First Impressions

My opening speech marking the inaugural photographic exhibition at the  Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art, Federation Square, Melbourne,
1 March 2003

What a great pleasure and privilege it is to contribute to this celebration, to be asked to say a few words to help mark this special occasion. For some of you may not realise it is exactly thirteen years to the day, back in 1990 on the first Saturday in March, when we celebrated the opening of the first photographic exhibition in the then brand new ground floor gallery adjacent the Murdoch court. That occasion marked a new beginning for many of us, where photography was no longer isolated on the top floor of the St Kilda Road gallery, sandwiched between windows and offices, ceramics and escalators. It was now proudly greeting us on our entrance, and mixing freely with other works of art. Now exactly thirteen years later, I hope this exhibition, this space, marks another beginning that will see a succession of photographic exhibitions as defining and inspiring for a new generation of emerging artists as the previous move did.  Indeed we have been returned to this lofty, elevated position, only now in a space befitting the enormous contribution photography has made to our culture and our lives. In a sense we have come full circle, it signifies both a home coming and a new beginning.

I would therefore like to begin my remarks congratulating the twelve artists in this show and thanking them for their efforts and their generosity. For I have always understood art to be one of the most generous activities our culture has given back to us, where the passion, commitment and perseverance required, not just to be an artist, but to persist as an artist provides us with an immense gift. Perhaps our world needs more artists, indeed artists in the highest places. That is people who are prepared to give freely of themselves, without fear or favour, without any certainty that their efforts will be recognised or rewarded, or will ever show a return on their investment, but in the hope that their work will somewhere, sometime, somehow make a difference, will reach out and greet another and ask nothing but the best from them. Now more than ever what the world needs are artists, and I thank them for their enduring faith.

Of course I include Isobel in these remarks. I have always understood curators to be artists in their own right. Perhaps I was just lucky to grow up with such good friends. But what ever the reason, I have learned at least as much from how works of art have been shown, positioned, and translated as I have from the work of art itself. Indeed stranded alone the work can remain invisible to even the most sensitive eyes and ears. My heartfelt thanks therefore also go to Isobel and her team for not just for bringing these artists and their works to our attention, but in bringing them together. Works of art, like families are not born from missed opportunities.

I was reminded of all this during a short tram ride the other day, on my way to this very site. Three conversations passed me by, each expressing the exuberance of the chance reencounter following a long absence. My joy of sharing, even briefly and surreptitiously, these reunited friendships recalled to me my own missing friends, and remembering them, wondering about them, hoping they were well and well occupied, I recalled aspects of my early artistic life. Living out of town where I could afford not to be distracted, while making sure I had always saved my last few dollars for the train fare and entrance fee to the NGV, and then a few dollars more to purchase a catalogue to read on the way home. So that when ever I got desperate enough or lonely enough I could be reunited with some old friends hanging on these gallery walls, those images that prodded me and soothed me, that inspired me and reminded me of the importance of my task as an artist; that only asked the very best of me.

These photograms, now in the collection of the NGV, will go on to become our new old friends, and remind us of this propriety and privilege.  These wonderful photograms, made without the interference of a lens, hold us in an even more focused plane, that liminal space between relative presence and absolute absence. We replace the lens with our own being and are caught in the very act of capture. Like a missing body, these images haunt us, coerce us, defy us, and render us. We float in that space between the ethereal and corporeal, where being and nothingness collide and collapse. Though works of fiction, these images nevertheless possess the truth of fiction. They represent us back to ourselves and our origins.

Last week I was fortunate to hear the tail end of a radio interview with the German film maker Wim Wenders. He was speaking on Radio National’s ‘The Deep End’ about the Australian International documentary conference in Byron Bay. He was very concerned to talk about film makers and the war, and art and peace, and he also discussed his most recent music documentary. During the making of this film he used a hand cranked camera and he spoke about the effect its presence had on the film set. Given the ubiquity and democracy of digital capture these days, where so many of us with our digicams don’t even notice them anymore. But as soon as this ancient fixed film camera began to be hand cranked an aura descended over the set, rendering it in Wender’s words “a scared act”. The elusive shadow of light itself; the fixing of the optical, chemical and mechanical alchemy in direct but fleeting contact with the material object. In the same way the photogram’s destruction of physical and metaphysical certainty embodies some of the more pressing revelations, about ourselves and our time. Isobel in her catalogue essay has called  these images “Robust Shadows” – certainly strong enough to remind us of the weight of our concerns, the need to respect differences, and to trust that which we can not see.

In coming together here today, and in a sense celebrating three centuries of photography, the 19th, 20th and now the 21st century, I couldn’t imagine a more fitting tribute than a collection of contemporary photograms. But it is also a studied reflection on the state of our culture, indeed the very state of our being suspended between these troubled and uncertain times. I can only hope that equal sensitivity will prevail in the greater conflict we now find ourselves in. As a demonstration placard carried by a child, proclaimed in Swanston Street the other day, “make art not war”. Or to quote the immortal lyrics of the Foo Fighters:

“Its times like these you learn to live again,
Its times like these you learn to give and give again,
Its times like these you learn to love again,
Its times like these, time and time again.”

Thank goodness for artists!

Thank you.

Les Walkling,
1 March 2003