My solo exhibition Yunta Landscapes happened only four months ago, but it feels like another age. It’s as though we’ve all passed through the eye of a needle since then. Or a cyclone. Priorities upended. Only now does it feel like the dust is settling and we’re venturing out to survey the damage.
It’s strange trying to reconnect across that divide, to return my artmaking to the foreground of my mind.
Creativity is a strongly intuitive process. I find that cold reasoning often hinders it. You feel you are on to something, pursuing something, without knowing exactly what it is, yet knowing that it is too early to interrogate it rationally.
Last January, after many months of artmaking and with the Yunta Landscapes opening drawing nearer, I felt a growing sense that there was something central to the series I had not yet looked in the face.
There were many threads: the dramatic power of the landscapes themselves; the intense but comforting solitude out there; the rock markings unchanged under the sun through deep time; the millions of human feet that had trodden lightly on the very earth on which I stood; the affinity with the sheep station manager who grew up on the station with a strong responsibility to minimise impact on the land; bizarre rock formations accurately described in dreamtime stories; synchronicity between real events and a story that’s been forming in my head for more than a decade.
All of these intuitions were now percolating up, pointing to some sort of narrative that needed to be articulated, reduced to words.
A conversation with a Ngadjuri elder compelled me to interrogate my conscience regarding my role, responsibilities and rights as an interpreter of landscape on this continent. Do we as artists appreciate that we are representing cultural living landscapes? This is a big question, a big topic, worthy of a separate blog. Tricky questions for white European Australians who are used to being free to take whatever, under European law, appears to be takeable.
In retrospect, I think my speech at the exhibition opening at ARO Gallery was a fair condensation of the tentative conclusions I’d arrived at, and so I’ve reproduced it below.
Transcript of speech at opening of YUNTA LANDSCAPES
I was hoping to be able to say, by the time I’d finished this series, that I understood landscape. In reality, I can only say that my ignorance of landscape has diminished somewhat. And that my awareness of my ignorance has increased dramatically.
When I started painting back in the 1980s, a landscape was simply an aesthetically pleasing scene. I knew that landscapes can take our breath away, leave us speechless, stop us in our tracks. Nature has that effect on us.
I first came across Yunta in 2013. It’s a one-horse town in South Australia, somewhere between Broken Hill and the Flinders Ranges. There’s a dry creek bed in the area that passes under the highway. Something told me to stop there. I went down to the creek bed, and it’s quite possible that I lay down on the creek bed and looked up at the sky. I’ve stopped there on every subsequent visit. There’s something about the place.
A few years earlier I’d written a story outline about an artist who loses touch with his creativity. He escapes the city, heading west, on a whim. A month or two after my first visit to Yunta, I did another draft of the story. It contained a new scene in which the protagonist comes across a dry creek bed and lies down in it. To quote a passage:
“…he laid himself out on the river bed, and slept. Face up, the stars piercing through his eyelids and into his skull, he dreamed that the river flowed through, from unknown rains in far-off country. Flowed through him and he drank it. Drank it all. And was carried along by it, within it. To the sea.”
So I can say with certainty that my fictional character did indeed lie down on the creek bed. Which is why I’m not sure if I actually did.
I’ve experienced many strange happenings, associated with that place and others in the area, that I won’t bore you with tonight.
As we know, the Indigenous peoples of Australia have a deep, intrinsic, spiritual connection to the landscape. They see song-lines everywhere. They feel the landscape. Sacred sites are places where the material and spiritual worlds come together. These sites affect humans, not just Indigenous humans. That said, Aborigines possess a finely tuned spiritual sense. In comparison, we settler folk are like blind giants dancing.
I am a native-born Australian. The outback is in my bones, despite having lived all my life in a metropolis on the coast. I am beginning to understand its spiritual effect on me.
We all belong to the landscape; we are all connected to it and influenced by it.
My paintings are not just pretty scenes. They are my attempt to express that connection in images – arguably the motivation, conscious or otherwise, of all artists in all ages and all places. I accept that song-lines may appear in my images through no conscious intent of my own.
Like all art, all human endeavour, all life, there are layers upon layers, meanings within meanings, like water flowing underground, invisible to some, intensely visible to others. The poets and the mystics are trying to describe through metaphor what is beyond words, beyond reason. We all do this in our own unique way, because we are unique, and each of us is trying to understand. So we keep on doing it, mindful of our ignorance and the certainty that we will accidentally step on toes from time to time. Maybe my life is the process of learning to tread a bit more lightly, dance a bit more delicately, still blind, but gradually coming to the realisation that I’ve been in a china shop the whole time.
So I’d like to invite us all, when we next step out onto the landscape, whether it be the open plains of South Australia – Ngadjuri country – or out onto William Street – Gadigal country – to acknowledge and respect those layers of landscape that may yet be beyond our understanding.
Bruce Daniel, ARO Gallery, 29 Jan 2020