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

Canoes and reflections in Melbourne

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Canoe on display at ACMI

During a recent Melbourne visit I encountered a pleasant surprise among the intriguing cacophony that is Australia’s film and television history at Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) near Federation Square – one of the ten canoes from Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigger’s 2006 film of the same name.Nestled in a cove of green space is one of the canoes, a ngarrdin, made in 2006 by Yolngu men Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djogirr, Bobby Bunungurr, Michael Dawu, Billy Black, Steven Wilanydjanu Malibirr and Roy Burnyila.

Ten Canoes was born of a dialogue between de Heer, co-director Peter Djigger and the Yolngu community in north-eastern Arnhem Land. It was inspired by a photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during a visit to their lands  Arafura Swamp in 1930s.

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Canoe and still images from Ten Canoes film at ACMI

The ngarrdin on display is made from a single piece of stringy bark with folded and sewn ends, with knowledge from Elders Peter Minygululu and Philip Gudthaykudthay, and reference notes and photographs from the visual treasure trove that is the Donald Thomson collection in Museum Victoria (Museum Victoria holds two other canoes made for the film).

At ACMI, Thomson’s black and white photographs are displayed with the canoe alongside colour stills of similar scenes from the film – a split vision of continuity and change.

The story of making the film is an important assertion of Indigenous voices in filmmaking as told at ACMI, while the recontextualised beauty of the canoe itself entices you in to its space, but also breaking out of the historical timeline presented in the exhibitions on the ground floor entitled Screen worlds.

LED light artwork

Jonathan Jones, untitled (muyan) 2011.
Glass, aluminium, light emitting diodes, electrical cable; designed by Marc Raszewski and Andrew Hayes; dimensions variable; installation view National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria for The Barak Commissions, Felton Bequest; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Just across the ACMI foyer and courtyard in the Ian Potter Centre – NGV Australia I spotted the work of a speaker from our Nawi conference – Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones. During the Nawi conference Jonathan spoke to us about light, reflection, water and the passage of the canoe through the water as inspiration.

Jonathan’s fabulous work is nestled in the cathedral-like foyer at the Ian Potter Centre. It is made of LEDs in light boxes which references Victorian Wurundjeri leader, quiet activist, mediator and artist William Barak (1824-1903). In particular Jonathan was inspired by two of Barak’s paintings featuring fires at ceremonies. These paintings excited Jonathan’s imagining of light, reflection, its cultural resonance, and Barak’s role in history at a time of massive change.

The work is installed near the main stairway of the centre, in dialogue with another artwork by Brook Andrew entitled Marks and witness: a lined crossing in tribute to William Barak (2011) which scales the heights of the foyer and stairway.

In his artist statement Jonathan offers: ‘In early 1903 Barak predicted his own death, stating that he would die when muyan (wattle) bloomed.’

The work turns from white to yellow (muyan) in August to remind people of Barak’s importance. Wish I’d seen it in yellow!  If you visit this month, you’ll catch it as the wattle blooms.

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 http://fishexhibition.anmm.gov.au/en/Events

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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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.