Center for Art + Environment Blog

July 17, 2012   |   William L. Fox

Travels in Tasmania — Part 1 of 3

Visits in Tasmania

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.

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.

Tags: Australia