Tall Tales and Antipodean Adventures: Narratives in Contemporary Australian Printmaking
This article was written by Jazmina Cininas and published in the winter issue of Imprint Volume 41 No. 2, 2006.
A picture speaks a thousand words. Long before the invention of writing or alphabets, stories and histories were recorded in pictures, from Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux to early Egyptian hieroglyphs. Church authorities understood the power of the image, employing stained glass windows and didactic paintings to illustrate their teachings and as learning aids for their predominantly illiterate parishioners. Rulers and military leaders had their conquests and exploits immortalised in grand history paintings while explorers recorded their discoveries as much with pictures as with words. When Pfister devised a system for printing illustrations alongside typographic texts in 1461,1 an inextricable link was forged between printmakers and storytellers. Illustrations, as well as revolutionising the dissemination of knowledge for the life sciences,2 brought words to life, luring the mediaeval peasant into literacy, and continuing to do the same for novice readers today. Artists such as Dürer and Goya understood the power of the visual narrative, creating images that transcended their source texts and which, centuries later, continue to unfold new chapters and offer new scenarios.
It is perhaps understandable that narrative image making enjoys such a high profile in contemporary Australian printmaking. In a country for which history (at least the ‘white’ version) is in relatively short supply, and in which cultural cringe has only recently undergone withdrawal, storytelling plays an integral part in determining the evolution of a national identity. The adventures of Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River and Ned Kelly are embraced as quintessentially Australian (indeed more so than the national anthem). Australians pride their ability to spin a yarn, to tell a joke, to create a legend: the taller the tale the better. There are many superb Australian printmakers currently working in the narrative tradition who deserve considerably more attention than this article is able to give them. Dean Bowen’s suburban vignettes, Euan Heng’s iconic friezes, Danny Moynihan’s tortured thylacine men. Geoffrey Ricardo’s dark visions and Hertha Kluge-Pott’s intricately populated towers of land have woven a foundation of interconnecting storylines that have become local legends. Articulate new chapters are being added by Sophia Szilagyi’s gothic intrigues, Kati Thamo’s anthropomorphic fables and the masculine eco-sagas of Michael Schlitz and Damon Kowarsky. But other adventures beckon. The following artists share a whimsical approach to their storytelling, blending historical and contemporary narratives to produce ironic commentaries and fantastical journeys that offer insights into Australian culture.
Heather Shimmen’s Waltzing Matildas ‘expand the sanctioned histories of our colonial past and question the meaning of our national identity.’3 The jolly swagman is reinvented as a Victorian heroine, a Matilda more at home in the drawing room than in the outback. Composed of historically overlooked domestic dramas and feminine fancies, Shimmen’s montages fabricate new narratives that expose the distortions inherent in ‘privileging’ information. Sailing boats, botanical studies and crocodile skin travelling bags speak of long journeys through dangerous waters to distant lands. Unfamiliar flora and fauna are recorded with the decorum (and perhaps even naivety) of the Old World wood engraver, and exquisitely reinterpreted in linoleum by Shimmen. Corseted and petticoated, with a penchant for colleting stars and skipping ropes, Shimmen’s Matilda is clearly ill equipped for her new life, her romantic melancholy and social preoccupations at odds with the physical realities of a land in which one is more likely to die of snake bite than consumption. Where small pox is the likely culprit for facial blemishes on her English counterpart, gun shot wounds take the credit in Suicide Sister.
The kangaroo is the latest hero of the artist’s colonial ruminations. First recorded by George Parkinson, the image of the kangaroo was to gain iconic status after George Stubbs made a painting of the stuffed marsupial, presented to the English scientific community courtesy of Joseph Banks. Shimmen’s Kanguru is likewise pieced together from various observations and gathered scraps of information.4 Shimmen, who has many opportunities to see the animal in the wild, invests her first-hand observations and fondness for the animal into Kanguru, capturing its elegant poise and the flickers of movement that interrupt its contemplative gaze.
The same colonial icon is reincarnated in Julia Silvester’s panoramas of pre-settlement Melbourne, where it teams up with the emu to form the Australian coat of arms.5 Silvester’s Antipodean View, which measures over three metres in length, is a veritable epic recording the history of Melbourne’s exploration, documentation and ultimate conquest. Despite ‘immigrating’ from Perth in 1996, Silvester still feels the newcomer’s lack of familiarity with Melbourne geography. She presented mock-ups of her constructed panorama to ‘locals’ for advice on the positioning of natural landmarks, adjusting them accordingly. As such, Silvester operates as the direct descendant of early mapmakers and illustrators, who relied upon second-hand reports from witnesses, falling easy prey to exaggerations and inaccuracies. Parallels can be found in the (mis)translations imposed on the Australian landscape by colonial illustrators who took liberties with the unruly bushland, tidying it up with oak leaves for a European sensibility.
Silvester employs digital technology to impart a uniform surface to her collaged scans of historical illustrations, fascinated with the vagaries that occur in successive generations of reproduction. Her Gardens of Desire (both an artist’s book and exhibition title) stems from a similar principle, harking back to early herbals and scientific texts whose images were so corrupted by generations of sloppy copyists as to be ultimately unrecognisable.6
Silvester is equally intrigued by the imperatives for politeness in early writings on sexuality, which often resulted in the use of plant metaphors, euphemisms and remedies for ‘inappropriate’ longings and sexual urges, and extolled and emasculating virtues of dill and warm lettuce. Silvester distils the saucier passages of Hildegard of Bingen’s twelfth-century treatise, On Natural Philosophy and Medicine, using scandalous illustrations of flower parts and dissected plants to lead the viewer towards climactic conclusions holding very different resonances for the Viagra generation. The artist’s shenanigans with science and history share Simon Schama’s conviction that the boundary between fact and fiction is always in flux, and that history’s ‘best prospects lie in the forthright admission of … imagination’.7
Milan Milojevic is equally open with his fakeries, creating imaginary worlds and impossible creatures from a repertoire of collected marks and woodcut illustrations. Milojevic’s landscapes and bestiaries return the viewer to a time when much of the earth’s terrain was still unknown, when imagined possibilities had not yet been refuted by ‘facts’ and every voyage was one of discovery – the great irony, of course, being that he does so with the aid of the latest digital technologies. The repeated and mirrored motifs within his friezes exploit the inherent properties of traditional print mediums, while the wood engravings that serve as source material also remind one of the integral role of printmakers once played in recording and disseminating knowledge through compendiums and visual encyclopaedias.
Such nostalgic musings are born of his Yugoslav/German parents’ experience as misinformed ‘innocents’, lured halfway around the world by sunny promises and idealised panoramas that were strikingly at odds with the harsh, xenophobic landscape that greeted migrants in 1940s Australia. The hybridity that pervades Milojevic’s work – in grafted European and Australian foliage, in patchwork chimeras and in the merging of traditional and contemporary print mediums – is bred of a desire to come to terms with the multiple cultures and ethnicities that make up his own identity.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is Milojevic’s primary muse, and it is perhaps significant that the poet’s birthplace, Argentina, also has a history of old and new worlds colliding. His Book of Imaginary Beings, an alphabetical index of the bizarre, directly informs the ‘zoological displacements and dislocations’8 that make up Milojevic’s catalogue of fantastic beasts. Sometimes magical, sometimes grotesque, sometimes pitifully dysfunctional, these creatures nevertheless invoke a wistful suspension of disbelief, a longing for an age when these might have been truths, a desire to return to earlier possibilities.
A similar nostalgia operates in the work of Rew Hanks, for whom the Tasmanian Tiger embodies that which has been lost, that which can never again be known first-hand. Like Shimmen and Silvester, Hanks offers an alternative vision for this antipodean colony, conjuring up parallel histories that cast the thylacine in the leading role. He ponders the ethical implications of attempting to clone the extinct species by relocating Dürer’s Eden considerably further south. Queen Victoria, in the guise of Eve, tempts Michael Archer (Director of the Australian Museum) with a thylacine pup preserved in a Pandora’s jar of moral conundrums. The title We Don’t Have To9 sums up the delicacy of the dilemma. The other native animals that populate the garden hint at broader environmental ramifications, and also question the wisdom of investing enormous sums into resurrecting the dead when current endangered species could do with protective funding.
Hanks returns to earlier artistic styles and past narratives, such as The Fall of Man, Noah’s Ark and The Iliad, to suggest potential futures that might once again become possible if the promises (or threats) of genetic engineering and cloning are fulfilled. Hanks also draws attention to the connection that existed between the indigenous Palawa people and the thylacine prior to colonisation, and the parallel fates that befell them both as a consequence of white settlement. The royal corgi, sporting a woolly jacket that alludes to the sheep industry, functions as a symbol for imperial power and privilege, and guards a thylacine skin handbag – the final slap in the face for the annihilated carnivore. Inspired by the $1.25 million reward offered by the Bulletin magazine for conclusive evidence that the Tasmanian Tigre has escaped extinction, Hanks’ most recent magnum opus portrays a polo-playing Kerry Packer masquerading as an Indian Raja, leading the hunt for the elusive marsupial.10
The collaborative team of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison,11 who have made the artist’s book their signature medium, also reserve their leading roles for extinct species. Their heroes’ adventures have a decidedly Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn flavour, even if the rumours of their deaths have not been exaggerated. Pink-headed ducks, giant rice rats and Bavarian pine voles sport prison stripes and plan jail breaks in order to go fishing amongst desert cacti, while robust white-eyes play cards and passenger pigeons, drunk on alcohol soaked grain,12 attempt to hatch European sea urchins.
The Agatha Christie inspired titles – The Case of the Lost Aviary, Trouble at Sea, The Dubious Clue, By the Pricking of My Claws – acknowledge Haby and Jennison’s penchant for amateur detective work. Unearthing incriminating evidence against commercial hunters, volcanoes and ship-jumping black rats,13 the artists conjure new, pseudo-scientific scenarios, their slippery approach to facts unfolding in whimsical narratives that operate according to their own logic. The artists take liberties with the argument that ‘narrative metaphors are an indispensible part of all ‘factual’ discourse, whether in history or in science’,14 and wink at the commonly acknowledged notion that the historian’s work is partly scientific, partly artistic.15
Haby and Jennison’s truth is, by necessity, a fabrication, the species themselves being lost for all time, at best leaving only fragmentary data from which to glean information. Their pig-footed bandicoots, deer mice and bulldog rats are as fanciful as their names suggest, precariously balancing sailing boats for headgear or fossils as body parts. As barely intact as the last remaining specimen of the St Lucy giant rice rat, they threaten to fall apart at the merest touch.16 Extinct cloud runners and white-footed rabbit rats croon their woes along with Memphis Slim, drawing on another vehicle rich in narrative history, the blues lyric.
David Frazer also sings his share of blues. A frustrated songwriter, he tells his stories instead through wood engravings, choosing a medium soaked in narrative tradition.17 His unrequited rock star ambitions are most evident in his series of dancing men, whose titles are directly derived from song lyrics. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man no time for talk might hint at disco fantasies, but the flannelette shirt of and wheelbarrow reveal that Frazer’s leanings are closer to Jonathan Richman18 than the Brothers Gibb. One suspects the Richman inspired They’re all in my trance when I dance, in which a dead cool rocker commands the dance floor, is truer to Frazer’s secret yearnings, even in Blundstone boots and a weatherboard house in rural Victoria are the reality. His other unfulfilled dreams of sporting stardom are confessed in such titles as: Self portrait with home-made golf trophy; Despite blowing any chance of winning, The King, with his usual good grace acknowledges his imaginary fans; and Placing all hope in my son to fulfil my failed sporting ambition. Frazer shares Richman’s capacity to make the ordinary strangely endearing, while simultaneously longing for something more, something else.
Wanderlust is both a recurring theme and the title of his artists’ book collaboration with Martin Flanagan and George Matoulas, but unlike Shimmen’s and Milojevic’s epic voyages of discovery, Frazer’s journeys take place much closer to home, more concerned with ‘the common experience of humanity through the bittersweet journey of life’19 than uncharted continents. Travel occurs mostly in the daydreams of the solitary figure sitting atop his rooftop who gazes wistfully over endless expanses of wheat fields. But even modest ambitions end up thwarted by the responsibilities of life on the land. Frazer’s downwardly mobile caravans camp in paddocks and woodlands suspiciously like those visible from the front porch while rowboats suffer the absurd fate of running ‘aground’ in treetops. Mr Vertigo drifts over paddocks, suspended in the thick, buoyant air of dreams through which one must continually swim in order to stay aloft, but which never offers sufficient velocity for escape.
Rona Green is another champion for the underdog, employing the narrative devices of comic books and cartoons to showcase her underachievers and misfits. The success of the first Superman story in 1938 ‘heralded the birth of the superhero genre in which costumed people of extraordinary or superhuman powers fought evil and crime on a grand scale’20, but for Green the cape and mask are more likely to herald the inept geek and the clumsy nerd. One suspects that even the spandex proud pro wrestler Spastica Fantastica has to settle for sub-celebrity status; the lady friend alluded to in Spastica Fantastica Gets the Girl looks suspiciously like the blow-up variety.
Green’s outcasts reappear in sequential episodes, reinvented as linocuts, digital prints, lithographs and poppets. Gangs of ghouls, freaks, mad scientists and hooligan animals make up her cast of disreputable characters, teaming up for an ongoing series of misadventures. The pointy-toothed egghead who dreams of alien abduction in The Encounter reappears alongside fellow technophiles (and quite likely Trekkies) in Secret Robot Society, while his fanged and furry companions enjoy multiple roles as tattooed pets and S&M fetishists. In her exhibition at The Doll’s House in Preston ,Victoria, scientific nerds that first appeared in Cake Trail resurfaced alongside the criminally insane in The Bughouse, transforming the miniature gallery into a correctional facility, psychiatric ward and experimental operating theatre.
Green’s storylines are fed by a soft spot for daytime television and conspiracy theories, and a genuine fondness for the flawed and misshapen. Her awkward antiheroes are immaculately drawn and printed, and tenderly stitched into their poppet incarnations. Indeed the only hint of suspicion is reserved for the devastatingly glamorous immortals in Treacherous Boys with Charisma, and one suspects that the vampires’ aristocracy, rather than their bloodsucking ways, is what meets most with Green’s disapproval.
The printing process, as both a technical and artistic activity, has been linked not only to the memory of human thought, but also to the memorial process.21 Prints, in their various guises and mediums, have played a pivotal role in recording the stories of our past, and continue to document possibilities of what might yet become. The best narrative printmakers employ printmaking’s intrinsic properties and illustrative traditions to create new fictions and expose new truths about ourselves, celebrating the invention inherent in all knowledge, in all history.