Local Colour in Black & White



'Local colour in black and white' CAST Summer 8: 14-17 (1996)

Aljaz, the hero of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide, discovers that failure is a means of fitting in with people. He witnesses this ethic of failure at school. Slattery, a boy wonder of athletics, seems destined to win the school medal after winning all the preliminary heats. In the final foot race, Slattery bounds ahead of the pack. But once his victory is assured, Slattery suddenly reverses his direction, running back to the beginning and leaving the others to the medals. While the adults are dismayed at this perverse act, Slattery’s schoolmates are ecstatic. The reason for their celebration, according to Flanagan, is that `only the children understand that to win is for Slattery to participate in a lie that everyone in life has a chance of winning if they try hard enough.’[1]

Reverse victories such as Slattery’s seem all to rare in the half-hearted optimism with which the nation-state is dismantled. The promise of global networks, consumer choice and productivity bonuses outsells local identity, brand loyalty and craftsmanship. At least, that’s how things appear in black and white.

Richard Flanagan’s own participation in the construction of a visitor’s centre in Strahan is an exception to this trend. With wood designer Kevin Perkins and architect Robert Morris Nunn, Flanagan helped design a tourist centre that seeks to represent the interests of the local community¾not just the wilderness fantasies of today’s eco-tourist. Described by Nunn as `magical realist’ architecture, the centre incorporates an authentic piner’s hut¾built, smoked and transported to the centre by local piners. The architect demands: `It’s time we ended our obsession with international styles and looked to doing work that is genuinely radical but which draws its inspiration from the rich well of our own collective social, spiritual and historical experience...’[2]

From a distance, these gestures make Tasmania seem like a sanctuary for a rare form of life where expression is considered more important than utility. But before dealing directly with this `rare form of life’, I should acknowledge the `distance’ from which it appears.


Writing in the fourteenth century, Maundeville describes the region of the world now called `India’ as languishing under a slow moving constellation:

because Saturn is slow of motion, the people of that country, that are under his climate, have no inclination or will to move or stir to seek strange places. Our country is all the contrary; for we are in the seventh climate, which is of the moon, and the moon moves rapidly, and is a planet of progression; and for that reason it gives us a natural will to move lightly, and to go different ways, and to seek strange things and other diversities of the world.[3]

Our first reading of this passage is likely to evoke a critical awareness of the colonial topography which distinguishes centres of European progress from the timeless waste of uncivilised continents. But we should keep open the possibility that the geographical division between modern and primitive has an alternative agenda. The identification of a backwater need not be a license to plunder, it might also act as a respite from the burdens of civilisation.

Take the case of Edith Durham, an English spinster who was encouraged by her mother to travel widely. At the turn of the century, the daughter obediently made an annual pilgrimage to a small country at the backdoor of Europe. In 1908, `The Queen of the Highlanders’ published an account of her visits to the mountainous regions of north Albania, where blood feuds still raged under the strict law of the Kanun. High Albania opens with an extended metaphor of the `backwater’: `The great river of life flows not evenly for all peoples.’ While for some `it dashes forward torrentially, carving new beds, sweeping away old landmarks’, for others `it breaks into backwaters apart from the main stream, and sags to and fro, choked with the flotsam and jetsam of all ages’. Like Byron before her, `the land of the living past’ was not seen merely as a country in need of political liberation, it also provided the complacent English with a spectacle of a life which faced squarely the possibility of death.

Again, our initial reading of Durham’s orientalism is alert to the colonialist agenda behind this fascination with the primitive. Wild Albania serves as a conveniently remote screen on which English fantasies might be projected. But we shouldn’t limit this projection to a split between east and west. In a postcolonial (or even non-colonial) age, a similar fascination points to internal backwaters. American cinema audiences seem to have an unquenchable thirst for their own lost worlds. Addams Family, Flintstones and Forest Gump are some of the many films which evoke America’s own imagined Albanias. While in domestic politics the opposition between progress and continuity is violently rendered¾featuring Michegan patriots and the Unabomber¾from Hollywood’s perspective it seems more pervasively embedded in their collective psyche.

This interest in backwaters seems to accelerate as the end of the millennium creeps closer. A deeper understanding of its role in the information revolution demands a sociological exposition which is out of place in a publication dedicated to arts in Tasmania. Nonetheless, some notice of this nostalgia is necessary to put my own comments in perspective. As will be clearer later, the selective reading which follows is conditioned by the fraught conditions of life in a city on the other side of the Bass Strait.


Mary Scott’s black and white paintings on glass present an enduring enigma. Images of a child’s face rendered on a silken surface evoke a tenderness which is contradicted by their monochromatic severity. This inhuman humanness reminds me of the maternal monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Like Farrell and Parkin’s recent Backroom exhibition at Melbourne’s NGV, their world seems to deflate human feeling. Likewise, the stitching seems more like a surgical suture than a sewing repair made by the fireside.

The artist herself is keen to emphasise the domestic resonance of her work. In an interview with Brian Parkes for the Home: Body catalogue, Mary Scott dwells on the `feminine labours’ represented in the woven textures of her images. Yet while sewing provides the content for her portraits, it seems remote from their actual construction. It’s the potential `heroic reversal’ in this construction which seems most interesting, at least from a mainland perspective.

Scott’s portraits begin life as a set of screen images that are fabricated then merged. Dissolve merges a child’s head with the texture of a fish trap. Rather than simply print this image out, however, Scott uses it as a subject from which to paint on glass. The introduction of painting into this process seems a gesture parallel to Slattery’s noble failure. Showing her proficiency in digital photography, Scott reverses the direction and returns to the outmoded practice of painting.

I don’t anticipate great sympathy for this reading from the artist herself. She describes of utmost importance the `seductive potential of the image through the surface’. As she writes to me by email: `My aim is to pull the viewer into the surface so that reading of any content from figuration is lost and the viewer is dependent upon surface to find meaning.’ Outside these formal manipulations, though, Mary Scott admits a biographical hook. The image of the fish net is actually a `tiddly’ found on a photographic glass plate of her great grandfather’s. For Scott,  this expresses `a genetic and unchangeable stamp which we all seem to carry through life.’

The creative spring behind much contemporary digital photography seems to be the new technical possibilities of Photoshop rather than any urgent meaning. Like the black and white digital portraiture of Heather Fernon, Scott’s work suggests that this medium might recover its capacity to express feeling only by taking a step backwards in progress.

A Schwabian interlude

In Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, he recounts a story told by Aristotle in De parte animalium. Strangers come to visit Heraclitus, only to find the esteemed philosopher warming himself by the stove. Noticing their dismay at his humble appearance, Heraclitus utters the words `For here too the gods are present’. Heidegger unpacks this phrase into his solemn German: `The (familiar abode) is for man the open region for the presencing of god (the unfamiliar one)’[4]. This ancient story, transmitted through an honourable lineage, is for Heidegger a warning against the scientific approaches to metaphysics which attempt to abstract universal laws of being from the ground of existence. This is Heidegger thinking in the depths of the Black Forest, where he would sit for hours with a peasant on a mountain side, saying nothing and learning to `exist in the nameless’ so to find a way back into the `nearness of Being’.

Though it might celebrate familiarity, epiphanies of ordinariness provide continuing support for an exoticism¾where `here’ is always `there’. The house lights are dimmed as we are invited to witness the theatre of an ancient philosopher in humble dwellings. Twice removed, we are drawn by the appeal of this scene to the lonely German philosopher, dwelling in a forest where words sprang pure. We remain trapped as tourists of anti-tourism.

To the island

This theatre of the familiar was evoked by David Keeling’s contribution to the exhibition Witness, which appeared at Chameleon and Launceston in late 1990. To the Island  languidly depicted a couple rowing to a Mariah Island which was populated by paradigmatic architectural forms. In the accompanying statement, Keeling drew from Rilke’s Duino Elegy: `Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window¾at most, column, tower...’ To an outsider, it was almost as though Keeling had created a Tasmania for Tasmanians. In the process, Tasmania became a mainland looking across to a pet island that might harbour its romantic longing.

Keeling’s paintings on the mainland island evoke a suburbanity which is clarified of mass media. The housing estates he depicts have no televisions or radios. Instead, a lone child plays on a swing against a backdrop of semi-denuded nature. Keeling’s paintings allow the possibility that time does wait for someone.


While Keeling portrays the mundane, the writer Ted Colless is drawn to the phantasmagoric. Colless’ fiction makes a spectacle of male desire as it slowly but inexorably unravels¾each elusive woman casts a shadow of mimetic rivalry. This fiction became linked with Tasmanian arts in the touring photographic exhibition Bad Light. The story `Fidelity’ frames Carver-esque sensitivity to the brokenness of everyday life with the uncanny denouement of an Edgar Allen Poe mystery. It is a classically circular tale of displaced characters caught in a narrative vortex.

The most appropriate images to accompany Colless’ tale seem to come from a Hobart photographer not included in the exhibition. Peter Young’s black and white digital prints contain arcing swathes of light cut into the night by car headlights. They evoke just the right kind of vacant horror. Young’s images sit¾with a binocular complementarity¾next to Martin Walch’s stereoscopic images of nocturnal landscapes.

On the couch

Placed on the couch, the Tasmanian gothic might at first be interpreted as a projection of its own insularity. Feeling itself isolated, Tasmania imagines an isolation within its own isolation. By a reverse logic, Tasmania itself no longer appears so distant by contrast with the backwaters it contains.


For every transference, there is a counter-transference. Why should someone from Melbourne take such an interest in this vandemonian dialectic? Melbourne culture is renowned for its obsession with idiots. With few exceptions, all Melbourne films have celebrated individuals who are out of touch with reality (thinking of Malcolm, Paul Cox films, Brian McKenzie films, ad infinitum.). Recently, fascination with urban backwaters has focused on Melbourne’s West (from the comic Spotswood to the tragic Romper Stomper). But this tender regard for idiocy is dependent on a paternalistic state which provides the bureaucratic spaces where unworldly creatures can survive. With premier Jeff Kennett holding the broom, the state has cleaned out the dead wood to make overseas investors feel more at home.

Under three years of Kennett, Melbourne has changed from neverland to Gomorrah. Young & Jackson’s pub on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets is now lit up with a billboard advertising jackpots for Crown Casino. In its windows, the once rare painting of Chloe is now merchandised into oblivion through T-shirts, postcards and crockery. The final victory occurred in the 1995 Grand Final, when the coiffured Carlton football team, under guidance of Liberal Party heavies, annihilated the crew-cut team from the West, Geelong. Well may Melburnians look to Tasmania for the soul that it once had, or believed it had.

Back to Launceston

This year an imagined history of early Melbourne titled Bearbrass was published. Its author, Robyn Annear, claimed that the idea of Melbourne was first schemed up in a conversation at the Cornwall Arms Hotel, Launceston. In separate parties, the sheep farmer John Batman and the `cranky, self-promoting, teetotal grog-vendor’ Johnny Fawkner left Tasmania to lay claim to the land at the mouth of the Yarra.[5] A century later, this combination of greed and male rivalry produced a deeply sentimental city of faded dreams. But today the circle has closed and unbridled greed and competition have returned . What Tasmanians may face in the near future is the decision about whether to accept spiritual refugees from the north.

From the north, the island readily offers itself as a site for nostalgic longing. But desire has a way of unravelling. This longing seems to lead inexorably to the return of grim reality, leached of local colour. This seems a powerful drama for an impatient era.


Kevin D. Murray©1995

[1] Richard Flanagan Death of a River Guide Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1995, p. 95

[2]  Robert Morris Nunn `Building magical realism’ Paper delivered to the 1994 RAIA Hobart Conference

[3] The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Maundeville London: Cassell & Co, 1896, p. 106

[4] Martin Heidegger `Letter on Humanism ‘ in Krell, D. (Ed.) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p. 234

[5] Robyn Annear Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne Melbourne: Mandarin, 1995, p. 13