Center for Art + Environment Blog

April 17, 2018   |   William L. Fox

Derwent River Revisited

Martin Walch and David Stephenson, Watershed (video still), 2011-2017. An image from real-time video shot from a floating platform.

I first wrote about the Derwent River Project in Tasmania by David Stephenson and Martin Walch in July 2012. The photographer and multimedia artist were in the early stages of capturing still and video images along the 100-mile-long river that tumbles from the highlands of the island down to Hobart and the Southern Ocean, a project culminating in late 2017 with an exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I checked in with the two artists this March while giving lectures in both Sydney and Hobart about why artists are so important now.

Hobart has boomed since I was last there in 2015, in part because of the great increase in Asian tourists to Australia—Tasmania is one of their bucket list destinations—but also because of the Museum of Old and New Art, one of the most eclectic, eccentric, and wondrous art museums in the world. It’s become the number one tourist attraction in the state of Tasmania, that island sitting just south of the mainland of Australia. As a result, where Hobart used to host one really fine hotel and one or two really great places to eat, now there are several excellent waterfront and downtown hotels and restaurants.

(On a side note, my favorite new restaurant anywhere may be A Tiny Place by the former chef at MONA, Philippe Leban. Described by him as a “French-style bistro with flourishes of Asia,” it’s located in a Victorian neighborhood, Battery Point, and seats only 26 people. Its menu is likewise small—but the food is fresh in all senses of the word. It’s also a perfect stroll from the waterfront, twenty minutes or so, which frames the experience nicely. Thanks to David Stephenson for the tip!)

I expected the rising gentrification of the port city to be in sharp contrast with the drive from Hobart up to the foot of Tasmania’s Central Plateau. The plateau and its peaks—which top out at 5305 feet—were repeatedly glaciated during the ice ages. Lake St. Clair, the deepest lake in Australia, was carved down by those glaciers, its waters now 520 feet deep. It, too, though, is being converted into a tourist spot; its elegant pumphouse proportioned after Greek temples have been recently converted into a hotel.

As I noted in 2012, the first hydroelectric projects in the southern hemisphere were built in Tasmania. I wrote: “Tasmania is known worldwide for heritage wilderness parks that are among the most remote and impenetrable on the planet, parks that abut 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.” And it’s exactly those juxtapositions that the Derwent Project captures.

David is known internationally for his photographs of everything from the night sky to cathedral ceilings and the landscapes in between, much of which involves wilderness travel. Martin is one of those artists who can write code, develop algorithms, and build the equipment to synchronize twelve channels of video on separate screens. Put the large skill set of the duo onto a geographical feature during a seven-year period, and what you get are exquisitely immersive panoramas and time-lapse videos that capture everything from the snow of the highlands to blossoming trees, from the Southern Lights to the wake of the MONA hydrofoil ferry taking museum goes from the harbor upriver to the museum.

A single frame from the time-lapse video made at Lake St. Claire, part of “Time Slice (Derwent Time Lapse Array: 1/8/2015 – 31/7/2016)”, 2015-17, 12 channel high definition video, loop duration ~140 minutes
The videos comprise a compilation of synchronized time-lapse videos created from one week of capture from the Derwent Time-lapse Array: 12 fixed position camera stations located in representative environments across Tasmania’s Derwent River watershed, each taking a still photograph every 5 minutes. In this compilation, adjacent camera stations are displayed paired. As the one-week video progresses, the video moves from the upper reservoirs to the urban estuary in Hobart.

The Derwent runs down from Aboriginal hunting grounds to a pulp mill and a zinc plant (the latter one of the more virulent polluters of any river sediments in the world). The ten hydroelectric plants in the drainage have woven into the complex river-and-stream environment a stupefying series of dams, canals, and enormous pipes. The time-lapse videos show how the cycle of the seasons and weather govern the pulsing of water through the system and the effect that has on wildlife. The Derwent Project is thus a successful artistic experiment, but a source of scientific data. The videos and archives of the project will arrive at the Center for Art + Environment later this year.

To see the animated videos, go here: https://vimeo.com/178878516