Grounded: Christopher Houghton

Houghton breaks away from the metaphysical assumption of the relationship between the subject and the object in the traditional landscape approach. His undercuts the buried and deep seated duality of the subject/object relationship, where the dominant subject gazes at nature as an object  to be viewed, possessed or exploited; to shift towards a ‘being with’ relationship with a historical nature in constant change. This involves Houghton in extensively walking the land to familiarise himself with a particular place; immersing himself in the country; understanding the seasons and changes over a number of years; and allowing the stories of the country to become visible. Then he begins to photograph.

It is a slow photography based on watching and listening to the land. Or, as with the photograph below, absorbed into the world of the sedimented, natural history of a dry creak bed; with its rocks, sand and sediment washed down from the ranges by the infrequent, surging flood waters from the northern monsoonal rains from the north and the storms from the south.

C. Houghton, Stories of trouble and peace, Adnyamathanha Country, 2021

You would have to be in-place and to walk this country as an embodied being for a some time to see these deep-time markings; to develop a sense of the geological history of the rocks; to understand the coming together of the various elements in this presence of place (or topos); and to be attuned to the presence of the rocks in a creek bed at Oratunga Station. It suggests being in a situation of sitting in the creek bed looking at the rocks, listening to the sounds of the wind moving across the plains, and wondering about the geological history of this old country. What emerges is recognising something of one’s self in this country: we are within and part of the country, and not standing outside gazing at it. This recognition is what allows us to relate to country and to find meaning in it. This, in turn, requires learning to develop a capacity to recognise and produce relations of similarity. 

Attunement and the capacity to recognise similarities implies a different mode of rationality to that of an instrumental reason; with its effective split between subject and object, its increasing emphasis on knowledge-as-quantification, and its exploitation of the earth’s resources for human survival and prosperity. The latter belongs to the mid-nineteenth century world of the miners at Blinman digging up the country for copper to become wealthy.

C. Houghton, That time the rains fell #2, Adnyamathanha Country, 2021

One way to understand attunement is through mimesis. This is a mode of identifying with the external world and it alludes to a constructive reinterpretation (eg., of the rocks in the creek bed) which, in turn, becomes a creative act in itself. Mimesis involves a revelatory moment in which subject and object become fused for a brief moment–eg., absorbed into watching raindrops fall onto the salty, clay ground; or watching a 5×4 sheet of film changing in the moonlight as it lay immersed in the still water of a rock pool in the creek bed.

The lushness of the prints and the ever-present soundscape highlight the staged character or nature of these photos as representations of constructed realities; yet they shift us towards, or enable us as viewers, to be absorbed into the world depicted by the images. The latter attempts to open up this world, and they allow us to examine and reflect upon the apparently unobserved objects. We can momentarily project ourselves into this country. At a certain level — either figuratively or metaphorically — we enter into the pictures: either as if we  are in a childhood state of openness, or have recalled a memory trace of previously being in, or walking, this country.

C. Houghton, Tranimal #2, Barndioota, Adnyamathanha Country, 2021

My experience is the latter one, and the absorption is a ‘being there’: it as if I both suspend my  usual ways of seeing the world. I am no longer in an art gallery looking at this tableau photography (ie., large-scale photographs, highly composed and digitally manipulated, intended for the gallery wall) within the culture of the art gallery. I am thrown back into my memory of the arid country of the northern Flinders Ranges that I’d recently walked in; I become absorbed in looking at the massive trunk of the river gum in the space of the creek bed; In recalling similar river gums in creek beds that I’d seen, I am completely lost in thought or feeling about the massive power of nature and the traces of history on this river gum. This country reveals, or better still, discloses itself to me.

Grounded highlights the value of two strands of recent philosophical writing. Firstly, it foregrounds how Michael Fried’s concepts of absorption, beholder and theatricality in his Why Photography as Art Matters as Never Before opens up an ontological clearing for a different way of looking at photography; different to those suggested by the Romantic emphasis on subjectivity, postmodernism’s conception of nature as purely cultural, and realism’s’ depiction of nature as digging beneath a false surface to discover the “really real” lying buried beneath it. Secondly, Grounded links the Aboriginal conception of country to that strand in western philosophy that establishes the primacy of place. This mode of place oriented thinking establishes relations of inside and outside: ie., to be located is to be within, to be somehow enclosed, but in a way that at the same time opens up, that makes possible. 

C. Houghton, Tranimal #3, Barndioota, Adnyamathanha Country, 2021

Situating Grounded in this way connects us to the ecological humanities in Australia, thereby offering us one possible way to address the fundamental divide, and deep-seated conflict between, the duality of a non-Aboriginal conceptions of landscape and Aboriginal conceptions of country. It is a pathway to a clearing which discloses a relationality of letting be; an intense engagement with the historical, dynamic earth that we walk on, and are a part of; a rejection of the mind body dualism; and an understanding of the earth as both an enlivened relational system (eg., country as nourishing terrain) and as a storied place.

This pathway or track is a turn towards a processual nature (a vitalistic metaphysics) with its flow and flux; beings in motion, rocks in motion, sentient bodies in motion, and things, objects and sentient bodies (human and nonhuman in looped and tangled relationships within their ways of life. When situated within this space Grounded offers a guide to an aesthetic way of situated, relational knowing; one that suggests, or opens up, new ways for artists to explore and imagine the country as a specific way of being in the world where sentient bodies are open to, and attentive toward, relationships in places of belonging.

Grounded shows that a rigorous and sensuous photography can be an integral part of this exploration; and when photography does so in the form of poetic images of an intimately and empirically well-known local world of places, animals plants, seasons and objects, it matters as never before.

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