© 2012 Rodney Pople 

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Rodney Pople’s recent Port Arthur paintings

 

Felicity Fenner

 

 

Port Arthur is a ruinous vestige of Australia’s most infamous penal settlement, founded in the colony’s far-flung reaches, from where none could escape: Tasmania, “that land of melancholy and despair, haunted by the ghosts of human suffering and cruelty”.[1]  It is a site burdened by brutality and tinged with tragedy, not only in the distant but in the very recent past.

 

Rodney Pople is interested not so much in particular events that have happened at Port Arthur nor their protagonists, but in the notion of the place as a traumatised landscape. Continuing the series that began with his controversial 2012 Glover Prize-winning painting, these works capture the troubled psyche of the now prettified landscape at Port Arthur by visualising what’s known but not seen there. In Pople’s work, Port Arthur is employed as a symbol to represent other hidden landscapes, both in Tasmania and more widely across Australia and indeed the globe. It is also intended to represent internal, psychological landscapes that are equally capable of concealing dark pasts.

 

The Glover Prize-winning painting was controversial not for its depiction of the landscape but due to the appearance of a diminutive Martin Bryant figure. According to head judge Doug Hall, the painting “references “19th century Tasmanian painting and the history of Port Arthur… Then you have this apparition, which is Martin Bryant, floating in the landscape… It is a very thoughtful, poetic work about two moments in Port Arthur’s history that Pople has brought together in a deeply felt way.”[2] Some disagreed with the judges’ decision. While not questioning its artistic merit, the painting was criticised by the local media as being “in poor taste” and “insensitive”.

 

The tragedy of the Port Arthur massacre runs deep within the close-knit community of Tasmania, yet is all but invisible to the modern visitor. Today, tourists to Port Arthur are met with an almost bucolic scene, despite the recent and historic atrocities of the place. It couldn’t be more different, for example, to the experience of their convict predecessors arriving by ship. This contrast was succinctly described by Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore (1986), an iconic text and influential reference for Pople’s current project: “Seabirds wheel, thinly crying, across the black walls and the blacker shadows. The breaking swells throw up their veils. When the clouds march in from the Tasman Sea and the rainsqualls lash the prismatic stone, these cliffs can look like the adamantine gates of Hell itself. Geology had conspired with Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to give the prisoners of the crown a moral fright as their ships hauled in… The modern visitor [in contrast] sees green lawns, the ivy-covered remains of a Gothic church and the enormous bulk of the penitentiary. In its soft tones of pink brick, far gone in crumbling, it seems an almost maternal ruin… the shudder it reliably evokes in the modern tourist comes from the contrast between its mild, pastoral present –et in Arcadia ego – and the legends of its past.”[3] Hughes’s characteristically colourful description was penned ten years prior to the massacre of 35 people by Bryant. Today, the “shudder” felt by visitors is amplified, Port Arthur’s most recent atrocity still raw in the collective living memory.

 

The main triptych of Pople’s current series has Bryant front and centre, being a product of the present day, his actions still impacting tragically on so many families. He is flanked by images from other eras of brutality at Port Arthur. We are reminded that Tasmania is a place from where Aboriginal tribes were disseminated, hunted and massacred, and where convicts endured the harshest conditions and levels of cruelty of all the penal settlements.  

 

These paintings are confronting because the liminal spaces of unseen trauma are traditionally the subject of words and photo-journalism, not art. Many media images have been published and many more words written about Bryant and that dark day in April 1996, from sensationalist media coverage to the painstakingly researched 2009 book Born or Bred, another important resource for Pople’s own research.[4] Although it is widely accepted that the role of artists in society is to provide alternative perspectives on the issues of our time, in the Glover Prize-winning painting from which the current series is evolved, it was the figure of Bryant – unseen but inherent to the psyche of the site – that unnerved viewers.

 

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Rodney Pople is not an artist defined by medium. This exhibition mixes painting and photography, oils and watercolours. Since the 1980s he has used the watercolour medium to create both studies and finished works and in this exhibition combines the two intentions. Watercolour studies are traditionally used as preparatory sketches. It’s a two-stage process but here Pople adapts the traditional process to the digital age. He is fundamentally a traditional mark-maker, but by re-using, “embellishing” the original watercolour can retain the “aura of the original” while at the same time transforming it into the finished art work. [5]  His is a transparent process, a kind of “track changes” tool that Pople has custom-made as a way of fusing the painting and printing processes. We can compare in the exhibition space the original watercolour and the finished product, completed some months after the small sketches undertaken en plein air during a research visit to Port Arthur in early 2012. The result is a form of layering of immediate and later, more reflective impressions of the landscape. This form of layering is not simply a formal device made possible by high-end digital technology. For Pople, the process of visual layering is integral to his conceptual approach when navigating the often violent colonial and contemporary histories of Tasmania, in particular, with reference to the current body of work based on the Port Arthur site.

 

There is an obvious reference in the images of bodies and body parts strung up in trees to Goya’s Disasters of War prints (1810-1820). Not an artist to shy away from frightening imagery and subject matter, for these works above all Goya wanted “the truth to be seen and shown to others, including those who have no wish to see it”.[6] Many other artists have similarly referred to Goya’s series, most notably the British duo Jake and Dinos Chapman. (Their gruesome diorama has recently been installed adjacent to Goya’s original prints in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.)

 

In other works by Pople, a photograph of the landscape is enlarged onto canvas, forming the background to a painting then worked up over time. The rationale behind this unorthodox appropriative technique is not simply to propose extreme juxtaposition, but to evince the intangible qualities of the subject matter. Anthony Bond has referred to this nebulous dimension of Pople’s work as “disturbing, dreamlike and metaphysical… The two stages of constructing these composites, the photo montage and the over painting, each produce their own affective qualities, but the combination of the two produces a third more intangible quality that at times is extremely uncanny”.[7]

 

Photography has long been linked with the uncanny and spectral. Like a horror movie or pornography, the uncanny operates viscerally insofar as it elicits an embodied response. Rejecting crude empathy, Pople’s practice seeks, to quote from cultural theorist on trauma Professor Jill Bennett, “to exploit forms of embodied perception in order to promote forms of critical inquiry”.[8] By invoking mood rather than simply conjuring likeness, a deeper engagement with the work’s subject matter is likely forged by viewers.

 

The artist’s role is not to hide hidden truths but to reveal what’s known, and perhaps felt, but not seen. We are reminded of Paul Carter’s likening of land-clearing in colonial times to throwing a picnic rug over the ground, expressing “an overwhelming need to clear away doubt – not to make the land speak in accents all its own, but to silence the whispers.”[9]

 

In Pople’s work, no such silencing is countenanced: on the contrary, the land’s whispers are transformed into screams by myriad and layered references to the site’s history.

 

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[1] Alex Miller, Autumn Laing, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne, 2011

 

[2] Doug Hall, judge, 2012 Glover Art Prize

 

[3] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Vintage Books, London, 2003

 

[4] Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro, Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: the making of a mass murderer, Fairfax Books, Sydney, 2009

 

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936

 

[6] Evan S. Connell, Francisco Goya: A Life, Counterpoint, New York, 2004

 

[7] Anthony Bond, Rodney Pople: Bellini 21c, Australian Galleries, Sydney, 2010

 

[8] Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art, Stanford University Press, 2005

 

[9] Paul Carter, The Lie of the Land, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1996