David Stephenson, Lake King William 25 November 2011. Images from panoramic video presented as four channel sketch. Shot at dawn on Lake King William using four 5Dm2s. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.