An account of the topographical features and earthly delights of Arcadia
Journey to Arcadia, nsw
26 February – 13 March 2010
No Frills* Artist Run Initiative, Brisbane
[First published in 2010 as catalogue essay for Journey to Arcadia, nsw, No Frills]
Arriving at Port Jackson in 1788, it was reported that ‘every man stepped from the boat into a wood’, shortly after, ‘the woods were opened up and ground cleared, the various encampments were extended, and all wore the appearance of regularity’.1 Clearings created vistas, providing a perfect view of this (first) Arcadia which neatly excised any trace of colonial violence. Not so many years later, the encampments continue their westward lurch, bringing the gleam of new frontiers and an appearance equally deceptive to willing eyes. This is where Sydney artist Sean Rafferty finds fertile ground, attempting to describe the landscape as have so many Australian artists before, while taking pains to remind audiences that any view is a product of where, when and how one is looking.
What we are looking at in Journey to Arcadia, nsw (2009) is an ordinary highway cutting its way through the rolling hills and verdant orchards of Country Australia, a single homestead peeping out from behind the foliage, local produce for sale by the roadside. Of course we are looking through a gilded frame, itself only visible through a peephole in a wall, bordered by a decorative fruit box cut-out, which is both an unusual manner of viewing a painting and an excellent place to set off.
This is a journey that takes in several Arcadias, crossing continents and times as well as the landscapes of memory and desire. The nearest to us is a village on the outskirts of Sydney, one of many peripheral towns one imagines named for its resemblance (real or desired) to a notional idyllic Arcadia. A place with thriving commercial interests in stables, ‘pet nannies’ and fruit produce,2 one can also find here gambolling white horses and quaint hand-painted signs – as did Rafferty on a recent road trip – but then, perhaps it depends on what you’re looking for.
Passing through curtains, perhaps pulling over with a mind to pick up some stone fruit, we’ll enter this charming scene stage left, painted in flat, bright colours onto cardboard silhouettes receding as in a children’s pop-up book; from this angle we can peer under and across its cardboard plains and timber scaffold (the cheap utilitarian materials of the fruit and veg industry), as well as back towards the original viewing frame. In the scene itself, you might now begin to notice small details not visible to one standing front on: a southern cross scrawled on the highway sound barrier, fast food signs, an advertisement for ‘new’ land available from Homeland, and a swathe of monotonous housing projects tucked quietly behind a hill. These are the same flat roofs and squat, generic bungalows that make regular cameos in Rafferty’s work, from his Transitory Projects suitcase series (2006) to more recent sun-bleached cardboard suburbia-scapes, harbingers of the tension between a home of one’s own and the grim, potentially threatening, reality of urban sprawl.
Arcadia, the faraway place (there are more than one of these too), has always contained both the ‘shaggy and smooth; dark and light’. 3The original Arcadia of Greek mythology was brutal, harsh and wild, populated by bestial gods and noble savages. By the time of Virgil it had come to be viewed as a utopia of leisurely pastoral abundance, where simple shepherds relaxed under the benign outer reach of the city-state (according with perceptions of the actual mountainous province of Arcadia in Greece). Both of these are landscapes of the urban imagination, useful devices for constructing and approaching a world beyond the one we inhabit from day-to-day.
Here in Oz, the Land has been imagined along both extremes: as a tough, heroic wilderness and a rustic pasture of milk and new beginnings, a home-land by adoption or conquest rather than birthright. Films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock reveal an almost clichéd anxiety towards our uncleared terrain, a kind of primal innocence which has not yet been clothed in the appearance of regularity or (sub)urban habitation. Conceptions of place are also bound up with national identity, resplendent against a backdrop of abundant produce coaxed from a hostile earth.
Behind such colourful projections sit a more narrowly pragmatic view of land as commodity, something that rolls off the factory line in parcels to be purchased at the next exit. As is literally the case in Rafferty’s fictional Arcadia, nsw, landscape in this scenario is reduced to a flimsy prop, disposable backing for a sales pitch that can be disassembled and remade to suit the requirements of the day. Although we aren’t in a showroom just now, and these flattened cardboard hills are more akin to a theatre set than the ‘standees’ (3D advertisements for upcoming features in the cinema foyer) that have informed much of Rafferty’s past work, from The Spectacle (2006) to the Projection series (2006 – 07). As with many of these earlier projects, it is the ‘emergence of a temporary theatrical space in the landscape’4 that fascinates the artist; what happens in this place of patently illusory experience and what insights might be gained from seeing ourselves at one remove, acting or simply standing awkwardly inside them.
Before breaking for refreshments, a brief detour: consider another type of topia linked to an export from ancient Greece: the secluded central courtyard or peristyle in Pompeian homes, lifted from the Greek town house. Limited in size by the high cost of city land, its view could be extended by painting garden scenes on the walls, even ‘complete landscapes with mountains and the sea in the background’. What’s more, windows ‘revealing beautiful scenery beyond’ were often painted on the interiors of the mostly dark surrounding rooms.5This is landscape as theatrical domestic space, fixed and airbrushed to locate the home in a setting more ‘natural’ and sublime than that which sits outside; and a rudimentary precursor to the illuminated boxes that increasingly mediate our relationships with the world. The ultimate integration of the screen into everyday life, the dedicated home theatre, is a central preoccupation for Rafferty and a symbol of our growing separation from where we actually are (what we might see through the ‘real’ window), permeating both the structures he builds and the way audiences use them. 6
Returning to our stage-lit aspirational heartland there is a palpable sense of promise; a wistful, almost painful desire for things to be easy and nice like they are in the pictures. The traces of messy and real human habitation that creep in at the edges seem, nonetheless, to bring a note of cheeky optimism, even as they disclose the absurdity of our relationship to land and country. What Rafferty gives us to take home is the thrill of going backstage, of noticing what falls outside the frame through repositioning ourselves in relation to the landscape. We’re still not in the landscape (otherwise we’d call it something else), but perhaps we’re on our way.
Sean Rafferty, Journey to arcadia, nsw, 2009
- David Collins, An Account of the English colony in New South Wales, 1798, as cited in Colleen Morris, Lost Gardens of Sydney, 2008, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney, p. 13 ↩
- Point of Interest Database, http://www.poidb.com/destinations/location.asp?LocationID=527 viewed 19/2/10 ↩
- Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, 1996, Fontana Press, London p. 517 ↩
- Sean Rafferty, From Opera Theatre to Home Theatre: (the making of) theatrical spaces and devices in the landscape, 2008, Masters thesis, College of Fine Arts, Sydney ↩
- Caroline Davies, The Eternal Garden, 1989, Hill of Content, Melbourne, p. 20 ↩
- See Tessa Zettel, ‘Under Construction: Approaching Sean Rafferty’s Ghost Mountain’, 2009, Locksmith Project, Issue 2, Locksmith Project Space, Sydney & here on Makeshift Journal ↩