It has been a while since my last post and for a change I thought I would write about art and history. For those who don’t know, besides founding rare-bird Online, I am also finishing my PhD on nineteenth century Australian exploration journals. In a nutshell, I look at a range of manifestations of the sublime, which throughout history has a range of meanings. My study is interested in how the sublime morphed and played out in the Australian context. Amongst other things, this has taken me back to the concept of the nineteenth century “curio cabinet” and the drive by the collectors to hunt out the rare and the uncommon.
In a similar vein, it is this search for singularity that drives a rare-bird to fossick out those illusive objects and experiences that make for an aesthetic and enduring future. Not the mass-produced juggernaut that is today’s fashion industry and art market. Rather it is in the tension and the spaces created within these corporate inventions, that it is possible to find the rare, the beautiful and our sense of what is right. Just like the sublime, it is in our struggle to make judgments about what is worthy in a sea of sameness driven by hyper technology.
Earlier this year I came across the “Liminal” exhibition and the work of Thom Buchanan, a South Australian artist. The exhibition reflected Buchanan’s fascination with time and the built environment as he questioned the environmental and physiological ramifications of city living. Buchanan entreats us, the viewer, to engage in an imaginative timescale that encompasses future or past built environments and the tension that that creates in our mind. That heady mix of utopian and dystopian memory and the layered pasts we still inhabit.
Buchanan argues that our ability to see and discern into the future should reflect an engagement with and through the thousands of years of history that precedes us. Our sense of place and identity can only come through the acknowledgement of Indigenous understandings and their connection to the land through to contemporary migrant experiences. In Buchanan’s work there exists tensions between natural and built environments, between moving forward and being still, between the living and the dead.
The disjointed or fractured structure of his work asks us to be conscious of built environments as constructed spaces in time. This made me think about how do we create a future for a city that understands its history and takes responsibility for the past and for future generations? What new custodial relationships will be needed for a changing climate? Buchanan believes it is the role of the artist to address such issues. And I believe it is also the responsibility of a rare-bird. We are not just clotheshorses or worshippers of those singular objects of beauty. We are working to take our place at the table as arbiters of what the future should encompass.
Anyway back to the nineteenth century. James Dawson who was a significant property owner at the time had a place near Tower Hill in Victoria. He recognised the uniqueness of the site and he campaigned hard for its preservation. Looking back, nothing he did was as effective to this aim as his commission of Tower Hill by Eugene von Guerard. In the 1960’s von Guerard’s accurate and meticulously detailed portrayal of Tower Hill, in particular the diverse vegetation supported by the fertile volcanic ecosystem of the crater, was used as a template for the re-vegetation of the site following the devastation caused by a century of clearing, grazing and mining.
In the end what artists and aesthetic forms teach us is that economics, power and technology cannot rise as singularly triumphant if we are to maintain and hand on to future generations a rare and beautiful world driven by a desire and an acknowledgement of our custodial responsibilities.