Cut at Hart’s Mill: a review

Trent Park’s and Narelle Autio’s work are constructed into an archival wall installation entitled The Gunbarrel Highway. This “highway” had been constructed as part of the Woomera rocket range project in the late 1950s and is more in the way of a track than a highway. Autio’s photojournalist approach to Cut is constructed from their 2003 90,000 road trip in Australia, and her interpretation of cut in her tough image of a man cutting up a wild pig whilst a girl looks through the window of the open door of a ute is central to Cut, leaving no room for ambiguity. Some of the other Autio and Park images in the installation are also conceptually direct and clear, whilst others, in contrast, are not so clear or direct. Others — eg., Autio’s landscape or Park’s horses — do not seem to be relevant as single images.

An example is a torn print by Trent Park of the Bathurst races from the Minutes to Midnight series, the images for which were mostly made between 2003 and 2005. Presumably, the print’s reference to Cut is something along the lines of a discarded print left lying on the darkroom room floor. Cut from the book’s exhibition perhaps.

Trent Park, Bathurst races, NSW 1999, from the series Minutes to Midnight

This vagueness and ambiguity is in contrast to the conceptual photographic work of the 1970s, such as Ian Breakwell’s The Walking Man Diary or Keith Arnatt’s Walking the Dog. Rather than start with an idea and implement it the installation is a minimalist construction from archival photos made in 2003. These archival images are about history and memory within a geographical framing of a photo of a sign —‘The Gunbarrel Highway’ –with an arrow pointing to the installation through the door. The design makes it clear that it is the wall installation itself — The Gunbarrel Highway –and not the individual images that we should concentrate on, as the individual prints are a part of the installation. This title or text is the concept.

Since the installation is without a text that references to the idea of cut beyond that of The Gunbarrel Highway it thereby leaves it up to the viewer to make the connection. This points to a form of relational aesthetics in which the artists give the audiences access to power and the means to interpret the world embodied in the photos within the installation.

Does the installation refer to the 1,350 isolated, rough desert track that was cut through the deserts of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia for the military atomic bomb testing sites of Emu Field and Maralinga? Does the cutting of the track refer to the indigenous people out of cut of being bought to safety prior to the tests? Do the bullet holes in an image by the doorway into the wall installation reference the frontier wars where the pastoralists shot the first nations people to grab their land?

Melissa Agate’s landscape of the Mojave Desert in south-eastern California approaches Cut in a direct way — as a cut in a very big rock:

Melissa Agate, Giant Rock #3, 2019

While the Mojave Desert itself is generally sparsely populated, it has increasingly become urbanized in recent years with the California portion of the desert containing Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, noted for experimental aviation and weapons projects. So it is no surprise that people over the years have made this big rock their home.

Another kind of conceptual approach is Louise Kotz’s combining text and image with this image:

Louise Kotz, Cut through her, 2019

It breaks away from the tradition of modernism’s purity of the image to eliminate narrative or story telling (in photo-journalism) from the self-referential photographic medium. The ambiguity now resides in the work — what cuts through her shadow? Is it the geometric lines? The architecture? The light? The holes in the rust coloured metal? Is it an allegory? Using irony to introduce distinctions into the world, by doubling what is from another point of view?

More straightfoward and direct in its interpretation is Lars Carlsson’s Flex:

Lars Carlsson, Flex, 2021

The very simplicity in interpreting Cut as a still life of cuts in the strands of flex draws the viewer’s eye into the form and tonality of the black and white image. We see the form, the lighting and the minimal tonal palette. Aah, black and white as an abstraction from a colour world has staying power.

Less direct is the image of two motor bikes at Lake Gairdner in South Australia. Racing bikes on a salt lake? Well, there is a history of land speed records on South Australia’s salt lakes. So this is the annual Dry Lakes Racers speed week where you go as fast as you can go for 12 miles.

Tony Kearney, Time Cutters, 2021

The 2021 event in March experienced rain on the second day, which left standing water across the salt lake. This black and white photo abstracts from the colour and represents the starkness and shimmering bright light experienced on a salt lake.

Traditionally, in conceptual art it isn’t so much the visual beauty of the piece that is important, or the materials and techniques used, but rather the idea it expresses. Cut undercuts the traditional idea of conceptual art that the execution of the concept isn’t necessarily perfunctory and mechanical, as Sol LeWitt and others suggested in the 1960s. Recent conceptual artists include Jenny Holzer and her use of language, Sherrie Levine and her photographic critique of originality, Cindy Sherman and her play with identity, Barbara Kruger’s use of text and photography and Ian Burn and Alex Danko in Australia.

We need to reach back to this conceptual tradition because some Australian art history books do not mention conceptual art (and photography) in their narrative of Australian art. Christopher Allen’s Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism (1997) is a good example of this reductionist approach. Allen holds that photography’s real, though modest, vocation is the documentation of the photographer’s social landscape (p.197). What Cut highlights is that contemporary photography is more diverse than this conservative understanding of photography, and it shows that analogue photography has a vibrant presence in Adelaide.

3 Responses

  • […] to the gallery next week. My days have been mostly spent sitting in front of computer working on this review for Light Paths, as well as grinding my way through the texts for the Bowden Archives and Other […]

  • Hi Gary – Thanks for your work in writing this review.

    To add my own observations to the conversation, I thought the Autio/Parker wall was lovely and more authentic than either of their last shows at Michell’s – more personal and so good to see the relationship between them come out on the work. Different eyes – that shot of Narelle’s with the girl looking wistfully out of the ute window, placed in context of the other shot of blood washed from the knife with water from a jerrycan. Magic. And next to that Trent’s crazy-good blokey capture of the guy on the car roof where everyone has a beer. (but Trent is a participant in this and it makes the shot not quite as true as Narelle’s)

    With best regards,

  • David,
    I thought the photo by Narelle Autio that you mentioned above — ie., the picture of the girl looking wistfully out of the ute window, placed in the context of the other photo of blood washed from the knife with water from a jerry can — was an extremely powerful one. It certainly bought me up short. I looked at this part of the Autio/ Park installation for ages. I kept returning to it after looking at the other images in the exhibition. I was deeply affected and I kept thinking about it for ages.

    On another note the photos in the Autio/ Park installation show the power of photo-journalism and its ability to tell a story or create a narrative over and above what we used to see in the mainstream newspaper or magazine versions of photojournalism. This contemporary form of photojournalism can no longer be viewed as a mirror, albeit a critical mirror of the world. Those old borders have well and truely collapsed.

Comments are closed.