Essays/Press

THE EXTREME LANDFORMS PROJECT

CATALOGUE ESSAY BY DAENA MURRAY

Curator Of Visual Arts, Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.

[Copyright – Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory]

Here in Australia we are seeing the roots of mountains, once vast and towering.  This part now visible was hidden in the midst of an unimaginable pile of sandstone.  Here we walk below ancient seas, glimpse the continent’s varied past in the layers of pebbles or the ephemeral ripple marks captured one day before days had names (Artist’s Diary 26.4.92)

A sense of privilege pervades the extraordinary body of work which Christian Clare Robertson has produced under the Extreme Landforms Project.  It is not simply that she has been to places most of us have never been.  Early in her journeys she became aware that she might be one of the last people on earth to walk in places where no other human had walked – notwithstanding indigenous habitation.  Access to extreme and remote areas is increasing for the global village, and these locations will be changed forever by foreign contact.  But Robertson has been to all of them – Greenland, Antarctica, the Kimberley region – and to areas of where volcanic activity is still making the earth – Iceland and Hawaii.  She has visually combed these little seen sites for detail, to convey both the essence and the specifics of a place.  This privilege has driven the careful and thorough urging of over 100 drawings and canvases into life.

For almost 15 years Robertson has been engaged as ‘the artist’ on a series of very contemporary exploratory journeys.  Her subsequent works of art pay homage to a past when scientific illustrators were also intrepid explorers by land or sea.  Robertson first discovered the delicate beauty of prints and drawings by these artists, when she worked in the Art Gallery of South Australia in the 1970s.  At the same time she discovered that while their attempts at objectivity had failed, there was ‘truth’ in their renditions of places they were seeing for the first time.  This duality is a major consideration underpinning the impressive record of her own journeys.

The Extreme Landforms Project grew out of the convergence of the  general intellectual preoccupations of Robertson’s art of the early 1980s, and a series of fortuitous events that enabled her to visit areas of the world with geological and climatic features that intrigued by their extremity.  Her ‘grand tour’ has by-passed the cradles of European civilisation, past and present, to connect directly with polar and equatorial sites, of either great antiquity, predating human occupation, or so recently formed as to inhibit stable human settlement.

The project was conceived after a trip to Iceland and Greenland in 1983.  As well as being polar, Iceland is located on the mid-Atlantic ridge, the movements of which make it volcanic and unstable.  Greenland is also polar, but ancient and still.  Robertson retrieved a stone from each site and had them dated – one was 1200 million years old; the other three years old.  The proximity of these two very different geological sites – encapsulated in the stones – was the catalyst for the Extreme Landforms Project.

Robertson was overwhelmed by Iceland: seduced by its beauty and awed by the dangers in such seduction, in a place where one might disappear into fissures in the ground and never be found.  Although an Iceland painting, Mineral Spring , was the first work produced for the Extreme Landforms Project, drawing was the technique Robertson settled on as the best way to develop the language necessary to render this new subject.  Crayon on paper allowed for precision, delicacy and strength in the formulation of motifs and compositional elements which would survive in the work for another 15 years.

In contrast to Iceland, Robertson immediately felt at home in Greenland, having lived in the Northern Territory for seven years.   The vast expanses of land, devoid of signs of human impact, and the physically demanding and even dangerous environment were familiar.  But finding herself in a location that appeared surreal, demanded a different kind of approach to its rendition. Robertson saw that living in Darwin and focusing on global extremities provided a unique challenge to her art in both the subject matter and style. At the same time she might avoid the pitfalls of art fashion, which can apply in major centres of art activity and discourse.

European and American values apply so much less here, and other more ancient sensibilities are so relevant. It requires deep knowledge, an awareness of subtleties, nuance, the body language of the land, in order to paint a true portrait rather than a superficial likeness . (Artist’s Diary 8.10.95)

The works in the Extreme Landforms Project defy any attempt to label them photo-realist, surrealist or formalist.  A lazy look might lead to a conclusion that these are simply neo-realist landscapes.  But the detail projected by more than a cursory glance poses more complex questions.  The works slip in and out of the categories, especially when viewed as a complete body.  The artist has walked an edge between making familiar something strange, and asserting the exotic reality of an extreme place.  From perception to execution and display, Robertson has chosen to play with paradoxes.  Most of the works are not actual scenes she has viewed but use elements from several sites, and contrived images, in the creation of a language.  This language crosses geological lines, time frames and different media.

The language is particular to the task of presenting accessible images which are at the same time arenas that play with the objective/subjective imperatives of scientific illustration.  The images do not exaggerate what is already offered by nature as surreal, or short-change the impact of unfamiliar environments through the economies of abstraction.  Robertson was intrigued by the conflicting perceptual demands, and early knew that abstraction could not be the goal. In a sense abstraction became a beginning from which a journey towards naturalism (in form only) was to be made. 

A residual debt to abstraction can be found in the black and white ‘lines’ that feature in several works.  The white mark that appeared in the earliest drawing Spring and Fallbecame a metaphor for the Icelandic waterfalls – vertical shafts dissecting the landforms – as in, for example, Midnight, Cloud Shadows and Three Falls .  Robertson cites the Icelandic artist Johannes Kjaval as the source of this metaphor.  The Northern Australia terrain exposed vertical black scars where the flow of water stains the rock. The mark became three-dimensional in the treatment of trees in this series.

The flow of water is echoed … [in the] North Australia images. But this time the fall is dry, and vegetation has changed the rock face black (Artist’s Diary 2.5.92). 

Black in cooler latitudes equals fear, forbidding, sinister, cold etc., while here in the tropics it describes fragrance, sensuousness, protection against the harsh white glare of the day (Artist’s Diary 14.6.96).

Following an exhibition of the Iceland and Greenland works, titled Ultima Thule, two fortuitous events enabled Robertson to develop the Extreme Landforms Project.  In 1988 an invitation to the USA provided Robertson with a chance to visit the island of Hawaii, the newest of the world’s islands, emerging as a result of the tectonic plates on the Pacific floor moving over a stationary ‘hotspot’.  The choice of black and white drawings for the Hawaiian and the Iceland works was to avoid the possibility of the observer being distracted from engaging with the variety of structural detail, by the spectacle of bright orange flashes.  The problem of rendering colour conveyed by light compared with colour conveyed by pigment has been a central technical conundrum in the Extreme Landforms Project.

 Essential to Robertson’s ambitious concept was the necessity for an expedition to Antarctica, the oldest known landmass on Earth. Very few personnel are able to be accommodated on trips to Antarctica, and Robertson secured a place on a ship by convincing the Australian Antarctic Division of the value of her work as an artist.  Having visited the Arctic and exhibited the resulting works, Robertson was able to establish the credibility of her long term vision.  The scientific inspiration must also have appealed to those making the selection from the many ‘lay’ applicants. The passage to Antarctica brought fulfilment of her grand vision within reach.

Robertson’s desire to assert the drama of land that derives none of its power and life from humans, is tempered in later work by a wish to make human emotion the centre of the art experience: her own emotion on seeing a site for the first time, with no previous artistic mentor to help her prepare; and the emotion of the viewer engaging with lifescale depictions of landforms never before viewed.  The structure and siting of works such asCleft Bungle Bungle is such that the viewer is drawn into its space.  The human response is contrasted with the indifference of the land, which has changed over millennia without human interference.

Although Robertson has been very precise in her formulation of the Extreme Landforms Project (that is, her selection of sites and mediums for their depiction) she is a totally intuitive artist in the realisation of the work.  After consciously making decisions about the basic structure of each work, she relies on internalised knowledge to complete the art-making process.  She works on several paintings at once and layers the surfaces in a manner akin to modelling.  The control moves from conscious to unconscious convictions.  The Extreme Landforms Project is a monument to the fusion of intellectual rumination and rigour with intuitive force honed by 30 years of art practice. 

The artistic play in the Extreme Landforms Project provokes games for the viewer through unrealised cliché, through the subversion of realism by abstraction and vice versa, and through the frozen instant ‘snapped’ in a timeless arena.  Robertson’s approach begins in abstraction, aspires to naturalistic rendition of previously untackled subject matter, but diverts both artist and viewer by the visual riddles which contemporary academic discourse interposes on the journey.  She allows the visual power and imaginative potential of the subject to override academic concerns.

The artist speaks of wanting to capture her subject matter as sensual contexts which can be smelt and touched and heard.  Instants of time against a backdrop of great antiquity are one means. She speaks of rendering collapsing edifices… the moment when gravity wins   (Artist’s Diary 29.5.94).  Intriguing examples of this are Falling Branch Grassfireand Falling Tree Grassfire.

Another source of visual play lies in Robertson’s realisation that the rendition of geological curiosities was not sufficient for her vision.

I started out thinking I wanted geological anomalies and ended up with dynamic atmospheric phenomena, and in the process realised that I’m not merely a landscape painter.  I never was.  It’s only just dawned on me that I’ve always painted the flow of air, the ripple of heat, the sound of thunder (Artist’s Diary 13.2.95)

Robertson concluded that landforms, which might be extreme in terms of time ratio and global location, are all engaged in a ‘dance’ with climatic variations. This relationship continued for aeons unmediated by human intrusion.  Whirlwinds and rainstorms left their mark, as much as sub-terranean upheavals.  It is this age-old dance of earth, air, fire and water, that is the subject of the Extreme Landforms Project.

In the Extreme Landforms Project, Christian Clare Robertson has teetered on edges that are at once physical and temporal, conscious that she may be one of the last humans to see remote places of the Earth in a near pristine state, and conscious that the visual legacy that she has created of these journeys must communicate to future generations as much as her own.

All the while I am making a comment on late 20th century life, a search for the last vestiges of mystery and undamaged environment on our overpopulated planet.  So are others, and in doing so we destroy the thing we love, if not in fact then in the idea.  For the thing known is no longer mysterious . (Artist’s Diary 19.6.95)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The artist would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following institutions in the realisation of the Extreme Landforms Project: Australia Council, Australian Antarctic Division, Australian Antarctic Foundation and Northern Territory University.  She would also like to acknowledge the assistance and advice of many experts in relevant fields.