Solo show 1996

“…as a log book stands to a journey”

Photographers Gallery Punt Rd South Yarra.
November 2006

In November of 1996 I had my first solo show at The Photographers Gallery Punt, Road South Yarra. I don't actually remember the dates and the only info I can find in my archive is the exhibition catalogue, by Margot Rosser. I am reproducing the essay here along with the checklist of works [pdf file 100kb].

The show consisted of 25 framed silver gelatin prints.

The essay is Copyright Margot Rosser.

“A log book is where one makes notations pertaining to the physical world. A journey connotes personal discovery, some sort of reckoning or metamorphosis, a search for elusive qualities. The relationship between the two, log book and journey provides a code for reading these photographs. That which is available as a detailed document of particular landscapes contains a sub-text : a subjective treatise on nature and art and self.

Stuart Murdoch reveals an intrigue with topographical histories, mapping sites between city and country. And yes, these are histories, for the photographer more often returns to the locations of childhood adventures, mapping their transformations at the hand of technological and human intervention, foreshadowing the possible future of sites. Return provides part of the impetus for Stuart’s work, a kind of checking of the adult self, with questions of where notions of self have come from, of how they evolved. Landscape provides the form for this process of questioning, it is also an end in itself.

Another aspect of the photographs as history is the way in which they document recreational and industrial lands. In ‘Keilor’ we see rambling parklands which were once a garbage dump. In ‘Clifton Hill’ Stuart retraces a river which is now dominated by the inclusion of a freeway. This mapping of local changes suggests a return visit in 2006. Stuart makes us think about the shape-shifting which has and will continue to occur.

In these landscapes things are not always as they appear to be. A second reading, another layer, is apparent if one spends time with the work. In ‘West Essendon’ undulating hills of a pastoral vista are swathed in horizontal shafts of afternoon light. And yet the horizon is patterned with spreading development and the view itself is for a munitions factory. This look - again quality occurs again in ‘Box Hill North’. What seems at a glance to be an idyllic portrayal of willows by a stream has few of the irregularities to be found in nature. It is a virtual, fabricated landscape, manicured for suburban recreation.

Such sites in the making reveal the force of intervention, the stuff from which we fashion nature in own image. ‘Streeton Views, Yallambi’ uncovers the deception. Stuart focuses on the earth moving processes before the land is dotted with neat houses and obligatory native gardens. He reveals how we take the land back to a blank canvas and start again, constructing a sanitised and nostalgic version of Streeton’s Australia. Again in ‘Near Bacchus Marsh’, this shaping and displacement of earth. Stuart finds chiseled crossroads, patterns pathways, beauty. In the raising of dust, he finds atmospheric haze, softness, irony. And light, that elusive substance which holds a photographer, if only momentarily. It is here, contemplating an urban wasteland, that we may quote the words of Wallace Stevens: “the imperfect is our paradise”.

For after all, it is at the edges of cities, in greenbelts and gardens, that Australia's majority experience nature in our day to day lives. The proliferation of idealised photographs of wilderness sites show us how we would like nature to be. It is a rarefied experience, more often negotiated through images in calendars and coffee table books. Most of us stay in cities and towns, leaving well enough alone. Stuart’s choice of focusing on the systems of interface between human life and available nature, is in part a political statement, urging us to engage with what is at hand.

Working with overlooked subjects: the woven verticals of light coloured stalks on a dark background, the zigzagging edges where park meets bridge, the checker - board play of plastic protectors as they allow new trees to gain strength; Stuart reveals a formal sophistication which leans towards pattern and structure. Mere tools of trade and yet these keenly observed forms, joined with carefully made large format negatives and generously crafted black and white prints, place the work firmly within a tradition. It is a radical tradition, intent on grappling with the world as it is.

And yet within these vernacular landscapes, that elusive quality: a sanctioned space. In ‘Clifton Hill’, so close to home, Stuart finds his utopia amidst the distopia of graffitied bridges. Sturdily constructed pylons, water, light shadow, space, the edges of the camera’s frame: these elements add up to more than the sum of their parts. The artist sees the bridge as if it were splendid classical architecture. Perhaps here, amidst our local Colloseums, we may find a place which receives our questions about how we relate to our constructed world.

The questions which keep returning: Is nature resilient to the interventions of human life? Can we redeem our relationship to nature as we face the demands of the next century? These are two of the questions these photographs so thoughtfully raise.”

Thanks again Margot for all the hard work and effort you put into to this wonderful essay.