29 Nov 2002

Opening November 29, 2002, 6-8pm
In the words of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, the phrase "Sydney or Bush" indicates an 'all or nothing' decision, resulting in the 'big time' or obscurity. It is an expression that belongs to an earlier age - an era when the city and the Bush were seen as distinctly different entities, even adversaries. Anyone who had struck it rich on the goldfields, who had benefited from good fortune or good policy, would make his way to the city. From Sydney or Melbourne, the next step was usually to head 'home' to England.
In the late 19th century, the city and the Bush enjoyed a love-hate relationship, as exemplified in the famous quarrel between Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson conducted in the pages of The Bulletin. Lawson argued that the Bush was a harsh, unforgiving place, romanticized by local writers; Patterson saw the Bush as the spiritual birthplace of a uniquely Australian character and ethos. It was a debate without a winner, since neither writer could be said to be strictly right or wrong. The same ambiguity was part of the very fabric of The Bulletin, which called itself "the Bushman's Bible", but mocked and satirized its country audience at every opportunity.
The polarization between the city and the Bush became less of an issue in the first decades of the 20th century, with the massive growth of the suburbs - that sprawling twilight zone of comfortable mediocrity that engulfed every major city. This was where most Australians lived, and where everyday values were formed. The extremes were smoothed out. It was no longer a matter of 'all or nothing', but one of 'good enough".
Nowadays, after a period in which the suburbs themselves have been romanticized - or rather, sentimentalized - by numerous writers and artists, we may be able to see the city and the Bush through new eyes. Instead of a polarity, one might discern a mutual complementarity. The city and the Bush are the great reservoirs of the Australian imagination, the generators of a spirit of place. We may live in the suburbs, but we feel most alive in the metropolis or the backblocks. Not long ago Sydney became a concrete ghost town after six o'clock in the evening and all day Sunday, now it is a place that never shuts down. The Bush has also become a more attractive proposition over the past two or three decades. Improvements in transport and communications, not to mention the decline in value of the Australian dollar, have encouraged a new appreciation of the local landscape. The change of attitudes also owes a debt to our increased understanding of the indigenous relationship to the land, and to the work of local painters, photographers and film-makers, who have revealed aspects of the Bush to the widest possible audiences. The actual term, "Bush", (Henry Lawson claimed the credit for the capitalization) now encompasses a vast range of landscapes - from dense rainforest and sparse scrublands, to green pastures, lakes and rolling plains. It even includes the desert. The harsh Outback terrain once known as the "dead heart" of the continent, is now a drawcard for tourists.
This exhibition brings together the work of photographers who have engaged imaginatively with the urban and rural environment. Some of these are among the best-known names in Australian photography, others - such as Susan Fowler, Roger Hanley, Joshua Monaghan, Edwina Richards and Philip Wilson - are recent graduates. The selection crosses many generations, incorporating a diversity of photographic styles and attitudes. Along with more 'classical' compositions that capture those aspects of Sydney and the Bush that we find conventionally beautiful or awe-inspiring, there are pictures that take an oblique approach - discovering a severe, formal harmony or a dreamlike, Surrealist quality. There are utterly deadpan works that seem to eschew all forms of visual rhetoric, and others that might almost be called Pictorialist, in their use of soft gradations of tone and veiled, misty panoramas. The aim is to show that Sydney or the Bush no longer represents an all-or-nothing proposition, but a series of complex, many-layered experiences.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of the selection was to leave out the many extraordinary photographs of people - the inhabitants of the Bush so well captured by Jeff Carter, or the city-dwellers immortalized by Roger Scott. Australian photography is strongly humanist in its predilections, and it requires an effort to look only at landscapes in which human actors play, at best, a supporting role - to look at landscapes as we have made or found them. We are left to imagine what kind of people live within these settings, and how we ourselves might inhabit them. In the process, one consistently discovers the familiar in the unknown and vice versa - which is one of the most fundamental and seductive characteristics of the photographic art.
John McDonald
In January...
Kensuke Todo, Tim Wetherill, Danielle Dickson, David Hickson & Barnaby Chambers
A selection of sculpture by recent graduates of Sydney and Canberra
As part of the SCULPTURE 2003 Festival
(1) Joshua Monaghan,Factory, 2003, digital print
(2) Nicholas Nedelkopoulas, On the Willy Train, Silver gelatin print, courtesy Hardware Fine Art
(3) Jackie Rankin, Aeriel Abstracts Series 3, silver gelatin print, 2002, courtesy Stills Gallery
(4) Patrick Wu, Eden Portfolio, 2002, Silver gelatin print, courtesy Point Light
(5) Tim Wetherill,Too Many Joys 2002, sculpture
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