The liminal space between land and ocean is a potentially contentious zone of identity, sovereignty, politics, trade and displacement. It is also a place to witness extremes of weather, a place for leisure, hopes and dreams. It can be destructive or life giving. Surrounded by water, as the largest island continent, artists living and working in Australia, as well as in Aoteaora New Zealand, a country of two main islands, have a rich history of photographing the seas and oceans. The exhibition Coastline, which I co-curated with Ann Stephen, showcases major historic treasures from the University Art Collection. While the exhibition encompasses five centuries of painting, several artists who use the medium of photography, provide a major contemporary focus for Coastline.
The earliest photograph in the show documents Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s iconic work Wrapped coast, one million square feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia (1969). In 1969, Sydney textile entrepreneur and art patron, John Kaldor, invited Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Australia to exhibit and lecture; the artists proposed to wrap a piece of coastline for seven weeks. Materials were tested at the University of Sydney before a loose-weave polypropylene was chosen. Wrapped coast, in front of Prince Henry Hospital at Little Bay, became the first Kaldor Public Art Project.
For four decades, Catherine Rogers has undertaken the series, Horizons: Oceans of Australia, 1978 – ongoing (see top of page). She has circumnavigated the continent from the Arafura sea in the far north, following the coastline through the Coral Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, Tasman Sea, Bass Strait, the Indian Ocean and the Timor Sea. On exhibition are eight black and white photos from the series, made at different times and with different technologies, yet with the horizon line always positioned at the centre of the work, giving equal weight to the sea and the sky. Rogers observes that her approach to this strangely deceptive subject “is a bland literal record of something which is in constant change, and that the ‘borders’ of many seas are unclear and hotly contested”.
Rogers’ oeuvre is part of a larger tradition that includes Australian photographers such as Harold Cazneaux with his seascapes, beaches and cliffs of Sydney, to the striking Antarctica compositions by Frank Hurley and luminaries such as Max Dupain, Fiona Hall, William Yang, Anne Zahalka and James Tylor, for whom the sea permeates their work in some way. Rogers’ photographs are symbiotic with the work of international greats such as French photographers Gustave Le Gray (1820–1882) and Francois Puyplat (b.1937), each with their respective practices that span from the advent of photography, through to today. There is of course the sublime and minimalist Japanese photographer, Hiroshi Sugimoto (b.1948) whose own seascapes coincide with those of Rogers, althogh unknown to each other.
We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.
In contrast to such land-based work, the diptych by Simryn Gill, is taken from aboard a fishing boat on the Strait of Malacca. The rocking motion of the sea is visually captured by their slight tilt, and emphasised by the placement of the photographs, with the right image installed higher than the left, to align the horizons. The wash of a vessel fills the bottom third of the vertical images, indicating that a voyage is underway. Historically, the Strait of Malacca was the passage for Asian migration through the Malay Archipelago. Today it is a major traffic route of global trade. The title, Sweet Chariot No. 7 (2015) is derived from the African-American gospel song ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’ which expressed the longing of transported slaves for their home.
Two major portraits dominate the gallery space, the photographic work of Fiona Pardington from the series Ahua: A beautiful hesitation. These images of life casts, originally made on the Dumont d’Urville expedition through Oceania, between 1837–40 were originally intended to illustrate a hierarchical and deeply racist classification of the peoples of the Pacific. The series is the result of Pardington’s four-year project documenting the casts of Māori, Pacific and European heads, in Aoteaora New Zealand and French ethnographic museums. The series has a personal resonance for Pardington as it includes one of her Māori ancestors from her iwi (tribe), Ngāi Tahu.
Katrina Liberiou is Assistant Curator, University Art Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.
This article was first published in Issue 26 of Muse Magazine, November 2020.
Featured image (top of page): Catherine Rogers, Horizons: Oceans of Australia, 1978 – ongoing, pigment ink on cotton paper, University Art Collection, selection from UA2020.28-43