Fish… finishing this weekend

Has the Australian National Maritime Museum fetishised fish? and is fetishised even a word?

This weekend is your last chance to find out, and to view what I think is one of our most inventive readings of Australian art from a maritime perspective.

Entering the ‘Fish in Australian art’ exhibition guided by Deborah Halpern’s ‘Fish’, neon lighting and perspex, 2010

Fish in Australian art  is an exhibition of watercolours, prints, publications, drawings, paintings, multimedia, artefacts, and artifice… all of which feature Australian stories of fish or fishing. Through artist’s eyes you see the wonders of fish,  fish as characters in dreaming or creation stories, as objects of European curiosity, science, charm, fantasy, nature, and the sublime. You see fish as decorative or design elements, and you see fishing as a way to while away the hours, for musing, sport or industry, and above all for cooking, eating, or serving at the table.

The exhibition includes works from important Indigenous artists like Yvonne Koolmatrie, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan, Micky of Ulladulla and Roy Wiggan, and many household names of European Australian art like Arthur Boyd, William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, John Olsen,  Margaret Preston and Anne Zahalka, in an exhibition which is both thematic and broadly chronological. I especially like the luminous drawings from the natural history painters who worked with pencil and brush to document all they saw around them – here, the fish and the fishing techniques of Indigenous Australians, and their watercraft.

Richard Browne watercolours

There are a number of works by the Port Jackson painter, Ferdinand Bauer and Thomas Watling on loan from the British Museum of Natural History which are truely sensational and here in Australia just for this exhibition.

These works show Indigenous people fishing from their nawi and cooking their catch.  They are beautifully drawn. There are so many nuanced details, like the moon rays floating to the water in the ink and watercolour sketch A N. South Wales native strikg fish by moonlight while his wife paddles him along with a fire in the Canoe ready to broil the fish as caught attributed to the Port Jackson Painter, 1788-97. These details remind you that these painters were not just about picturing science and are worth a really good look.

Artists of Port Jackson works in ‘Fish in Australian art’

The exhibition blends media and artefacts, and in this early colonial section you see a canoe of bark with tied ends, made by Albert Woodlands from the west Kempsey region, built before 1938, and on loan from the Australian Museum. This Indigenous canoe is used to interpret the fishing drawings and to add texture and meaning – together they become a delicious viewing experience for those interested in Aboriginal watercraft. The canoe – similar in style to the nawi used by Sydney Aboriginal people – forms such a refined shape that it is almost sculptural.

There is much to see in this exhibition and I can only suggest you make it to the museum this weekend to catch it before it goes…

Canoe and watercolours from Fish in Australian Art

Craig Walsh: illusionist

image of art installation, restaurant on a street in toronto

Craig Walsh, documentation of Incursion (Water), 2007, image courtesy the artist

An unsuspecting shop window on a dark street, empty, except for a few wooden chairs and tables.

A trickle at first, then pooling, sloshing, filling, water floods the restaurant.

Tables bob,tip and capsize, gigantic Groper-like fish swim in and around.

On the street outside a small crowd gathers to watch in disbelief, passing drivers crane their necks to do a double take of this uncanny scene.

I’m watching documentation of artist Craig Walsh’s digital projection work, Incursion, a site specific project for the 2007 Nuit Blanche in Toronto, Canada, and a featured work in our lovely exhibition Fish in Australian Art.

In just a few short weeks Craig Walsh will be here at the museum for an in- conversation event with Stephen Scheding, co-curator of Fish in Australian Art. It will be an opportunity to hear from Craig on his work, his use of technology, his collaborative process and a chance to see extracts and documentation from some of his diverse and spectacular site-responsive installations and projections. After the talk, audiences will also enjoy wine, cheese and the chance to pop in into see the beautiful exhibition as it enters it’s final weeks.

art installation toronto

Craig Walsh, documentation of Incursion (Water), 2007, image courtesy the artist

Craig is well known for his large scale public artworks, projections that simulate surreal scenarios, artificial life forms, portraits and stories onto the landscape or sites of significance. He plays with the sculptural properties of projections to instil a kind of mythology into any chosen location. Having exhibited as far and wide as Yokohama, Gwangju and Murray Bridge, Craig has had the opportunity to work with people and places from all over the world, particularly through the recent Digital Odyssey project, a tour and residency that saw him packing his life and his studio into a caravan to travel around Australia producing 16 new works the space of 18 months in collaboration with regional communities. For the moment, he is enjoying the stability of a home in the suburbs while he undertakes a residency in Sydney.Looking at Craig’s body of site-specific work makes you wish you had seen all this in situ. There is something special about accessing the insight that an artist can shed on their own practice, particularly in revealing the visual trickery behind artworks. For example Incursion is not just a projection, it has elements of performance and sculpture- the footage was made by creating a scale model of the restaurant into which water and fish and miniature furniture were all placed and filmed through the glass. The resulting footage projected onto a rear projection screen covering the glass windows of the real restaurant created a captivating illusion, an environment where the fish were not part of the “…of the day” menu but rather the dominant species invading and consuming the space of the restaurant.

Questions for Craig? Why not join us for Craig Walsh: In Conversation 9 August at 6pm. Tickets and more information at

Behind the scenes of Fish in Australian Art

Our current exhibition Fish in Australian art includes over 170 artworks and objects. Ranging from small pieces of jewellery and beautiful sculpture, to paintings and drawings, video work and light installation pieces, the exhibition presents varying styles and ways fish have been represented in Australian art over time.

The organisation of all of these artworks was a mammoth job. To tell us more about the process, we had a chat with our registrar Will Mather in this video interview.

If you have any more questions for Will after watching the video, please let us know in the comments section and we’ll get back to you!

The lone fisherman

The Beach Fisherman by Kenneth Macqueen 1934
Lent by New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale

There’s something ambient about Kenneth Macqueen’s The Beach Fisherman, 1934. A man stands barefoot on a beach, fishing line in tow, with the shore stretching out further than the eye can see and the clouds threatening rain in a decidedly gloomy way. This is one of the many artworks on display at the museum’s Fish in Australian art exhibition.
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Eighteen months on a leaky boat

 ‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’

‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’, by Ferdinand Bauer, lent by Natural History Museum, London

There is something intriguing about natural history illustrations. The plants look as though they are sprouting from the page but the animals appear slightly on the edge of reality, with blankly staring eyes and stiffly posed limbs. Perhaps this is because the immobility of plants permit them to be drawn from life whereas animals do not generally allow the painter that luxury unless they are in a more, well, deceased state.

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Art in the dark

Longhead dreamer, yellowhead hulafish, horseface unicornfish,eyebrow wedgefish, scribbled pufferfish, longhorn cowfish, zebra hornshark, toothbrush leatherjacket, piano fangblenny, pacific jellynose, abyssal ghostshark, curious wormfish, splendid snaggletooth, glowbelly seabass….

Believe it or not, these are real fish …. and there’s even stranger ones where they came from.

Deborah halpern

Deborah Halpern- Neon Fish, 2010, perspex and fluorescent tubes

I’m standing inside Fish in Australian Art and staring at the fish names installation as they light up one by one, flickering lights shimmering like a school of silver scaled barracuda. I’m imagining what we can play here for our Art in the dark family tour this saturday. We’ve been busily crafting luminescent art games- glowstick connector sculptures, exquisite fish corpses painted with glow in the dark pigments, taping together experimental drawing tools, and choreographing some fish inspired dance moves.

french fish

French meets Fish in Art- the theme of our fun filled torchlight tour!

I’m also talking with our indefatigable character actor, who shall be known only as Monsieur Le Poisson. A chameleon and master of disguise this torchlight tour guide also wears the hats of Johnny Grog-Nose, our resident Pirate and Spanker Boom, the museum’s night keeper.

This Saturday he will be a somewhat more refined creature in French inspired attire, moustache, beret and accent to boot. Monsieur Le Poisson( Mr Fish) is not a fish, but he knows all about them, he is not an artist, but he could be, and he is taking time out of his busy Bastille day celebrations to take us through the inspiring exhibition Fish in Australian Art– sans lumiere.

torchlight tour 2

Torches at the ready we will uncover a world of stories, strange materials, peculiar fascinations, artistic wonders. Following a line from rock art to contemporary as we seek to answer  the timeless question “What is art?”… “Why did they make that?”…. “What does it mean?” …

fluro paints

Get painted up like a glowbelly sea-bass with glow in the dark face paints

After dark tours are a special affair, giving visitors a chance to see the exhibitions when the lights are out and no one else is around! They’re also an occasion for fun and interactive games, art making activities and delicious food. This Saturday we are being inspired by the chance occasion that it is also Bastille day, and of course what is more French than good art, and good food. So we are planning delights like crepes avec nutella and pommes frites, to be enjoyed after our tour alongside some creative capers with fluorescent face paint and a blacklight torch!

Needless to say, we’ll be painted up like a glowbelly seabass by the time the night is done.

Art in the dark- Torchlight family tour– Saturday 14 July – Bookings Essential

More info:

Getting Sketchy with Swainston and Snapper

Today’s question: How much does a 40cm whole pink snapper cost?

I like fish. I occasionally buy fish. But I have no idea.

How does one find out the answer besides actually wandering down to the fish markets to see?

No one I ask seems to know off the cuff.

Even the indefatigable wisdom of google is failing me.

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

I’m emailing back and forth with Roger Swainston as we make a list of art materials to buy for his upcoming workshop…

A3 double matte drafting film,

HB and 2B pencils,


4 Pink Snapper on ice in Styrofoam boxes…


Yes, Snapper.

Not for some kind of experimental drawing technique whereby the fish body becomes expressive mark-making medium (although that would be fun too). It’s for scientific illustration of a specimen. Roger is an illustrator extraordinaire and a zoologist as well. His vivid drawings of fish, seahorses and all manner of marine species are featured in our current exhibition Fish in Australian Art. His acclaimed natural history book Fishes of Australia contains more than 1500 of these illustrations and took two years of up to 100 hours work a week to produce. Like many artists (and scientists for that matter), Roger is rigorous and dedicated to his practice, passionate about his subject matter, and furiously hardworking.

swainston lobster

Roger Swainston, illustration, Clipperton Rocklobster -Panulirus penicillatus, image courtesy the artist

He also has a most unique way of working en plein air so to speak, his fieldwork drawing technique involves a scuba tank, a graphite crayon and a kind of plastic film (he won’t say exactly what, it’s a trade secret). Yes he literally draws underwater….. Often for four or five hours a day…. and up to two weeks to capture one scene! Breaking the area into a grid with nylon cords, Roger maps the scene and its life-forms in exquisite detail. The drawings are  2-3m wide, 1-2m high and completely captivating.

Roger Swainston- the artist at work. Photo copyright Xavier Desmier

Roger Swainston, underwater sketch, image courtesy the artist

But back to the Snapper. I wonder why having a live fish is so important. Surely there are other, less involved, (and odour-free) ways to illustrate a specimen.

A photograph perhaps?

No a photo won’t do, Roger insists, we must grapple with the species in all of its three dimensional beauty.

And it’s not nearly as good for the post-art making dinner!

Roger Swainston’s talk and drawing workshop is on Sunday 27 May 1.30pm – 5pm at the museum, bookings are essential .

Fish in Australian art opens tomorrow

Tomorrow, our new exhibition Fish in Australian art opens to the public and runs until 1 October. As a keen lover of visual arts, I’m particulary excited about this exhibition. I can’t wait to spend some time exploring the show! The exhibition features over 100 works of art and design, including pieces by celebrated artists such as William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, Rupert Bunny, Margaret Olley, William Dobell, Arthur Boyd, Yvonne Koolmatrie, John Olsen, John Brack, Michael Leunig, Craig Walsh and many more.

Over the past week I dropped by the exhibition space to see how the installtion was going. Here are a few snaps, with more available for viewing on Flickr.

Preparator installing fish sculpture

Above: Trevally dance machine, 1993, Ken Thaiday Sr, born c 1950.

Four small fish sculptures

Preparator installing small fish sculptures into cabinet

Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Above: Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.