Taking the time to look back in time
I returned from Lascaux by the same road I arrived. Though I had stared into the ‘abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.
Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden
What is our responsibility towards the past? Are we stitched out of what came before us or is it possible to form something new?
Over the last few years I visited many museums – in Basel, in Prague, in Ottawa, in Kassel, in New York City, in London, in Istanbul, and in Berlin. What was I looking for? What was I looking at?
Much of the time I looked at fragments from the past, relics set out in glass cases or suspended on walls. All objects telling stories and bearing witness to the past. And pointing at things that can’t be touched or seen, from human relationships to power struggles, from the desire to record time to the need to fill it with stories.
And I asked myself: How do these visions of the Northern hemisphere translate to the South, to the oldest place on earth? The exhibition A Prospect of Prospects is part of my answer. Thinking about the North in the South. Thinking about the South in the North. Thinking about who tells world history, any history and why. Do museums insulate us from the past or do they provide space to reflect upon many pasts? What do we actually know about where we are?
The suburb of Prospect was named in 1838 because it was seen as a “beautiful prospect” by the gazetteer. A prospect is many things – a view, a possibility, the act of looking for minerals.
The beauty of Prospect and of South Australia is subtle rather than spectacular. It is present in a sense of space, in an immense light-filled sky. It is present in the hills which are like arms holding the shelter of the plain. The most beautiful view from the hills is to the Barker Inlet where freshwater meets saltwater, where the land and the sea embrace.
Artists Martha Berkeley, William Light, E.C. Frome and Eugene von Guerard made drawings and watercolours of these prospects. I have looked at their work at the Art Gallery of South Australia and in its publications and note that what these images made less than 180 years ago show us is still present. And that the thoughts and sensations visible in those early artworks are still significant for us to have a sense of the atmosphere of this place so well known to its Aboriginal inhabitants then and now as spirit lands.
It may be that a piece of the sky has something significant to say about a place. The first professional artist in South Australia, Martha Berkeley (1813-1899), came in 1837, one year after the colony was proclaimed, and lived in a tent on the banks of the Torrens for the first eight months. Her 1838 painting of The first dinner given to the Aborigines shows this interaction taking place under a vast sky tinged with red earth.
William Light (1786-1839) who is buried in Light Square under his theodolite was the first surveyor and town-planner of Adelaide and chose the site, auspiciously the place of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming, for the city. He too made watercolour paintings in which the sky, immense and pale, is the dominant presence.
E.C Frome (1802-1890) was the third surveyor-general of South Australia. One of his tasks was to work out the best sites for the biggest landbuyers to grab. Or as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it:
“An immense task confronted him. Less than a third of the land sold by the commissioners had been surveyed, and hundreds of settlers were clamouring for their country sections, yet Frome had to give priority to the special surveys which entitled large buyers to the pick of the land throughout the province.”
Frome’s most well-known painting is A first view of the Salt Desert called Lake Torrens made in 1843. It shows a man on a horse lowering his telescope and just looking across a plain of what seems like almost nothing stretching to the horizon where a white patch of water or salt opens to the sky. You can’t help but imagine him shaking his head. The sky takes up three quarters of the painting and echoes the sensation of Berkeley and Light’s sky. Distinctly not a Northern hemisphere sky, distinctly an Australian sky.
Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) spent about three weeks drawing in South Australia in 1855 and a few days in the South-East in 1857. He brought with him a certain amount of influence from Caspar David Friedrich. The view he favoured was from Mount Lofty to the Barker Inlet, that marker of the sublime – the interlacing of land and sea.
The legacy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a significant part of German culture. Poet, novelist, playwright, he also investigated and theorised on botany, and came up with the notion of the UrPlanze or Origin-Plant, a single plant from which all the plants in the world evolved.
My paternal grandparents who had to escape from Germany, and the Nazis, brought with them a twelve volume Collected Works of Goethe published in 1885 in Stuttgart. Turning these old books into fossils, into museum objects, is one way for me to memorialise and grasp that distant past. Each book has a piece of mica from the Adelaide hills embedded in it. Goethe’s famous last words were: “Mehr Licht” which translates as “more light”.
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Design and Art Australia Online (DAAO), Joan Kerr on Martha Berkeley
Eugene Von Guerard’s South Australia, Alison Carroll and John Tregenza, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1986
Visions of Adelaide 1836-1886, Tracey Lock-Weir, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005