Online May 21 - June 20 2020
Damien Shen, Tara Gilbee and Todd Johnson, curated by Aimee Board
Essay by exhibition curator Aimee Board.
In Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image, the French philosopher Hubert Damisch posited that ‘photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of salts, a stable image generated by a ray of light.‘ He goes on to argue that these inscriptions−imprints of light on the photographic plate or film−surface figures, objects, and landscapes from our real world, yes, but they do so without direct human intervention.
Traces Unseen presents the works of three artists exploring converging phenomenological layers in order to surface histories and trace emergent aspects of identity and place. What interests me most in the curation of these artists’ works is the mystery of at what point each chooses to intervene. When and how do they decide to mediate the world through the extension of their apparatus and transformation of their medium, whether that is inscribing the archival source (orally and materially), tracing a psycho-geography via a spatio-temporal sampling of place or surfacing the intangible historical layers of site. Each exhibited artist calls into question the essence of the photograph as an imprint of light, while at the same time uncovering the historical role and narrative of the image. In this way, as Damisch observes, the image positions the viewer as ‘the producer rather than the consumer of images’.
Damien Shen’s new series of tintype portraits of his family began with him making charcoal drawings of relatives as he recorded their oral histories. Shen photographed the drawings and then overlaid the images with intricately etched lines referring to Norman Tindale’s survey of the ‘half-caste problem’. When I talked with Shen, he explained how the anatomical etchings on the faces respond to “Tindale’s visit to the Raukkan Mission in 1939, when he photographed all four of my great grandparents and did data cards.” Shen’s powerful self-portraits similarly explore dark aspects of Australia’s complex past. Overturning the histories of marginalisation and dispossession experienced by his Chinese and Ngarrandjeri ancestors, Shen re-imagines himself as an emperor from the Song Dynasty, adorned in traditional attire as he proudly rides across the landscape.
Shen revealed to me that the titling for his series of works is inspired by Sun Tzu, the famous general who wrote The Art of War. He explained,
This work, the themes that I am talking about in an image like this, there's a connection to land, but the spot that is depicted there is the Raukkan Mission, which is where my mum was born and is depicted on the $50 note on the David Unaipon side. There's a little church on the $50 dollar note. That's the mission where my mum was born. As you drive to the back, there's a little cemetery and then you keep going back through, and there's this lookout where you see out to the water and the land. That's where that image is, that landscape's from. This idea of the Emperor and the guards there and with the title, it actually is a conversation about masculinity, to some degree of leadership, and my personal belief in young men needing to have really solid male role models.
Through their considered layering of (and intervening in) personal histories, identity and place and, further, through the unique light brought about by the mark of the artist and the medium itself, Shen’s deeply personal works expose, and transcend, the hegemonic historical narrative.
Tara Gilbee’s solagraphic works are produced through the forensic tracing via pinhole of an old Quarantine Station at Point Nepean on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her ephemeral tracings draw on the material and geography of the site and its history.
The concept of the mark of the place is central to Gilbee’s series. She says,
It's the proposition, the material acts in the space, the body only places the object there and then retreats. There's not so much of the body within the work. It's a concept of time more than anything in the work, but it refers to the idea of quarantine and the contained… There's always a sense of the body within, but in a very ephemeral and absent way.
The evocative character of Gilbee’s works emerges from the relationships between her choice of medium and her research site. She explains that, “The magic of the medium is one thing but its application to a specific site and concept expands it.” Gilbee uses the pinhole technique to heighten the feeling of the gaze being contained to a single site; “With the pinhole,..it's like the porthole that you look out in a ship or a guard looking through to the inside of a cell. It has a really strong ocular and pupil effect…”
Gilbee’s lucid solagraphs transcribe lights in the sky, silhouettes, and car headlights - the transient passage of others visiting the site at the same time as she’s there. Though evocative, her fragile imprints of light avoid over-romanticising the space; a space with multiple layers of history impacting upon local First Nations communities. Gilbee feels that, “this is an important consideration with historic sites as they’re already quite layered with a romanticised sense. So materially while I try and explore those absences, I want to be careful not to be too romantic.”
Todd Johnson’s vibrant works also trace spatio-temporal aspects of site. Collaborating with the landscape, almost in a performative and ritualistic way, Johnson creates his images by submerging negatives in water samples collected from various lakes, including Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Johnson’s photographs reveal a certain fragility present in the degradation of the subject−a threatened landscape−and in the process of decay within the medium itself. Johnson explains,
[Film’s] an obsolete medium. So for me, there is a tripartite connection here between the obsolescence of film image, the technology itself, and landscape in an age of environmental instability. The application of decaying slide film in my own practice productively performs the material embodiment of environmental decay...there is a sense of violence or destruction happening to the film object, which is reflected in the landscape itself which has been devastated by anthropocentric climate change, resulting in drought, extreme temperature fluctuations, which also effects the quality of water and the aquatic ecosystem. The precariousness and ephemerality of film seemed to be an appropriate medium to explore the precariousness of the environment.
For Johnson, the extension of the apparatus is part of photography’s extended field. He says that he, “… viewed this process as a form of collaboration with place, as I allow elements of the landscape to more overtly steer the photographic inscription process. I returned back to location where the film was submerged every few days or so to see how it was developing.” The resultant imagery is co-authored, with both artist and landscape intervening equally in the inscription process.
As luminous inscriptions of light, the works presented in Traces Unseen investigate the intangible aspects of histories and of place. They also capture, indirectly, points at which the producer and the produced converge.
A final note: We cannot ignore the conditions imposed upon us at this uncertain and precarious time. Our isolated state, individually and collectively, has been a challenge including for those involved in the Traces Unseen exhibition. My hope is that audiences, when viewing the works presented, will trace their own unseen/untapped aspects of self and of place, and perhaps reach new ground within during this challenging time. My sincere thanks to the participating artists and the staff at PhotoAccess and MARS Gallery, Melbourne.
Aimee Board is an independent art curator/ arts educator/ artist currently based in Melbourne. With experience working across regional, state and national collections, she most recently was working as Curatorial Assistant at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. She has completed a BA in Fine Art, Dip Ed. and MA in Art Curatorship and has worked across regional, state and national collections in various roles. She has curated group exhibitions in Melbourne and written several articles, mainly on Australian photography. Her curatorial interests are typically focused on her appetite for the ephemeral, for the archival source and for new ways of seeing and understanding identity.