CCP renewed

Chris Reid

Siri Hayes, Lyric Theatre series

Siri Hayes, Lyric Theatre series

The Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) recently reopened in a new building in George St, Fitzroy, with exhibitions ranging across photographic styles and visual and cultural agendas. The Centre’s 5 exhibition spaces unfold in a spiral from a small, central room to larger galleries, and there’s a window onto which projections are cast after dark for viewing by passers-by. The CCP has a seminar room, a shop selling new and second-hand books, and an image bank, and it offers public programs including lectures on the history of photography. Director Naomi Cass is concerned that the CCP should be a resource for artists as well as a showcase for contemporary work.

The second season in the new space includes solo exhibitions by Cherine Fahd and Siri Hayes, and the exhibition Black on White, a collection of works by Aboriginal artists. The central room is occupied by Simon Disler’s new work 1:1, including a series of photographs of blackberry plants, the scale, positioning and low lighting of which subtly create simultaneous feelings of sensuality and enclosure. His Hay Bale is a photograph of the side of a roll of hay, printed on a round, waist-high sheet of colourbond, questioning 2-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional objects. And on a high shelf, a very small TV camera shows Disler’s Untitled, a DVD including a long shot of a tree, challenging the definition of the moving image.

Cherine Fahd’s The Chosen, shown in Germany in 2004, comprises 13 type C photographs that extend Fahd’s contemplation of the individual. Her photographs are of various people pictured against the same high stone wall. Placing of her subjects in this setting emphasises the similarities and differences between them: children, young and old adults, male and female, of various ethnic origins, in casual clothes or bathing suits, each in isolation from others. They appear to be standing under a water sprinkler—passers-by cooling off in summer heat. Their attention seems turned inward, as if in prayer and oblivious to the camera. These works recall ethnographic documentary, but the personality and preoccupations of each person emerge through expression, posture and attire. The ambiguity of the action and the evidence of a common humanness in this disparate group generate much appeal.

Siri Hayes’s new exhibition Lyric Theatre, a series of 10 large-scale photos of a creek setting in the suburbs, posits a kind of suburban sublime. As Phip Murray notes in her catalogue essay, the composition of these photographs references classical painting, Poussin for example. But Hayes’ photos are far from Arcadian scenes of classical heroism, and instead ironically reveal endemic environmental degradation. Merri Creek is polluted and choked with exotic plants. Intrusive suburban dwellings replace the classical ruins of decayed antiquity. Hayes’ images establish the viewer as unseen observer surveying nature’s grandeur and mystery as one might observe a theatre stage, but this play is a tragedy. Various individuals are visible in these scenes. In one, a woman in business clothes holding a clipboard looks back at the viewer, challenging our complacency. In another, the presence of a child recalls McCubbin’s Lost Child, but this loss is of a different order. The kind of epiphany experienced by the everyman in Caspar David Friedrich’s work is now unattainable.

Occupying the main gallery space is Black on White, where curators Maree Clarke and Megan Evans have assembled a disparate body of recent and past work by several Aboriginal artists that turns the lens back on white society. Gayle Maddigan’s photographs are documentaries of contemporary life—domestic habitation, the country fair, and two panoramic prints nearly 4 metres wide, one of a tram outside Swanston St Station and the other of children in an asphalt school ground. Journalist Mervyn Bishop’s work includes his 1975 image of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam ceremonially handing back the soil of Dagu Ragu to Vincent Lingiari, an historic moment in the Land Rights movement. Also included is Bishop’s 1971 image of a nun carrying a sick Afghani child, an image of considerable resonance today, especially as it is displayed as originally published, in a newspaper front page. Brook Andrew shows several photographs of signs pinned to trees bearing texts such as “opinion as crime” and “select your invader”, questioning economic and cultural power in Australia. Lisa Bellear’s single work comprises dozens of photographs grouped like a collection of snaps Blu-tacked to the fridge, except these are larger scale laser prints and cover half a wall. They include prominent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people shown together at public occasions, and shots of Burke & Wills memorials and settlers’ graves, aggregating to a kind of family album of post-colonial history. Dianne Jones shows a series of colour portraits of subjects of mixed race, pondering the collapse of the black/white divide by emphasising her subjects’ individuality. And there is Christian Thompson’s video of a young man ceremonially dressing up in a fetish costume representing the fox, the cunning invader, and offering a complex metaphor for the origins of Australian art. In addition to mapping an alternative Australian cultural perspective, Black on White questions established constructions and sources of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity, and invites the dissolution of that divide.

Finally, and most spectacularly, Annie Wilson’s 4-minute DVD Suspense is projected onto a tall, narrow, glass wall on the CCP’s George St frontage. Intended for viewing from without, it shows people apparently flying through the air, out of the building, evoking, she says, the feeling of falling that can occur in dreams. Coincidentally, Suspense seems emblematic of dramas depicted within.

A theme emerging from this absorbing CCP season is that of reconsideration: the reconsideration of social division; of the environment as distinct from the landscape; of the sublime in the 21st century; of the impact of documentary photography, undimmed by technical innovations in image manipulation; of the origins and nature of Australian art, culture and history; and of the power of the photograph generally. Naomi Cass suggests that the CCP had considered calling itself the “centre for the still image.” Though there are moving images on show, the CCP’s primary concern is with the still. However produced, the photograph remains central because of its ubiquity and dominance in our visual culture.

Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy, June 10-July 16

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 55

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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