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Posts from the ‘Visual Art’ Category

2012: disaster porn at its best

Two_thousand_twelveI’m not quite sure when this site turned into the House of Pulp (note to self – finish long post about The Kindly Ones before literary credentials evaporate completely) but at the risk of alienating those few serious people still hanging in there, I invite you to feast your eyes on the glory that is the new trailer for Roland Emmerich’s 2012.

I’ve long thought Emmerich, who directed Godzilla, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and, most recently, the brain-numbingly dopey 10,000 BC is misunderstood. It’s easy to point to the cornball dialogue (“What happened to the right of people to FIGHT FOR THEIR LIVES!”) and the increasingly ridiculous plots of his films and miss the very real beauty of the images of mass destruction he creates. In many ways his movies seem closer to the work of a painter like Breugel, with their beautifully rendered landscapes and occasional, apocalyptic fervour, than to conventional movie-making. Certainly there’s something almost painterly about much of The Day After Tomorrow, which is filled with images of sudden, and breathtaking beauty (the birds flying away from New York, for instance).

The trailer for 2012 is all this and more. A riff on the broader conflation of the Mayan calendar and theories predicting the end of the world (there’s a nice Wikipedia article on the subject if you’re not familiar with them), it begins with the assumption that the end of the Mayan Long Count on 21 December 2012 really does predict the end of the world, and moves from there into the usual collage of characters fighting for their lives. Now I’ve obviously not seen the film, but it looks pretty gob-smacking to me (not least because the whole Long Count idea has always given me a little shiver of anxiety anyway) with one completely awesome image of destruction after another. And, in the midst of it all, there’s a magnificent little grab where one of the characters says he’s heard the government is building a huge boat, and a moment later a giraffe is seen being winched into it.

Like I said, pure genius . . .

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It’s also available in HD:

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Photography in Australian Fiction

X-Ray image of hand, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, X-Ray image of hand

Last year I met an Italian student called Giorgia Tolfo from Bologna University, who was in Australia to research her thesis, The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction. As part of her research she interviewed me and a number of other Australian writers (Delia Falconer and Gail Jones amongst others) who have used photographic motifs in their work.

She’s not the first person to write on this subject. Paul Genoni published a paper in Antipodes in 2002 exploring the use of photography in novels such as my second novel, The Deep Field, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Liam Davison’s Soundings, and Thea Astley’s Reaching Tin River (you can access the paper via the Curtin University Library site, though you’ll need to click the pdf symbol in the top right corner to actually read it). But it was interesting to find an Italian student struck by the same resonances between the various works she was writing about (she’s also incredibly bright and very charming, which never hurts either).

Anyway – I just received an email from Giorgia, telling me not only has she passed, but she’s received the highest mark, which is fantastic news. And, since I suspect her thesis isn’t likely to find its way into print in English in a hurry, I thought I might reproduce some extracts from the written interview I did for her after we spoke.

1. What is it that interests you about photography and what was it about photography you set out to investigate in your novel? Was there a particular influence or reference that urged you to write about photography?

I initially became interested in using photography as an element in the novel after looking at a book of photos of museum exhibits by Rosamund Purcell. The images were largely of objects from 18th century cabinets of curiosity, but there were images of fossilized ammonites amongst them, something about those images of ancient stone shells struck a chord with me..

Over time this idea of photographing fossils merged with the ideas I was also interested in exploring, about endings, and continuance, and deep time, and the idea that our own presence in the world might be part of a larger cycle, and a larger order. I remember reading Sontag, and Barthes, and being struck by their insistence that photography must be a representation of death. That seemed right to me, but also wrong – photos are also, necessarily, a form of connection to the past, a kind of persistence through time, in the same way a fossil is, and they connect us to the past, even as they remind us it is gone, and in so doing suggest something about the way loss is always with us, but part of us, and the capacity of things to go on, and endure.

2. In your novel, The Deep Field, Anna begins taking pictures of ammonites and fossils, but only after a scene in which the shells are explored by the blind character with his hands. Was this an attempt to link the idea of tactile memory to the idea of fossils as tactile memories of now vanished organic organisms? What do you see as the best form of memory – visual, tactile, emotional?

I was interested in different ways of being in the world, and particularly by the idea that the blind inhabit a non-spatial world made up of tactile and auditory experience connected in time, rather than spatially. Like virtual reality and cyberspace, that seemed ot me to suggest a very different way of being in the world, and one it might be useful to understand better as technology continues to alter the contours of our identity and the world we inhabit. But I also wanted to connect this idea of the new, and the futuristic to the very ancient, hence the shell on Mars, and the high tech photos of fossils. By doing that, and by playing on the way the blind inhabit their temporal and experiential world I thought it might be possible to suggest something of the way we exist within memory, and experience, rather than the other way around.

3. What do you think about the relationship between fiction and photography? Do you think that the former can help people to better understand the social, emotional and private value of the latter? Do you agree on the fact that fiction is more powerful than theory in exploring the possibilities of photography, being able to create new and not necessarily real situation?

Fiction and photography are necessarily very different. Fiction is narrative-based, and is therefore connected to change. Photography is something sliced free of time we must project a narrative, or meaning into. One explains us to ourselves, the other denies explanation (a process you can see at work in Sebald). But at the same time, both work by opening up imaginative possibility.

That said, I’m always a little wary of the use of photography in fiction. Photography is necessarily documentary and ambiguous, and there seems something dishonest, or sentimental about the impulse to invent stories which displace that ambiguity and fill it in with invented meaning.

As for the question of whether theory or fiction is more useful for exploring the possibilities of photography, I’m not sure either is particularly useful in that context – it’s photography that will explore its own possibilities most usefully. Theory may help us understand it better, criticism may help us understand particular works and practitioners, but I’m really not sure fiction has much of a role to play at all – its interest in photography is almost always for its own, imaginary ends.

4. Do you think there is a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography evident in Australian fiction, or do you think the use of photography in fiction is more universal?

I do wonder whether there is a a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography you see coming through in writers as diverse as Gail Jones, Delia Falconer, Liam Davison and myself. All of us are interested in exploring a photography as a way of making sense of loss, and transience, rather than as a simplistic memento mori. If this differs from its use in fiction from overseas (and I’m a bit short on ideas for examples to be sure it does) I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that if you’re in Europe, particularly, or connected by the Jewish diaspora to that European experience, photography might well offer rather starker reminders of the past. Australians are, at some level, interested in finding a way to make sense of their past, and to find reconciliation with it in the present; it’s possible that for Europeans and others the past is something that needs to be put behind them.

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Sony World Photography Awards

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

If you’ve got a few moments you might want to check out the images shortlisted for this year’s Sony World Photography awards. There are shortlists for Professionals and Amateurs, as well as a separate selection of images chosen as part of the Prince’s Rainforest Project.

While many of the shortlisted images are striking, the Natural History images are particularly impressive, and include a remarkable pair of baitball images by Alexander Safanov in the Amateur category and sequences by two Australian photographers, Steve Merenos and Lisa Marie Williams in the Professional category.

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Phantom Shanghai

Phantom Shanghai

In 2005 I spent three months attached to the East China Normal University in Shanghai as an Asialink resident. Perhaps fortuitously, we didn’t end up living in one of the newer parts of the city, but in an apartment at the top of an alley house not far from the corner of Huaihai Lu and Shanxi Nanlu in the old French Concession.

The dodgy wiring and rats aside, it was a fascinating place to stay, not least because it gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the last remnants of Old Shanghai. For all its well-deserved reputation for criminality and vice, Old Shanghai was also the site of an incredibly fertile collision between European and Chinese modernity. This collision gave birth to writers such as Shi Zhecun, and Liu Na’ou (I’d probably also lump Eileen Chang in there as well, since although her work concentrates on the years of the Occupation, and was published in the 1940s, it exists in the shadow of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s she grew up in), nurtured political radicals such as Mao and his wife, and most visibly these days, resulted in the peculiarly Shanghainese fusion of European and Chinese architecture that can be seen in the remaining pieces of the pre-1989 city.

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

Even in 2005, when I was there, these remnants of the old city were vanishing fast. The pace of change in China is (or was, until recently) dizzying, and the Chinese have little interest in preserving what they see as the European city (Shanghai may have been the site of the most potent encounter between Europe and China, but it is also, for that very reason, seen by many Chinese as a symbol of the West’s exploitation of China: not for nothing were the towering buildings of Pudong built straing back across the river at the symbols of European power and wealth that dominate the Bund).

The process has created a city which is very much in flux. Buildings, streets, even whole neighbourhoods seem to vanish overnight, swept away without trace. The results can be startling, shocking, and just plain disconcerting: my partner and I often ate in a restaurant a few blocks from our home; a few weeks after we left a friend who’d eaten there with us was back in Shanghai, and he discovered that not only the restaurant was gone, but everything within a radius of a few hundred metres had also been demolished, apartment blocks already rising on the site.

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

One of the ironies of this process is that it is largely undocumented. Images of Shanghai tend to fall into one of two categories, seeking to capture either the gleaming modernity of the new China, or the elegance and mystery of Old Shanghai.

In a very real sense this is a reflection of a more profound double-vision that afflicts most Western interest in Shanghai. Whether in guidebooks or literature, Western eyes seem unable to see that there are other Shanghais lurking beneath the surface of the city, histories and realities laid down during the Occupation and the Cultural Revolution which exist alongside the more comfortable images of Old Shanghai’s glitter and decadence and New Shanghai’s shining skyscrapers and designer boutiques.

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

These questions are on my mind because I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece about the city, but they’ve also reminded me about the one book I’ve ever seen that seems to me to catch something of the accretive nature of Shanghai as a city, its sense of layered history, which is Greg Girard’s splendid Phantom Shanghai. The images in Greg’s book show a city in flux, a place where the past is being gradually wiped away, yet they also show the many, often enigmatic, traces its past has left. Somewhere – and it may be in Denton Welch’s marvelously strange Maiden Voyage, but I can’t find the reference – there’s a wonderful description of the way Chinese cities and towns often seem to be constructed out of detritus, repaired and repurposed, yet still resembling nothing so much as a conglomeration of offcasts and broken things, and there’s something of this in the images in Phantom Shanghai, as well as a sense of the almost surreal light of the city at night, the reflected glow of the pollution and the neon. But there’s also a sense of the ghostliness of the city, of the way its seems haunted by its past, and by the simultaneous closeness and irretrievability of that past.

With Greg Girard’s permission I’ve reproduced several images from the book in this post, and you can see more by visiting the Monte Clark Gallery website, or Greg Girard’s website (where you can also read William Gibson’s introduction) but I really do urge anyone with an interest in Shanghai to buy the book, – it’s a remarkable document of a city in transition, and of a world which is vanishing even as we speak.

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Beyond the break: On Surfing and Writing

 

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

While digging through my hard drive yesterday I came across the piece below. It’s a few years old now, and I think a rather different version of the same piece ran in Good Reading in 2004, but it seemed worth giving it an airing, not least because I so rarely find time to surf anymore, and I miss it so much.

Two or three times a week, twelve months of the year, I make my way to the beach with my brother and a small group of friends. Although the purpose of the trip is what we call “ocean time”, which is code for surfing, it is also about a sort of escape, not just from our work and from our day to day lives, but from the more controlled aspects of the selves we need to be to live those lives.

The result is a little like playing hooky: slightly overcharged and somehow suspended out of normality. It’s also almost exclusively male, and curiously, for something that is about escape, is itself highly ritualised. From the time-coded pick-ups to the arguments about which beaches we will check out to the perving on chicks these excursions conform to a script which varies only in its detail.

Explosion duckdive, Bondi  (courtesy www.aquabumps.com)

Explosion duckdive, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

How much the sense of escape is connected to the actual surfing I’m not sure. It may be that the surfing is merely a pretext for this behaviour, as shopping or golf or fishing clearly are for other people, at least in part. But although we all spend time together for other purposes, much of it also involving physical activity – running, gym, occasionally snorkelling or diving – none of these other expeditions have the same sense of excitement and freedom, either for me or the others.

I suspect most people conceive of writing – and people who write, with a few notable exceptions – as confined to a sphere which not just excludes the physical, but which actually exists in some sort of opposition to it. In fact the processes of writing, and of entering a space where it is possible to write, seem to me to be about a way of being which is almost seamlessly continuous with the life of the body.

Writing, at least the sort I’m interested in, is about communicating the nature of being. Despite its medium, it is a conversation between minds about aspects of existence – psychological, spiritual, emotional – which exist independent of language, and which are for the most part irreducible to mere words. It’s about making the apprehended but inexpressible communicable, about taking the pre-verbal and ineffable experience of emotion and passing that experience on to another. That mere words have this ability to transcend their own meanings, to offer us a glimpse of the mirrors that lie in the inner worlds of others is something we have all felt in that moment of recognition that comes when something we read or hear strikes us as somehow right or true, that sense a chord has been struck somewhere within us, its meanings neither simple nor easily explained.

Like music, any piece of writing has a shape and cadence of its own. It is about rhythms, in language, in character, in story. It is these rhythms that you seek when you write, for they are the contours you try and bring forth. What guides you is not the intellect, or at least not the conscious part of it, but something more intuitive. It is the sense that you are following a shape which somehow already exists, something not so much invented as implicit in the thing itself. Just as sculptors claim to see a shape within the uncarved stone, so the story seems to be already there, like a name half-forgotten which lingers on the tip of the tongue.

Understood like this the process of writing is more a kind of listening than anything, a quiet attendance to the thing. Like the shaping of objects with the hands, the turn of a pot upon a wheel or a lathe upon wood, it is a process in which the intrusion of the conscious mind is often a hindrance, for the important thing in trying to find these rhythms is not to try too hard, not to force it. To hear the rhythms in a thing, to let it happen, you must learn to let go of your intentions, to forget the self and just be.

Learning to do this is one of the hardest things about writing. When a book is near its end it usually has a kind of momentum, an effortlessness, as if some apex has been passed and now the run is downhill, but before that point it can be difficult to find the rhythms you are seeking. Forgetting the self and entering that state of flow is not something that can be just picked up and put down: it requires large spaces of time, room to think and tinker, or just to be.

But it’s not just a question of time. What is needed is a way of escaping the life you are immersed within, of connecting with those things which ground you and your work. Different people find this in different ways, but increasingly I have found it through the stolen time of surfing.

Surfers often talk about their sport in almost religious terms, and although I don’t have a lot of sympathy for much of the culture that surrounds surfing, this sense of the act as a kind of spiritual journey is one I understand very well. To leave the shore and swim out, through the break and over the back, is to feel yourself slip free of your moorings and give yourself to the elements. Although your conscious mind still matters, you enter a world where it is your physical existence that matters first and foremost, the movement of your body in the water, with the water.

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Sometimes the rewards for this are no more than the joy of playing in the ocean, a simple pleasure in the act itself. But there are other times, most often in the last hour or so of dusk, when the beach is quiet and the sky has begun to fade, when it is far more. Then, as the ocean moves beneath you and the long feed of the clouds passes overhead it  possible to sense the presence of a meaning which lingers just out of reach. It is to do with time, and its depth, with the rhythm of the sky and the waves, the cry of the birds as they pass overhead. Apprehended not consciously but somewhere deeper, this meaning beats like the pulse of a heart, something always there but of which we are only occasionally aware; deep and ceaseless, it fills the fabric of the world until it trembles with its weight.

This sense of the world’s presence in its pieces, of its divinity is one which runs deep in my writing. But the knowledge of its existence grounds me in a more mundane way, binding me to the act of surfing, to the escape it offers. For in the loss of self that surfing demands, the submission of the conscious mind to the rhythms of the ocean, I find a sort of peace, a capacity to move and think freely, and ultimately, to attain the sort of equilibrium I need to write.

(The images on this page are provided courtesy of Eugene Tan at www.aquabumps.com, whose daily email chronicle of the changing moods of Sydney’s beaches has been a bright point in my day for more years than I care to remember).

© James Bradley, 2009

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Winners of the International Wildbird Photographer Awards

Mike Frakes, 'Great Egret'

Mike Frakes, 'Great Egret' (click to enlarge)

Since I’m on a bit of a nature roll, let me recommend checking out the winners of the International Wildbird Photographer Awards. The winning image, by 17 year-old Mark Smit of the Netherlands, is a stunner, but I think my personal favourite is this one, by Australian Mike Frakes. Taken on the Swan River, in Perth, it’s a wonderful image, full of a sense of the strange, secret life that emerges under cover of dark, and of the way the wild is always present close at hand, even in the most urban environment.

And if you’ve got a bit more time to spend, I highly recommend a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year online gallery.
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The Hunt

sailfish-circles-sardines-615

Photo by Paul Nicklen

This is an amazing and beautiful thing. Photos and video of sailfish cooperating to herd schools of sardine.

“The hunt seems almost mammalian. Sailfish—which often travel in loose groups—clearly join forces. Males and females alike circle the prey, pushing the school into tighter formation, and taking a few bites in turn. Each forward rush is punctuated by a startling flare of the dorsal fin, which more than doubles the hunter’s profile . . . The sardines, too, work in concert. Detecting each other’s proximity and movement, they shift in synchrony, each fish both leader and follower. The fish mass slides like a drop of mercury, mesmerizing, with a shimmer that may help to confuse predators . . .”

Read more at National Geographic.

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Wayne Levin

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

Flicking through some books the other night, I came across my copy of Wayne Levin’s Other Oceans. It’s a remarkable book, showcasing a series of black and white photos taken by Levin in aquariums around the world, and juxtaposing an almost sacred sense of the mysteriousness and wonder of the ocean and its inhabitants with the hushed, oddly utilitarian surfaces of the aquariums themselves. It is a juxtaposition that is haunting because it speaks so directly to our yearning for communion with the otherness we see embodied in the ocean and its inhabitants. But it is also, as Thomas Farber points out in his introduction, unsettling for the way it reminds us that if we do not change the path we are on, and quickly, it will not be long before the only way we will know the ocean’s inhabitants will be as creatures in submarine zoos of the sort featured in Levin’s photographs.

Levin’s photography probably isn’t familiar to many outside of the United States, and the broader community of those who are fascinated by the ocean, but he’s a Hawaii-based photographer who, working largely in black and white, has spent the best part of the last three decades documenting a very personal portrait of the ocean and its inhabitants. Although he has explored seas further afield, most of his photographs have been taken in the waters around his home, capturing surfers and divers and, most remarkably, what he describes as the resident spirits of the seas – the whales, dolphins, turtles and fish that move beneath the surface, largely unseen.

441The best of his photographs capture something of the immensity and mysteriousness of the ocean, its elusive and constantly-changing beauty. Some are collected together in Other Oceans and Through a Liquid Mirror, both of which feature introductions by Thomas Farber, author of the remarkable The Face of the Deep and On Water. But he also operates a beautiful website, Wayne Levin Images, which draws together a terrific selection of his work, and is well worth a visit.

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All images © Wayne Levin.