Was By the Northern Coast, a collaborative installation by Courtney Pedersen and Charles Robb, draws its title from Skibbrudd ved den norske kyst (Shipwreck on the Norwegian coast) (1832), a landscape painting by nineteenth century Norwegian artist Johan Christian Clausen Dahl. As suggested by its title, the painting depicts a dismasted vessel battling the rough seas along the rocky coastline of Norway, and is imbued with Romantic and Patriotic sentiments. Deliberately mistranslated, the title Was By the Northern Coast breaks away from the specifics of location and opens up interpretation to hint at a broader engagement with ideas of history, material culture and place. With this approach, the artists are also able to draw on their own personal histories and notions of identity, which are rooted in Australia’s diverse culture and its rich migrant heritage.
With Norwegian ancestors who arrived to Australia in the nineteenth century, as a part of an organised Scandinavian migration program, Pedersen’s interest in the cultural factors and ramifications of migration underscores the work and its strong Nordic overtones. An imaginative visual representation of a Northern European sensibility or aesthetic, displaced by distance and time, this exhibition consists of an austere yet poetic arrangement of materials, carefully selected for their Nordic and Australian connections. A large mass of weathered and warped timber dominates the center of the gallery; the sound of dripping water and Scandinavian song, Kulning or herding calls can be heard echoing throughout the space. The use of wood, with its natural forms and latent potential, points to resonances that exist between Scandinavian timbercraft and building traditions and Queensland’s distinctive style of housing architecture. Sitting on a blanket of white created with pile wool carpet, the lumber heap evokes a European landscape, such as those depicted by Dahl, with mountain peaks and snowdrifts below. A heavy rope, symbolic of the nautical lineages of Northern European immigrants, anchors the timber mass to the wall of the gallery, as if it was the remains of a wrecked vessel at risk of floating away.
Together these natural and manmade materials, imbued with symbolic meaning and value, point to broader issues around cultural and national identity. With multiple associations attributed to each of the elements, their relationship remains fluid and mutable, which encourages us to reflect on the limitations of cultural specificity and the impossibility of a single cohesive national identity. With emphasis placed on the adaptable nature of meaning, the work props up the idea that Australia is a nation that “improvises its nature and negotiates its survival, constantly, from every available fragment of individual experience, collective fantasy and communal friction.”1 Initial attempts at a singular interpretation of the work seem to evolve from an underlining tendency to read into or deduce logically the material arrangement, as if it was a display of artefacts like those found in a natural history museum. The imaginative quality of Was By the Northern Coast in evoking an aesthetic – an elusive phenomenon that is as clear in its effect as unclear in its structure and properties – allows the work to transcend fixed interpretation to awaken within the viewer a deeper interest in material culture pertaining to the way people use material to express themselves, their views and their experiences.2
Identity as a process, resulting from “‘exchanges’ and ‘collisions’ of values, aesthetics and meanings” 3, a notion that permeates this exhibition, also reveals the artists’ shared interest in the idea of the self or subject, which is expressed in their respective practices. Both Pedersen and Robb destabilise the dominant view of a fixed, autonomous self with their artistic practices and research to propose alternative approaches that reflect levels of complexity and fluidity. Robb employs the sculptural bust format to create self-portraits that challenge the clear delineation of subject and object to consider the “indeterminacies and contingencies of representation more broadly.” 4 While Pedersen’s practice utilises a genealogical methodology for the artist to contextualise her own familial heritage in a boarder Australian history, overcoming limitations and shortcomings of linear genealogy by looking to more expansive models that take into account such aspects as family storytelling and myth. A collaboration that brings together the distinctly different practices of two artists who see and appreciate life for its complexity and richness, Was By the Northern Coast encapsulates and expresses the nuances of Australian social history, material culture and identity.
Commissioned for the exhibition ‘Was by the Northern Coast’ by Courtney Pedersen
and Charles Robb.
- Martin Adrian, “Moffatt’s Australia (A Reconnaissance)”, Parkett, no.53, 1998, p.21-28
- Gaynor Kavanagh, "Objects as Evidence, or Not?," in Museum Studies in Material Culture, ed. Susan M. Pearce and University of Leicester. Dept. of Museum Studies. London: Leicester University Press, 1989, p.128.
- Courtney Brook Pedersen, The Indefinitive Self: Subject as Process in Visual Art. PhD by Creative Works, Queensland University of Technology, 2005, p.74
- Charles Robb, The Self as Subject and Sculpture. Masters by Research thesis, Monash University, 2008, p.24
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