Australia Phoenix: A Cosmology

Susan Purdy

1 December 2020

Susan Purdy, Austraila Phoenix, 2020, gelatin silver photograms (unique state), 40.5cm x 2100cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith

Susan Purdy takes on a journey into deep time, using the medium of photogram to trace the history of a landscape from creation story to recent devastating bushfires.

Susan Purdy works with photograms to communicate ideas about fire and the environment. During the 2009 fires in Victoria, she experienced this elemental force of nature in its wildest form and was made inescapably aware that environment and climate govern our existence.

Australia Phoenix seeks to make sense of natural catastrophe and bring consciousness to bear on tragedy, understanding that through our deepest connection to nature we access its healing power. In a twenty-one metre sequence, the work tells a story about the cyclical nature of life and the inevitability of change.

Starting with the cosmos and a universally understood language of creation, the viewer is invited to explore an unfolding narrative.  An isolated island, with its unique blend of flora and fauna, is shaped by fire from earliest habitation to the present day

Firstly the title of this work: Australia Phoenix: a Cosmology. The work is made as a response to the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.

Australia Felix with an ‘f’ is Latin for fortunate or happy Australia. The Phoenix with a ‘p’, as in this case, refers to the Chinese firebird that has the power to rise from the ashes, and the two meanings are intentionally combined here.

A cosmology is defined as the study of the nature and origin of the universe or a theory about it, and as a branch of philosophy dealing with the origin and general structure of the universe, with its parts, elements, and laws and it’s characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.

So the title spells out my ambition to recreate a version of the world, and a specific one, dealing with this bushfire event in Victoria, 2009.  The inclusion of the word cosmology tells that the context for this story is an expanded scale or timeframe. There is a big picture into which this particular narrative is set, acting as a frame to help us understand what we have and will yet see.

The images themselves are a record of their manufacture. It is helpful to know how they are produced. The process combines doing and making, like a shadow puppet play where visual illusion is conjured for the telling of a story with dark silhouettes on a simple screen. Only this is a reversal process in which the photographic paper becomes dark when exposed to light; so black is a product of light.

Photograms are unique, they are never mass-produced with this primitive photographic medium. The images in Australia Phoenix are crafted in the darkroom, one at a time and exist as “one of a kind”. There are no cameras or film involved, just objects laid onto light-sensitive paper and exposed for various lengths of time under lamplight.

In this blackness forms and shapes spring into the void. We have a narrative divided into three parts. The first part begins with empty space, a white wall and then what looks like three blank pages. But close inspection reveals that the paper has been embossed with strange geometric leaves. Something is manifesting out of the darkness. These leaves are from banksias, the Australian native species that needs fire to catalyse the germination of its seed. It originates in an environment where fire is a necessary and essential part of life. In the heat of the fire, the pods of certain pioneer species release their seed, and so seed becomes the emblem of redemption in this work. It keeps reminding us of the bigger picture, the longer timeframe.  It is both ending and beginning. The burn is necessary to catalyze new life, which only comes through the transformative force of fire.

Part One

Susan Purdy, Austraila Phoenix, 2020, gelatin silver photograms (unique state), 40.5cm x 2100cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith

So this Part ONE is a creation story, a beginning. Australian anthropologist W.E.H Stanner, said of the Aboriginal Dreaming: “One cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time: it was and is everywhen.” I read that “The Dreaming is the time when creative beings were actively creating the world. The dreaming links the past, the present and the future.” In this narrative, the hand shadow represents the creator being who throws casuarina seeds into space where they become stars in this galaxy. The night sky is one of the few things we still see in black and white.

Beneath the velvety darkness of the naturally dark night sky, colour seems almost completely absent. There are times when what we need is immersion in total darkness—a rest from the world of overwhelming sensation and complexity. Darkness is an antidote—a calm meditative space. An emptiness that is paradoxically full.

Through the starry night of this narrative, Captain Cook, represented by the ship, sails the seas toward the Australian continent. The night sky is full and bright. Falling stars, planets and comets traverse this space, they are created here with casuarina seed, wattle leaves, indian oil lamp wicks, and even a pair of tektites or australites. One of the earliest human books is a second Century Chinese scroll that illustrates the possible range and types of comet tails.  The Chinese believed that a comet was a predictor of disaster and that by “reading” the tail shape they could divine which sort of crisis was coming and thus be more prepared.

Bringing this idea into an Australian context, Chloe Hooper, in her book The Tall Man explains her understanding of Aboriginal belief systems this way:  “Spiritual forces were connected with the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming, and hence to such phenomena as storms, cyclones, lightning. … The old people…. believed the Rainbow Serpent, carved out the landscape leaving tracks for water. Its voice was thunder, lightning its tongue; a falling star, perhaps, the serpent’s eye as its body writhed in the dark. Sacred trees were its ribs, a rainbow was the serpent’s body in light.” My snake image is also made with light, ferns are masked by the form of a real snake.

What the idea of The Dreaming tells me, as a white fella, is that there are other ways of viewing time. It is a doorway through which to glimpse a bigger picture of our situation and this is a very helpful idea when events seem to crush us and we are surrounded by destruction.

The last image uses the elements dried frogs, ferns and a Persimmon paper Japanese waterfall stencil printed in reverse.

Part Two

Susan Purdy, Austraila Phoenix, 2020, gelatin silver photograms (unique state), 40.5cm x 2100cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith

Part TWO is a closer view of Discovery Bay.

There are narrow-leaf peppermint gums by the water. We see the coast through a wet enclosed forest; ships on the horizon are glimpsed through the trees. With these new arrivals, two worlds are in an imminent collision.   The story here is told using eucalyptus leaves and twigs, casuarina seeds, wonga vine, clematis flowers, moths, a shed cicada shell, and a case moth cocoon.

The view of the forest becomes even more intimate and our gaze shifts to the leaves on the forest floor. Eucalypt leaves with beetle holes, gourds, beetle and fly illustrations, Wonga vine.

Eckhart Tolle in his book Stillness Speaks expresses an important idea for this work. He says “When you walk through a forest that has not been tamed and interfered with by man, you will see not only abundant life around you but you will also encounter fallen trees and decaying trunks, rotting leaves and decomposing matter at every step. Wherever you look, you will find death as well as life. Upon closer scrutiny, however, you will discover that the decomposing tree trunk and rotting leaves not only give birth to new life but are full of life themselves. Micro-organisms are at work. Molecules are rearranging themselves. So death isn’t to be found anywhere.

“There is only the metamorphosis of life forms. What can you learn from this? Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.”

Amongst this leaf litter, exotic plants brought and cultivated by the first settlers begin to grow.

Susan Purdy, Austraila Phoenix, 2020, gelatin silver photograms (unique state), 40.5cm x 2100cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith

The following images describe their cultivation, and the resulting multiplicity and complexity. Teeming, swarming insects invade the gardens of the pioneers. Efforts at growing vegetables fail. The existence of both the native flora and the fauna present a challenge that has to be removed.

The two systems are in tension, jostling and claustrophobically crowding for light, space, and position. This struggle is depicted with casuarina seed pods, boab seed pod, native passionfruit vine, cactus, cicada and melon illustrations, flowers of Stenocarpus Sinuatus: firewheel tree, gourds,  beetle and white ant illustrations, Wonga vine, pyrographic native animals.

These are Strange Fruit in a tangled, overgrown, hanging garden. The colonials used illustration, cataloguing, ordering and classifying to come to terms with the plants and animals of the new world. They overlaid what they found with their Anglo-Saxon ways. The outcome of this cross-pollination is instability of the old system; the results are unpredictable, resulting in weird hybridity. Cultures clash—and the landscape changes.

Chaos is the end result of uncontrolled growth. Aberrations and deviance result. Things begin to change and break down following a natural law.

Disintegration begins. Destruction and deterioration follow. Amongst the people a kind of madness also grows, social dysfunction spreads, extreme behaviours, including pyromania and arson manifest. This is cause and effect, represented here by the archetypal villain and the mischief bird.

It is a savage statistic that fifty per cent of fires are deliberately lit.

The alleged arsonist of the Jeeralang fire is a young man who was employed at the same workplace as me.

Part Three

 

What we see here is the kindling. Every fire has a point of ignition. A race against time starts here.

The early paintings of bush-fire depict, explore and seek to understand what bush-fire looked like. What I saw was a huge plume of smoke to the North. To reproduce what was witnessed cotton wool and plastic bags were shaped to describe all the varieties and qualities of smoke.  The smoke is turbulent, billowing and suffocating, we are enveloped in it, burnt birds, scrub wren, and a swallow, fall out of the sky. It is a scene of obliteration.

Here, in the two images that follow the birds, the essential process of fixing the paper with hypo has been intentionally interrupted. This means that over time these smoky images will slowly discolour and darken in an irreversible chemical fog breaking all the rules of archival permanence.

Now the work truly belongs in a world where all is in a state of flux and change.

In the next images plastic bags, flour, Eucalyptus twigs show the fire-front as it moves up a mountainside.  A catastrophic fire event is connected directly with the pressing issue of global warming.  The climate is drier because of the removal of trees that transpire moisture. All remnant bushland must be urgently retained. Although so little of the original forest exists today, it is still being logged at a rate never seen before. The history of continuous land clearing in Victoria must be challenged. The remaining forest is fragmented through logging and conversion to plantation; there are grave threats to biodiversity because of the low level of protection in reserves, and there are immediate effects of intensive logging operations in our main water catchment. We hope that the environment can cope and regenerate but a fire may become the tipping point. We may lose it all.

In the burning forest, many animals suffer and die without witness. The koala populations in particular were badly impacted. The Internet was flooded with cute images of koalas whose need for water was so desperate that they risked their lives entering human spaces to look for it.  A photograph of one particular koala reaching for a drink from a firefighter’s water bottle was published around the world and became a symbol of the fires and their impact. Dr Patrick Greene of Museum Victoria said: “When many of us were struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the natural disaster, the story of Sam the koala somehow expressed not only the terrible hardship, but also the immense community spirit that united us all.”

Sam’s burns healed but she was badly affected by Chlamydiosis, a bacterial disease common in koalas. She was euthanised the following August. The stuffed Koala has been housed in the Victorian Museum. What has not been made apparent is that this disease is directly linked to the loss of the forests and is causing a slow mass extinction of koalas in Victoria by affecting their fertility. If there is genuine care for the koala we must show it by stopping the loss of their habitat.

This image is created with Eucalyptus twigs and sticks and by printing koala illustrations on stickers or “decorative transfers”.

 

Susan Purdy, Austraila Phoenix, 2020, gelatin silver photograms (unique state), 40.5cm x 2100cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith

Loss, Blight and Rawness. Here the story becomes very personal. The final pictures are made with melted wine glasses found lying on the burnt ground after Saturday, February 7th 2009 when the fire front passed through Callignee. This is the same fire that was coming to my home until the wind changed that afternoon, and then my friends in Callignee took their turn to face the threat.  R kept in touch by text throughout the next hours, reporting first his family’s evacuation and then at 9pm he wrote “it’s just been through, I saved the house, there is nothing else left.” After his fight with the fire he stayed alone in the house he’d saved for four days before help could be sent in. We kept in touch by text.  Eleven people died near his home; when R learned this terrible fact he told me he didn’t know if he’d been stupid to stay and fight or just incredibly lucky.

All the grapevines and buildings of their vineyard were burnt out. The wine glasses were melted. I borrowed them for this project and as it happened, without planning it, I exposed their imprint on the first anniversary of Black Saturday. As I unpacked them the ash fell out, physical remains from the fire-ground, now fixed in time in this work.

Finally, a light shines through the burn holes created by an ember attack.

It shows how Light and Dark are connected and in constant dynamic transformation. In a similar process, inert seed is charged and enlivened by the fire. Life has no end but change is a constant principle of our lives, our lessons are in the acceptance of this. The fire event has given us an opportunity to grasp this deep and profound truth of our existence: it is a hard but beautiful insight.

Video Tour YouTube Link (use compass tool top left to navigate the 360 space)

Australia Phoenix was exhibited at Gippsland Art Gallery (1 February – 5 July 2020). You can listen to the audio tour here

Author

Susan Purdy lives and works in the Strezlecki Ranges, in Gippsland, on the South Eastern corner of Australia. Her works are a reinterpretation of early photographic practices. They reverse the way of making a photograph from negative to positive. The medium of the photogram evokes dark space, where the flow between forms is revealed and made visible. Still life arrangements of objects are placed on the surface of light-sensitive paper in an intimate, even ritualistic act that gives rise to interplay between solid and void. Purdy’s works are in a number of significant public collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. You can view more at www.susanpurdy.net.


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