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Victoria Cooper reviews Salt Lake a photographic exhibition by Phoebe McDonald at Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery.

Phoebe McDonald’s photographic series, Salt Lake, resonates with her previous work that investigates light and time through the subtle changes and cycles that occur in different environments. Salt Lake (1), created from a ‘retreat’ to Lake Lefroy in Western Australia, exhibits many visual qualities and approaches reminiscent of the 20th century land art movement. It can be argued that most artists in recent times have gravitated to the more popular and contentious interrogation of the everyday, the urban and post-colonial issues embedded in the human condition. As such the landscape has had to take its place (and space) in a set of priorities that exist within a changing human environment be it urban, cultivated or wild. In this contemporary art environment it is interesting to note that after fifty years land/earth art still remains a strong influence in the work of contemporary artists concerned with natural and ecological rhythms of the physical world.

As McDonald’s, Salt Lake series appears much like an archaeological survey’s documentation of a 1960s land art site, it is interesting to consider the similarities and connections of this history in her work. There are visual associations to the documentation of Robert Smithson’s, Spiral Jetty, and the film by the same name that features references to the sun’s glare on the lake. McDonald’s statement discussing the qualities of light echoes James Turrell’s, Roden Crater, and other works that explore the spatial and temporal phenomena of natural light through grand scale, minimalist architectural interventions. Other artists that have notable work in this genre are Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. To fully experience these works, the viewer is required to embark on a pilgrimage (2) to allow an extended and intimate engagement with their site-specific nature — particularly imperative in De Maria’s work. For many artists in this medium the publication and exhibition of photographic and filmic documentation of these works form a pivotal part of the art and proposes the primacy of the concept over the object. Although McDonald’s work is not about a sculptural intervention, the visual nature of her documentation, experience, conceptual concerns and observations within the landscape seem to touch with this tradition.

Does McDonald’s 10-day excursion relate to another group of artists arising from the land art movement of the 1960s that embrace the pilgrimage into the landscape as an art form in itself? These artists, notably Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, brought the landscape back into the gallery as a conceptual experience rather than as a traditional representation. Robert Smithson’s discussion of the gallery as a ‘nonsite’ is also evocative of this genre. The photographic documentation of the site work for these artists with other recordings and mediums was the underpinning of the work and for some, in particular Richard Long, became the art. Smithson’s, Spiral Jetty, is arguably more recognized and perceived by its published 1970’s photographic and video documentation than for its salt crusted or inundated contemporary states. Andy Goldsworthy discusses photographic documentation and publication as an integral part of the work, where the photograph is the language through which he “talks” about his sculptures (3) capturing their spatial/temporal and, for some, ephemeral experience. Australian artists have a history of journeying to central and western regions in exploration of, and to connect with the landscape, its natural cycles and imposing geological history. John Wolseley is one of the notable practitioners of this genre. Art historian Sasha Grishin, in an article examining the journals of great Australian artists, includes the following extract from Wolseley’s journal (4) of his solitary expeditions into the landscape:

“What I find is that after about a week alone I realize that I haven’t thought of anything much—say for several hours—but that my consciousness has been ‘out there’ with a succession of textural, visual and aural involvements; sensing the shape of rocks, waiting for phrases of bird song, or like today, following the filaments of spiders’ silk as tall as sailing ships as they float slowly past on the wind. It is a state of reverie. And after days of it there comes a time when all the elements of a place like this, the rhythms of cicada music, the wind in the trees, the undulations of rock strata, seem to take me over.” (

Whilst Phoebe McDonald’s artist statement does not reference any connection with land art, it is this history that permeates the visual nature and intent of the series, Salt Lake. McDonald, maybe unwittingly, shares some of the practices of these artists as in her stated “on going interest in the nature of light, time, space and perception,” and the “ten day solitary retreat” that enabled her to “minimise distraction, to heighten her awareness and to observe subtle changes in the environment that she might otherwise overlooked.”

Although not a land artist as in the practice of De Maria, Turrell, et al, Phoebe McDonald holds the same fascination for the spatial and temporal rhythms of the land. In this work McDonald uses photography as the prime medium to record “the changing nature of light” as it “transforms a landscape” and the spatial aspects of this region that challenge perspective and perception “scale, subject matter and materials are used to encourage the viewer to question exactly what it is they are looking at . . .” These twelve images chosen by her, possibly from many photographically captured moments observed over the duration of her “retreat”, present to the viewer her experience of the lake’s phenomena referred to in the statement. These are also identified in the pragmatic (maybe unnecessary) titles for each work, which act as a didactic summary of these observations. Should the information in the titles and the statement then be discarded, as McDonald encourages the viewer to reflect on and question their own “awareness” and “processes of perception” when encountering this body of work? Perhaps the statement itself is best read as a journal much like that of John Wolseley’s example above.

Reflecting on the exhibition in its entirety as a photographic series arguably strengthens its ‘reading’ rather than viewing the individual works as separate entities. After time spent wandering amongst the work one feels the solitude in the subtle and quiet shades of colour and the observed gradual corrosion of the encroaching salt. It is clear that the human presence is an evocative feature for this artist rather than that of a pristine natural landscape as only two of the images presented have no obvious trace of human presence. As such, McDonald’s photographs do not attempt to refer to the sublime and the ineffable as do those of Sydney photographer Murray Fredericks, whose SALT series was created over a seven year pilgrimage from 2003 to Lake Eyre. Nor does she reference the political or ecological as in Bonita Ely’scontinuing body of work on the condition of the Australian landscape. Rather McDonald’s photographic series, Salt Lake, refers to a temporal dichotomy; the evidence of both the ephemeral moments of daily atmospheric changes on a salt lake together with the slow decay of the vestiges of human occupation revealing an aching absence within this relentless landscape.

1. Readers can connect with this work on her website listed with the other links pertinent to this review.
2. For an interesting read see Hogan, E. (2008). Spiral Jetta: a road trip through the land art of the American West. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
3. Andy Goldsworthy discusses his photographic documentation and books by citing Constantin Brancusi: ‘As Brancusi said, ‘Why talk about my sculpture when I can photograph it?’ Goldsworthy, A. (1994). Stone. London, Viking, Penguin group, p.120.
4. Sasha Grishin’s reference for the citation: John Wolseley, Journal for 1980, 11 October 1980, vol. 6, no., edited version published in Rodick Carmichael (ed.), Orienteering: Painting in the Landscape: Carmichael, Makin, Wolseley. Geelong: Deakin University Press 1982, pp. 155–156.


Phoebe McDonald: Salt Lake
Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, February 2 to March 6, 2011

Victoria Cooper is currently working towards a Doctorate of Philosophy at James Cook University researching the connections across science, myth, history and art located within the contemporary environment of freshwater in Australia. During her 19 year career she in photography she has been involved in many personal and commissioned projects and exhibitions. In the last 10 years much of her work has been resolved in the form of artists’ books, some of which are included in state, national and international artists’ book collections.

Installation photo by Doug Spowart

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