Rock, Stone, Earth: a review

Christopher Houghton has kindly reviewed the photographic component of the Rock, Stone, Earth exhibition at the Noarlunga Arts Centre (Gawler Street, Port Noarlunga, Adelaide) in September/October 2021.

Curated by Janine Baker and Stephen Johnson, the exhibition ROCK / STONE / EARTH opened at the Noarlunga Arts Centre this October. It’s stated ambition was to celebrate the unique geology of South Australia though the work of a diverse collection of artists. Mediums included jewelry, sculpture, painting and photography. The photographs by Adam Dutkiewicz and Gary Sauer-Thompson take the lion-share of the collection and it is these works I want to focus on for this review.

Lihhof Technika IV
Fig 1 – Gary Sauer-Thompson, Waitpinga Quartz Abstract

(With very little photographic discourse in Australia, and almost nothing on the genre of landscape photography or its lessor known cousins, approaching a conversation about photographs that lean into notions of Country is a little fraught. While much has been written internationally in recent years about the agency of photography and the multitude of a/effects that photographs enact in the world, in a land that still wrestles with its frontier history, it is accurate to say discourse on works in the field are largely compromised by inattention, apathy and a fair degree of identity crisis.(1)

Part of the problem is context. As tourisms’ right hand, the landscape genre consumes a lot of our attention, largely as hyper-saturated postcards, coasters and bum bags brandishing images of red dirt and Uluru. These, and more garish artefacts, drench the racks of tourist shops, newsagents and motels, ripe for tourists to take a piece of country ‘home’ with them. In more refined settings, large scale collectable prints adorn the walls of galleries, usually in the photographer’s name, or through image banks savvy enough to separate punters from their wads of cash. In either setting, it’s an endeavor sparked by making a crust off the land. Country as commodity, facilitated through colonial enterprise.

Institutional settings haven’t fared much better. While they are well positioned to inspire counter arguments that might advance the debate, the common response is to ignore the genre. Authors Helen Ennis and Susan Best have made the point that the land rights movement has complicated the non-indigenous relationship with Country.(2) In 2011, this was largely backed by Judy Annear’s exhibition, Landscape photography, 1970s until now.’ (3) As Ennis pointedly asked back in 2007, the question remains, ‘where to from here?’. It appears we are still waiting for answers, but that hasn’t prevented many photographers exploring the natural world and their place within it.

Walking through ROCK / STONE / EARTH, the photographs on display could not be typically characterised as landscape photographs. They are however, photographs of place, or as one artist I know recently mused, still lives of embodied spaces. In context of engaging with a wide audience, it remains unfortunate the word ‘landscape’ often consumes almost anything created within a natural setting. It’s the lack of definition and our historic obsession with the literal that speaks to larger conundrum in which I am reminded of theorist, Donna Haraway’s elucidation of the word ‘County’ to mean ‘multidimensional and storied place’. (4) By relinquishing the term’s colonial etymology, she redirects our intention toward a shared purpose that embraces the indigenous and non-indigenous experience. The wordplay doesn’t contrive a shared ontology, but it does encourage a common ground through which the idea of Country, as distinct from our engagement with landscape, can be embraced beyond the colonial project. To create photographs of Country over landscape is to extend toward the metaphysical, of engaging with Country as an embodied practice.

Cambo 8x10
Fig 2 - Gary Sauer-Thompson, Waitpinga Rock Abstract 3

Viewing the works of Sauer-Thompson and Dutkiewicz, one could argue, a similar yearning is on display. These are works of exchange, embedded with time, intention, and relationship. For Gary Sauer-Thompson, walking is central to his practice. Working on the coastline of Victor Harbour, he uses a digital camera to ‘take visual notes’ and often returns with large format equipment when something compels his interest.(5) His approach is meditative and experiential, a practice in which the sea spray, wind, sound, the sheer presence of place, all affect the expression of his work.

History becomes an author, not as geologic survey, but through the artist’s familiarity with place, built over time, in which change is reinforced as the only constant. The subsequent photographs are a testament of place working through the artist as much as they are of an artist creating a photograph. Beyond words and language, it is the semiotics of place that are at work here; a material dance between practice, place and ultimately, the audience. Each one, in their dynamic specificity, has a role to play in the accumulation of meaning.