A curious nature – the landscape as theatre in contemporary photography and new media. Yes the title of this exhibition might be a bit of a mouthful but there is much to absorb in this stimulating exhibition of photos and videos at the Geelong Gallery. Australian photo-media artists, Kate Bernauer, Siri Hayes, Gabriella Mangano & Silvana Mangano, Polixeni Papapetrou, Jacqui Stockdale and Christian Thompson, use the landscape as the setting for intriguing contemporary stories, where characters assume strange costumes, masks or gestures, and nothing is quite as it seems.
Curated by Lisa Sullivan from Geelong Gallery, the exhibition is a fascinating mix of 23 works united by the common theme of landscape as a theatrical stage. The works encompass natural and urban environments, and even artificial ones, such as in Jacqui Stockdale’s photographs in which the landscape is conveyed through painted backdrops. Stockdale positions her elaborately costumed subjects in front of hand-painted scenes based on important locations in her life (she paints these backdrops herself). In the style of late 19th century studio photography, Stockdale’s images allude to the work of colonial artist JW Lindt who photographed aboriginals in formal poses and a constructed setting. Stockdale has also included printed frame borders with her name on the front, just as photographers did in the late 1800s when it was popular to print small portrait photos and mount them on a thicker card frame.
Jacqui Stockdale, Les Jumeaux, 2012, from the series The Quiet Wild, type C print. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne.
Siri Hayes employs the landscape to explore the impact of European settlement on the environment. In Plein Air Explorers she references David Caspar Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist (1818), a romantic painting which highlights the grandeur of nature. But in Hayes reimagining of the scene, a nude model poses for a life drawing class in the open air, gazing out to the rising smoke of the Gippsland powerstations and the devastation of the clear felled land around him. Meanwhile the art class, focussed on sketching the life model, seem oblivious to the setting in which they work.
Siri Hayes, Plein Air Explorers, 2008, from the series En Plein Air, type C print. Purchased 2008 Monash University Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne. © the artist.
In the series of photos Between Worlds by Polixeni Papapetrou, the natural landscape forms the stage in which her children and their friends are the performers, their identity concealed behind the animal masks they wear. Papapetrou explores ideas about liminal spaces and transitional periods, such as that from child to adult, reality to fantasy, animal to human.
Sullivan explains in the exhibition catalogue: “While in many of her earlier works the subject was positioned in front of a painted backdrop within the studio, the transition to the outdoor setting is likened by Papapetrou to the maturation of her children: having moved from the more contained fantasy realm of their pre-school years to the experiences of the wider world associated with their progression towards early teenage years. Through these works, Papapetrou aims to address the complex emotions that are associated with this transitional phase and the importance of role play in children’s development.”
Polixeni Papapetrou, The Violinist, 2012, from the series Between Worlds, pigment ink print. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne; Stills Gallery, Sydney; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York & San Francisco.
The urban landscape imagery of Kate Bernauer investigates the challenges of contemporary society and the incongruous nature of modern life. Using theatrical lighting and props, and placing her subjects in awkward or vulnerable positions within the urban environment, Bernauer conveys a sense of disconnection and isolation; this feeling of dislocation in spite of our capacity to be technologically connected 24/7.
Bernauer states in an interview, that her works are metaphors about the struggles with the everyday absurdities of life. “By this I mean there are many aspects to our lives, especially in the “developed” world that are so very absurd. We are so disconnected from our natural environment and we often take so much for granted. These absurdities are at once completely hilarious and also a little tragic.”
Kate Bernauer, The Underpass, 2010–11, from the series I Need a Compass Not an Anchor, archival inkjet on cotton rag. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
The works in this exhibition are not just confined to Australian environs. Christian Thompson lived in Amsterdam for two years while completing an artist’s residency and this prompted him to work outside the studio. He used the Dutch landscape as a stage to explore his indigenous and British heritage. In a striking series of photographs, Lost Together, characterised by strong blocks of orange, Thompson personifies his ancestors, and the Xanthorrhoea tree, to consider issues about his identity, family history and sense of place.
Christian Thompson, Hannah’s Diary, 2009, from the series Lost Together, type C print. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne.
Gabriella and Silvana Mangano also use an unfamiliar landscape in their video work. El Bruc in central Spain sets the stage for The Surround, a black and white video, produced in the style of Italian neo-realist films. It shows the women encircling each other, with chairs beneath their feet, like stilts. They move about on a grassy windswept field with rugged mountain ranges as the backdrop. Sullivan states in the exhibition catalogue that the artists perform actions that are informed by their drawing practices and that the paths they take are akin to drawing upon the landscape.
Gabriella Mangano & Silvana Mangano, The Surround 2009, digital video, 2:05 minutes 16:9, black and white, sound. Reproduced courtesy of the artists and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne & Sydney.
Sullivan concludes: “That each of the artists in this exhibition works in the medium of photography or video is what makes these works particularly compelling (as a modern point of difference to paintings from earlier centuries that may have similarly depicted theatrical narratives within the landscape). In many cases, the scenarios the artists present are quite unreal, which is at odds with our general expectations of the camera largely capturing reality.”