My Father’s Country

By Maryclare Foá

approach-to-mundi-mundi-shaun-gladwell.jpgApproach to Mundi Mundi, 2007

Figuring Landscapes stirs up some difficult memories

Figuring Landscapes
brings together British and Australian artists’ film & video and ventures into those countries’ shared histories. Premiered at ArtSway in the New Forest, and screened across a long weekend at Tate Modern, an extraordinary diversity of approaches allowed audiences to consider what it means to figure the landscape in the context of a shared colonial history.

Europeans settled the Australian landscape with the same ignorance of place as the polar explorers who perished with their sledges laden with dinner services. Cursing the climate and arrogantly reducing the indigenous Australian population to an 'otherness' that was barely human, the whites in Australia forged a terrible history. No matter ‘waltzing Matilda’, or being 'fascinated' by Songlines, Europeans first victimised then trophied the Aborigines in an attempt to salve their own guilt. These relations fashioned a traumatised landscape.

Historically, the European man-in-the-landscape signifies a yearning, a quest, and a freedom to venture out, (not the European woman - her out-of-door persona is problematic and sexualised). The picturing of English landscape (from sliced bread advertisements to Jeremy Deller's re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave, 2001) is commonplace in our creative industries. But the Australian landscape is ancestral, crucial to Aboriginal identity and placement, and according to Australian Filmmaker John Gillies, “when you take a picture of something or draw something (in Australia) you own it.” This imaging of land not only creates places but also, as is more pertinent to this project, it creates images of contested places.

country-song-warwick-thornton-darren-dale.jpgCountry Song, 2007

While Aboriginal land rights are still being contested, the figuring of landscape remains highly problematic for non-Aboriginal artists while for Aboriginal artists, video documents of the land can become part of an ongoing legal campaign. It is this disjuncture between the European and the Australian sensibilities of landscape that is the backdrop to this ambitious project. As anthropologist Dr Stan Frankland commented (during Tate Modern's concluding discussion), Figuring Landscapes treads, “on uncertain ground, positively”. By offering the rare opportunity to see contemporary Australian experimental film and video in the UK, new dialogue and perspectives now layer into a broader cultural context.

Ann Donnelly's Political Landscape (2007) conjures us into her northern Irish homestead. Donnelly begins by speaking to us first in stilted Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) and then in English. Her voice guides us lyrically through the place of her belonging. A field, a boundary - her family's home, the very roots of herstory. Donnelly speaks a poetic narrative through ancestral place; she draws over marks on the wall left by her father and grandfather, re-tracing their presence. Hers is a connection to place, akin to the oneiric home that Bachelard describes in his The Poetics of Space.

Donnelly's home is revealed in documents, and images of ownership, referencing problematic politics. While Donnelly can tenderly describe every ditch and pasture of her father's landscape, Noel and Rob in Lyndal Jones's Noel (2008) are hard pressed to clearly remember anything of what used to be. The two Australian friends are struggling to clutch at fleeting memories. We watch their humorous effort, as they fail to give us a complete picture of the landscape they are looking at. We are left with a series of half conjured notions and some sympathy for their uncertainty and loss.

political-landscape-ann-donnelly.jpgPolitical Landscapes, 2007

There is also uncertainty at the start of Warwick Thornton's and Darren Dale's Country Song (2007). This Technicolor vision of a massive sunset slipping behind rocks to the sound of resonant chanting, and an Aboriginal elder by his moonlit fire is not, as one man suggested to me, an advertisement for a mobile phone. He creates a pastiche of stereotypes, blowing apart the cliché of the native in a rural landscape, kept ignorant of the contemporary world. “I can talk to people without leaving my place. Before we had smoke signals… today we got white fella (points to mobile phone) …talk here… just like that (points to distance) straight away, smart.”

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Figuring Landscapes is entirely about differences – there are congruencies across the 55 works in this programme, spanning the breadth of video, film and digital media being produced in both countries. Some sculpt landscape (Semiconductor's All the Time in the World, 2005), others embrace the sublime (Shaun Gladwell's Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007). The majority of works in the programme were made before Figuring Landscapes was conceived, so it is the curatorial hand that has foregrounded the ‘vexed’ issue of traumatised landscape by setting up this Australian UK/European paring. As I write, the worst fires in its history are burning Eastern Australia, and it seems all the more pressing that projects such as this should facilitate dialogue across cultures, and offer more opportunities to document, imagine and discuss how we are figured, and how we figure ourselves into landscapes.

The Figuring Landscapes tour continues to Site09 Festival, Stroud (June) and Cinecity Film Festival, Brighton (19th November – 6th December); as well as Mermaid Arts Centre, County Wicklow, Ireland (date tbc) and the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (July). For details:

Maryclare Foá is an Associate lecturer and PhD Candidate at Camberwell UAL.